On 14 June 1939, Irma Stern set sail aboard the Duvenage Castle for the island of Zanzibar on the Swahili Coast of East Africa, returning to Cape Town in mid-October. She would visit the island again in 1945, documenting her experiences by way of her published travel diary titled Zanzibar. 1
In an interview with HT Lawless she describes her decision to travel, saying; ”This is how I went to Zanzibar ... , tired of this infernal wind, I was walking down Adderly Street one morning in 1938, remembering the stories told by our old Arab cook … when I was a child (he) used to spend the time of day reminiscing about his island home”. Then, appearing to make fun at her own naiveté that disguised a more impulsive nature, she continues "… so I walked into a travel bureau and asked ‘Can I motor to Zanzibar?’” 2
Stern’s interest in African travel had undoubtably been sparked by her visits to the Senegalese capital of Dakar on the west coast, while en route to Europe in 1937 and 1938. For her extended four month stay on the east coast island of Zanzibar, a British protectorate since 1890, Stern would stay as a guest of the provincial commissioner, Captain John O’Brian before taking residence in a large house across from the bazaar.3
From there she would become intoxicated by the island, proceeding to paint its inhabitants with a keen observation and attention to detail that has come to define the Zanzibar portraits as Stern’s golden period. To these highly focussed depictions of character Stern brought her distinct brand of expressionism evident in the subtle colours of the present lot. This is perhaps most striking in the sitter’s headdress, known as a feta, which is a pre-wound turban of golden thread particular to the Bohra people of Zanzibar. Belonging to the Ismaili sect of Islam, the Bohra arrived on the East Coast of Africa in the 19th century; their name denoting “merchant” from the Gujarati word vohorvu meaning “to trade”.4
The bearded figure represented here in his later years, seems more contemplative and is likely an Imam given the presence of a red bound manuscript resembling the Qu’ran. For Marion Arnold, Zanzibar offered Stern “contact with Islam and eastern customs … with the paintings distinguished by the large number of portraits produced. These works indicate how successfully Stern was able to translate the exterior world into art when she trusted perception rather than imagination as the basis for making images.”5
Enthusiastically received by critics and the general public alike, the work that Stern produced during these visits has come to define her as a portraitist. A commentator in the Cape Times would call her first exhibition of paintings from Zanzibar in February of 1940 a “veritable triumph for the artist”.6 Whilst the review in Cape Argus the next day would go further saying “The vitality and the sense of colour which you will find has always been implicit in Irma Stern’s painting, but in the best work here there is an even greater sense of achievement”.7
Describing Stern’s process, Arnold notes that “to render the human object life-like the artist has to locate visual devices to suggest non-visible attributes of character. As she gained experience, Stern developed a vocabulary that enabled her to fuse naturalistic detail with expressive mark and colour. In this way she particularises portraits, infusing outward appearance with a sense of inner energy and rendering reality persuasively”.8
The Ivan Katzen Collection.
Curries Auctioneers, Johannesburg, The “Ivan Katzen Collection” of Pretoria; Important Works by Leading South African Artists as well as by Picasso and Clavé, 17 November 1971, lot 35.
Martin Melck House, Cape Town, Irma Stern: Exhibition of Paintings from Zanzibar, 12 to 26 February 1940, catalogue number 9.
Gainsborough Galleries, Johannesburg, Irma Stern: Exhibition of Paintings from Zanzibar, 3 to 10 December 1940, catalogue number 7.
Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, The Ivan Katzen Collection, April 1968, catalogue number 38.
Curries Auctioneers, The Duncan Hall, Main City Hall Block, Johannesburg, 15 to 17 November 1971, catalogue number 35, with the title Zanzibar Arab.
A.J. Werth (1968) The Ivan Katzen Collection, Pretoria Art Museum, illustrated, catalogue number 38.
Marion Arnold (1995) Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press, illustrated in colour on page 117, with the title Zanzibar Arab.