/ 20 July 2001

Trailblazing local painter dies

When other black artists of his generation went abroad, he remained in South Africa to make his name


George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba, one of the pioneers of painting among South African black artists, has died.

Pemba, who was born in Korsten Village, Port Elizabeth, in 1912, attended the Van der Kemp Mission Primary School and Paterson Secondary School on a Grey scholarship.

Like most schools for black pupils in South Africa, neither offered art as a part of its syllabus and Pemba drew and painted on his own initiative with some encouragement from a few of his teachers.

In 1931 he enrolled at the Lovedale Teacher Training College in Alice and his works were accepted for exhibition for the first time. Unable to enrol for full-time art studies after completing his studies at Lovedale in 1935, he was given special permission to enrol as an external student, for four months in 1936, at Rhodes University.

Pemba’s quest to be a professional artist was, up to this point, similar to other black artists of his generation. But unlike those who left the country to find their artistic homes abroad, Pemba remained in South Africa to make his name as a professional painter.

He became increasingly involved in resistance politics, joining the African National Congress in 1945 and producing a number of satirical cartoons for the newspaper Isizwe. He struggled to exhibit his work and returned seriously to his painting only in 1965.

Pemba painted a range of subjects: portraits of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, images drawn from Xhosa and Sotho traditions, and landscapes. He is, however, best known for his township scenes.

As a social historian Pemba interpreted the customs and living conditions of township dwellers of the Eastern Cape during apartheid, revealing processes of modernisation in which a resilient black culture survives extreme oppression. The paintings, however, were not couched in the socialist realism of revolutionary 20th century propaganda art, but rather in an impressionistic style in keeping with the trends set by Eastern Cape artists such as Dorothy Kay, with whom Pemba painted in the 1950s.

Pemba also executed paintings that reflect an abiding interest in African tradition and its values and customs, particularly as manifested in Xhosa and Sotho dress and ritual. Many are unnamed portraits encapsulating the enduring nobility of African heritage, set apart from ethnographic studies by their intensity and sense of individuality.

The same humanism is evident in his portraits of influential black literati such as the Xhosa poet Mqhayi. In the late 1980s and early 1990s his attention shifted to the energetic depiction of overtly political themes, reflecting the turmoil of the dying years of apartheid.

Although Pemba was recognised among the black intelligentsia from the 1940s and received honorary degrees from the universities of Fort Hare (1979), Zululand (1986) and Bophutatswana (1986/7), his acceptance into the art establishment was only fully accomplished by the retrospective exhibition and catalogue of his works put together by the staff of the South African National Gallery in 1996, and the publication of a monograph on his works by Sarah Huddleston in the same year.

With Pemba’s death the era of the pioneers comes to an end. He blazed a trail through the art establishment in South Africa, laying claim to a place for black artists, but at the same time refusing to compromise his political and moral principles.

His works are now in the major museums in South Africa, he has taken his place as one of the leading figures in not only the history of South African art, but of African art in the 20th century.

Anitra Nettleton

George Pemba, pioneer painter, born April 2 1912, died July 12 2001

@Seidelman and Davis get bent

Transsexuals, lesbians and a kidnapped child and it’s a comedy. Shaun de Waal speaks to the makers of Gaud Afternoon

Susan Seidelman is an independent director with a particular take on things, an individualistic view reflected in her films an offbeat, gently comic approach that has little in common with mainstream Hollywood’s crass humour or big-budget effects blockbusters.

Her new movie, Gaud Afternoon, is a light, witty comedy, in which Judy Davis plays an American in Barcelona who gets drawn into a complex and unconventional family situation, one fraught with deception and misdirection, and discovers something about herself in the process.

I spoke to Seidelman and to scriptwriter James Myhre, an American now resident in South Africa, about the genesis of the project.

“About five years ago,” says Seidelman, “James sent me the script and it took us about three years to get it started, because it’s not a typical Hollywood movie and it’s set in a foreign country. Right now in Hollywood character has taken a back seat to special effects.” And special effects appeal to the central audience of males in their teens and early 20s. “But,” she says, “that leaves space for independent movies, movies with a different demographic.”

Myhre had studied film at the London International Film School and worked in Hollywood in studio-based management. After several years he set up his own company to develop projects. Having bought the rights to Barbara Wilson’s novel Gaud Afternoon, he set about trying to get it off the ground as a project for one former client, but found Hollywood unresponsive. “In the first year, we had about 40 companies passing on it. A movie with a transsexual, a transvestite, three lesbians, and a kidnapped child … and it’s a comedy! You could see the doors slamming just like that.”

Myhre wrote the script (he had worked on rewrites before, but this was his first he’d written from start to finish) and sent the first draft to Seidelman. He says he knew he wanted to work with a female director on it and “she was really the only one who came to mind. I sent it to her, and she got back to me in two days and she jumped on immediately.”

“One of the reasons I liked the script,” says Seidelman, “is that I like female protagonists and it gave me six leading ladies, all of whom were different types. And I like romps or farces with some social content. I don’t do it for political reasons, just for my personal interest. There’s a certain quirky female character I know I can bring to life.”

Financing took a while. Says Myhre: “This is still considered a gay genre movie, and it has been doing well at festivals, but it’s hard for companies to work out how to market it. With the failure of lots of gay movies, it’s hard to make any significant box office.”

Eventually the money came from Lolafilms in Spain, which was riding high at that point with the success of Belle Epoque. Myhre laughs at the fact that the producer told him Gaud Afternoon was the “best thriller I’ve read all year”. Myhre had to tell him, “Well, actually, it’s a comedy.”

The movie has an easy, freewheeling feel, but Seidelman stuck closely to the script, which she had revised with Myhre. “I find in this kind of movie if you don’t know where you’re going, if the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit, you can get lost. You have to be precise.”

She is filled with praise for lead Davis, whom one does not often see in a comic role: “She’s very funny because she tries not to be. She’s not trying to act funny.”

Gaud Afternoon balances its concerns neatly, smuggling issues such as motherhood and commitment into the form of a slightly skewed comedy. “It’s a light film, it’s a goof,” says Myhre.

And it’s very much a Seidelman film. As she says, “Like Desperately Seeking Susan, Gaud Afternoon has a female protagonist who’s a little lost, and she meets someone who leads her on an adventure and gets her to loosen up a little.”

Comedy of the Week, page 16

Matter of fact

In last week’s Friday the picture story on Page 20 said TJ Lemon had won third prize in the World Press Photo competition. It was, in fact, first prize.