On 2nd April the SA Post Office will be issuing a set of stamps commemorating 100 years of the internationally recognised artist George Pemba. The SA Post office will issue a set of 10 stamps as well as a miniature sheet of George Pemba’s best known, amazing artworks.

Grand Master of South African art is a well-deserved title for Dr George Pemba, who was and still is internationally recognised as one of South Africa’s greatest artists. Many have been inspired by his works, his dreams and his vision for the arts being a healing and expressive medium in Africa to promote tolerance among cultures that are as diverse as their art.

Born in 1912 in Hill’s Kraal, Korsten in the Eastern Cape, George Pemba is described by the George Pemba Art Foundation as “the miracle who painted during South Africa’s darkest years, when no black South African was expected to do so, or supported when doing so.” He is further described as “a symbol of the rich artistic potential of black South Africans; his artistic genius triumphed against all artistic odds with the arts fraternity; his history and story is one of persevering and proving racial strereotypes wrong.”

George Pemba’s work reflects the richness and diversity of South African life, including its oppressive past. It also captures the essence of the country’s people in paintings of rural and township life and portraits ranging from men and women in traditional attire to children and mothers with babies.

During the 1940s, while working for the Department of Native Administration in Port Elizabeth as a clerk, he met John Mohl and Gerard Sekoto, who encouraged him to work as a full-time artist.

In 1948 he had a successful solo exhibition in Port Elizabeth and resolved to devote all his efforts to painting. Unfortunately, he struggled to support his family as a professional artist and had to supplement his income. He decided to start his own business and opened a small general dealer’s store, which he and his wife ran until 1978.

Pemba has also taught art to children at the SA Institute of Race Relations and in 1979, he was awarded an Honorary Master of Arts Degree from the University of Fort Hare.

Like Gerard Sekoto, Pemba longed to travel and work in Europe to broaden his horizons and gain experience, but his financial responsibilities made this impossible. In 1944 he secured a further grant from the Bantu Welfare Trust, which he used to embark on a grand tour of South Africa to see and experience the different peoples in their natural surroundings. He travelled to Johannesburg, Durban, rural Natal, Basutoland (now Lesotho) and Umtata (now Mmtata) – expressing particular interest in the indigenous cultures and tribal life of the different regions. He made numerous sketches, which he later used to produce watercolours depicting the different rural peoples in their tribal dress.

A highly successful exhibition comprising paintings from the 1940s onwards, was held at The Everard Read Gallery in 1991. In 1992 a second exhibition served to commemorate his 80th birthday, which was also celebrated with the artist at the King George VI Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth.

Despite years of adversity and poverty, George Pemba’s painting career spanned six decades – providing a remarkable visual history of what he had witnessed in a transforming South Africa.