The Congo drew me back, and back again. I felt like an explorer. The savagery of the landscape and the people, of snakes and wild birds, of tropical vegetation, of the tiny pygmies of the Bronze Age culture, the giant-like Watussi, a living relic of Neolithic culture, the snow-capped mountains of the equator, the slow moving Congo River – all this meant to me the life and beauty of Africa.1
The two decades between 1930 and 1950 mark the highpoint of Irma Stern’s career, a period during which her passion for all things sensual and exotic produced an abundance of artworks characterised by expressively lyrical observation and vigorous technical self-assurance. It is also during this period that she began to travel extensively in search of new visual stimuli that would give her the same sense of excitement that she had experienced in 1922 when she visited the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, a place where, as she put it in her Umgababa Buch (published in 1923), ‘I believed myself able to hear the heartbeat of Africa.’2
Starting in 1930, her travels took her first to Madeira where, despite personal turmoil brought about by an unrequited love affair and the breakdown of her marriage,3 her palette, as Neville Dubow notes, ‘became more luxuriant … [yielding] to a wider chromatic range’.4 In 1933 she visited Swaziland in pursuit of the ostensible ‘spirit of Africa’ but was disappointed to see the changes wrought by increasing industrialisation and urbanisation.
Stern’s pursuit of more ‘authentic’ subjects took her further north into the continent. She visited Dakar en route to Genoa in 1937 and returned there in 1938. In 1939 she visited Zanzibar for the first time, and in 1942 she travelled intrepidly to the Congo, borrowing a car and chauffeur from the South African High Consul and disappearing into the forest for a number of months. On her return she published Congo,5 a travelogue illustrated with reproductions of paintings and drawings, in 1943. She returned to Zanzibar in 1945 (publishing a companion volume to Congo, entitled Zanzibar6 in 1948) and to central Africa in 1946; she visited Madeira again in 1950 and returned to the Congo in 1955.
In the Congo and Zanzibar Irma Stern found the unspoilt landscape and models she sought, resulting in an outpouring of resplendent work. ‘The Congo has always been for me the symbol of Africa,’ Stern wrote. ‘The sound ‘Congo’ makes my blood
dance, with the thrill of exotic excitement, it sounds to me like distant native drums and a heavy tropical river flowing, its water gurgling in mystic depths ... the forest is green and luscious, the forest is endless like a green dream of Creation Day.’7
The Congo Woman is one of a number of portraits of the women of the Watussi8 royal household. In addition to two large oil paintings, Watussi Queen (1943)9 and Watussi Woman in Red (1946), Stern made a number of drawings and colour sketches of these statuesque women, whom she described as ‘about the same height as the men, about seven feet, …[with the] most delicately beautiful limbs and enormous heads, and, on top, enormous heads of hair.’10 In Congo she describes Queen Rosalie Gicanda (whom she does not name) as looking ‘like an Egyptian statue … Her hair is a huge arrangement of black, just perfectly proportioned to the size of her long ovalshaped head. She purses her lips as the Egyptians did. From beneath her long flowing robe her bare foot emerges. Never have I seen such beauty; it is like the black basalt foot of an Egyptian statue. It is expressive of a highly bred cultured ancient race.’11
In this exquisite work, Stern celebrates the qualities of grace and elegance of these women, with their almond-shaped faces, refined features and dramatically upswept hairstyles. The glowing, saturated tones of the gouache imbue this image with an almost palpable sensuality and liveliness, transcending the constraints of ethnographic depiction to become a celebration of timeless beauty and femininity.
1 Irma Stern (1954). National Council of Women (NCW) News, page 8.
2 In Karel Schoeman (1995), Irma Stern: The Early Years, 1894–1933, Cape Town: South African Library, page 75.
3 Stern married Johannes Prinz, a professor of German at the University of Cape Town who was nine years her senior, in 1942. They were divorced in 1934.
4 Neville Dubow (1974). Irma Stern, Cape Town: Struik Publishers, page 18.
5 Irma Stern (1943). Congo, Pretoria: Van Schaik, Pretoria.
6 Irma Stern (1948). Zanzibar, Pretoria: Van Schaik. Both of Stern’s travel books recall Paul Gauguin’s decorated accounts of Tahitian folklore, Ancien Culte Mahorie of 1892.
7 Congo, page 1.
8 Referred to in colonial parlance as the Watussi or Wahuma, the present-day ethnic grouping is referred to as Tutsi, geographically dispersed between Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo.
9 Queen Rosalie Gicanda (1928–1994), whom Stern encountered shortly after her marriage to Mwami (King) Mutara III in 1942.
10 Irma Stern (1942). Sunday Times, 25 October, quoted by Marion Arnold, op. cit., page 121.
11 Op. cit., page 38.