Irma Stern’s Arab with Dagger.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
The Arab community of Zanzibar was a powerful inspiration for South African painter Irma Stern during her two extended stays on the island in 1939 and 1945.
She was particularly fascinated by the older men in whose faces she saw, in her own words, “depths of suffering, profound wisdom and full understanding of all the pleasures of life — faces alive with life’s experiences.” One of the fruits of her second Zanzibar trip, Arab with Dagger, leads Bonhams’ Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in London, on March 17. It has an estimate of £700,000-1,000,000. As with many works from Stern’s Zanzibar trips, the painting is framed in wood cut from Zanzibar doors.
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In their complete state, the distinctive doors were subject to an export ban: but there was nothing to prevent Stern’s Arab carpenter from converting them into picture frames. Bonhams Director of African Art, Giles Peppiatt, said: “Arab with Dagger is a remarkable work and shows Irma Stern at her best. Like many of her portraits from this period, it conveys not only an individual likeness, but also the fatalism and the deep spirituality that the artist found among the Arab people, and which she so much admired.”
Writing in the spring edition of Bonhams Magazine, Claire Wrathall shows how Stern’s Zanzibar works represent a perfect blend of the inspiration she took from her new environment with the influence of her artistic training in Germany after the First World War, especially that of her mentor, German Expressionist painter and sculptor, Max Pechstein. Pechstein, Wrathall notes, had admired her painting Das Ewige Kind (The Eternal Child, now in the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, South Africa), made in 1916, of a little girl, with, as Stern put it, “large mistrusting eyes (and) an embittered tight mouth, sitting on a chair, her plaits hanging straight off her naked forehead, her undefined hands clinging to a few field flowers … so as to assure that some beauty was always left”, against a vivid ground of loosely painted arsenic green.
“I knew what I had to express — the suffering and agony that war means to all life,” she wrote. Stern had already grasped the tenets of Expressionism: that feeling was more important than realism, that colour could be representative quite as much as iconography, and that evidence of gesture, of the physicality of painting, was an effective conduit of emotion. “But Pechstein, who had in 1910 painted an African woman in Germany (Nelly, now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and had travelled to Palau in the South Pacific to find inspiration among its islanders, encouraged her to look to the continent of her birth for subjects,” says Wrathall.
Of Arab with Dagger, Wrathall writes: “Look at the way she uses greens to suggest the silver of the J-shaped khanjar her Arab with Dagger wears tucked into the sash of his dishdasha; at the flame-like colours and folds of his turban; at the way she shapes the hand and beard to reflect each other. It’s an uneasy portrait, a suspicious rather than a sympathetic one, but that air of unease gives it the emotional truth that defines Stern as South Africa’s first true Expressionist.” “I am painting dramatic pictures, compositions and faces, not just types and races,” Stern wrote during her second visit, when the painting was made. “Conquering new ground for my work and development.” Stern (1894 – 1966) was a major South African artist who achieved national and international recognition in her lifetime.
She travelled extensively in Europe and explored Southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo region. The trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble a collection of artifacts. Her dream was to travel extensively in her lifetime: in 1930 to Madeira (Portugal), in 1937 and 1938 to Dakar, Senegal, 1939 Zanzibar, 1942 Congo, 1945 Zanzibar, 1946 Central Africa, 1952 Madeira, 1955 Congo, 1960 Spain and 1963 France.
She travelled extensively in South Africa, for example in 1926 to Swaziland (now Eswatini, a landlocked country in Southern Africa), and Pondoland (now EmaMpondweni, a natural region located in the coastal belt of the Eastern Cape province, South Africa), in 1933 to Namaqualand (an arid region of Namibia and South Africa), in 1936 generally, and in 1941 to the Eastern Cape. She undertook several journeys into Africa; going to Zanzibar twice in 1939 and 1945 and then planned three trips to the Congo region in 1942, 1946 and 1955. These expeditions resulted in a wealth of artistic creativity and energy as well as the publication of two illustrated journals: Congo published in 1943 and Zanzibar in 1948.
Bonhams has sold many works from Stern’s Zanzibar period, including Arab Priest (1945), which achieved £3 million in 2011, making it the world auction record for a painting by Stern and the most valuable South African painting ever sold at auction. It was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority and is part of the collection of the Orientalist Museum in Doha, Qatar. Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world’s largest and most renowned auctioneers, offering fine art and antiques, motor cars and jewellery. The main salerooms are in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with auctions also held in Knightsbridge, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney. With a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 22 countries, it offers advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas.
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