Different stylistically and yet hailing from similar backgrounds, exhibition focuses on George Pemba and Robert Hodgins

Non-selling exhibition of artworks by George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba (1912-2001) and Robert Hodgins (1920-2010), accompanied by an illustration printed catalogue

By CityLife Arts Writer

Fine art auction house Strauss & Co starting on July 1, 2021,  will be presenting a non selling exhibition of two important artists who left their footprints on the South African visual art landscape, one black and the other white, George Pemba and Robert Hodgins , and quite interestingly, their differences end there. In many ways both artists’ art practices dealt with a common issue, and that is focussing on their respective societies, from two different stylistic approaches though. This important exhibition will take place at Strauss &Co.’s Johannesburg offices, Strauss & Co gallery, Safika House, 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg.

“Strauss & Co is pleased to present the third in a series on ongoing exhibitions in which artists are paired to highlight certain synergies between their life and work – the first exhibition, in 2019, paired Louis Maqhubela and Douglas Portway, and the second, in 2020, Gladys Mgudlandlu and Maggie Laubser,” an introduction to the catalogue accompanyiung this exhibition reads.

Notably Pemba and  Hodgins took up very different stances towards their society, the main source of inspiration for their art: Pemba, with a very humane attitude towards society, depicted traditional African culture and his own local contemporary way of life, and Hodgins, a more satirical stance towards Western society, portraying an urban way of life, shot through with an array of humorous and literary references.

Both Pemba and Hodgins grew up in rural settings before moving to big cities, Pemba in the Eastern Cape and later Port Elizabeth, and Hodgins with foster families in rural England, and later London (he first visited South Africa in 1938, and then moved permanently in 1953). Not only did Pemba depict African life in rural areas with its myths and legends and traditional cultural practices, but he also painted many scenes of the urban life of ordinary people, caught up in the socio-political situation of his time, with sympathy and pathos. Hodgins, on the other hand, preferred satirizing society – his works teems with imposing businessmen and strutting military officers, and he mocks their foibles and false sense of self-importance. He referenced Greek myths and made many other literary allusions, and his work very often had a subtle, and at times an overtly critical, political reach, such as when the ubiquitous Ubu Roi character, from French writer Alfred Jarry’s satirical play of the same name, appears in Hodgins paintings.

The styles these two artists employed can be placed at opposite ends of a continuum: Pemba, with a type of social realism sensitively rendering imagined images of the past, including biblical scenes, and everyday images of the present, emphasizing the human dignity of his sitters and their great courage in adversity. As Jacqueline Nolte states in the catalogue to the Pemba retrospective exhibition held at the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town in 1996, “central to the problematic claim that Pemba as painter of the people and as painter of authentic community life and struggle, is the reduction of Pemba’s voice to that of all oppressed, colonized and resistant subjects in South Africa. Pemba’s personal journey, through the convoluted paths of internalized messages regarding British superiority and Christian endeavour and through spaces of desperation, solace, joy and quiet resistance, is evident in his extensive painterly testimonies. The conflict of styles which coexists in his work relates also to the different locations of virtue in this journey.”

In contrast, Hodgins’s style can be characterized as semi-abstract and expressionist, showing human frailty. Neil Dundas writes in the catalogue to the group exhibition, Satire & Irony: Robert Hodgins, Stanley Pinker and Alexander Podlashuc from the Kilbourn, Block, Wiese and Podlashuc Collections, held at Welgemeend in Cape Town in 2019, that “ignoble nobility, venal popes, untrustworthy clergymen, men in uniforms or formal suits of importance, disguised somehow by their clothing to compensate for their low morals, vicious demeanour, criminal intent, leering manners or lack of compassion, became the order of the day for Hodgins. Yet not all was cynicism or condemnation. He regarded ladies of ill repute, men in loud suits, bewildered ex-boxers struggling with the after-effects of being too often battered, all with a degree of understanding, humour and fellow-feeling.”

Society also took up various stances towards Pemba and Hodgins. Both artists were ‘discovered’ quite late in their careers – Pemba with the 1991 Everard Read exhibition in Johannesburg, and Hodgins when he was selected as Guest Artist at the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown in 1986. Pemba was hailed as the ‘grand old master of township art’, and as the Norman Rockwell of South Africa. He was considered a local Goya, and as the ‘jewel’ of New Brighton where he lived. Hodgins, in turn, was declared to be ‘undiscovered’ until the grand old age of 82. The work of both artists is yet to receive the full scholarly and critical attention it deserves, both locally and internationally.

This exhibition reassesses the work of both artists as essentially complex acts of creation, as both intellectual and emotional in origin. The works are products of a disciplined knowledge of the skill of art making and the art of transforming life into art.

About the artists

George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba (1912-2001)

Born in Port Elizabeth on 2 April 1912, Milwa Mnyaluza ‘George’ Pemba developed an early love of drawing, encouraged by his parents. After winning a scholarship at the age of 16, Pemba worked hard developing his signature style, drawing portraits and depicting life around him. Under the apartheid regime, Pemba continued to practice his art, thanks, largely, to the support of his wife Eunice, who ran a spaza shop. In 1990, a major exhibition of Pemba works at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg brought him national attention. He is renowned for his unembellished honesty, fine draftsmanship, expressive colour and strong sense of composition.

Robert Hodgins (1920-2010)

London-born Robert Hodgins immigrated to South Africa in 1938 and served in the Union Defence Force during WWII. After the war he studied art and education at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before returning to South Africa in 1954 to teach, first at the Pretoria Technical College School of Art, and then for nearly twenty years at the University of the Witwatersrand. He only became a full-time artist in the early 1980s when he was in his sixties. Hodgins mentored generations of artists, many of whom have achieved international recognition.

Exhibition details

Venue: Strauss & Co gallery, Safika House, 89 Central Street, Houghton, Johannesburg, 2198

Dates of the exhibition’s run:  Thursday 1 to Friday 30 July 2021

Planned programme of events:

Thursday 1 July, 15:00 to 20:00: Viewing opens to the public.

Thursday 8 July, 16:00: Virtual Walkabout: Wilhelm van Rensburg in conversation with Koulla Xinisteris (Curator of the SABC Collection) and Edward Tsumele (Independent journalist).

Friday 9 July, 16:00: Teacher Workshop conducted by senior art specialist and art educator Wilhelm van Rensburg.

Saturday 24 July, 10:00 – 13:00 Master Class: How to paint a portrait, facilitated by Sipho Ndlovu (spaces limited, booking essential).

Monday 26 July, 18:00: Zoom talk on the art of George Pemba and Robert Hodgins by Strauss & Co senior art specialist, Wilhelm van Rensburg.

For more information about the exhibition, or about buying and selling art or having your collection valued, please contact Strauss & Co at (011) 728 8246 or jhb@straussart.co.za


Please share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *