In 1939 Irma Stern made the first of two trips to Zanzibar, the East African island that she described as “the gateway into the centre of Africa.1 Although Zanzibar had been a British protectorate since 1890, it was at that time still a Sultanate under the rule of the Sultan Sayyid Sir Khalifa II bin Harub Al-Said (1911-1960). Khalifa bin Harub’s programme of modernisation notwithstanding, the Zanzibar that Stern found still retained much of the character of the Arabian, Iranian and Indian cultures that had dominated the island since the Sultan of Oman wrested it from two hundred years of Portuguese rule in 1698.
The extent to which Stern was seduced by what she saw as the island’s mystery, colourfulness and exoticism is abundantly expressed in the illustrated 1948 travelogue Zanzibar 2 that she published after her second visit to the island in 1945. Such was the effect of her Zanzibar visit that Joseph Sachs, writing in 1942, suggested that Stern’s Zanzibar paintings are the “high water mark of her art. Canvases are full of gorgeous colour and the strange mysterious atmosphere of this tropical island, but they have also recaptured the spirit of the diverse humanity that is found on the East Coast of Africa.”3 Indeed, so enthralled was Stern by the rich visual culture of Zanzibar that she brought back a pair of Zanzibar doors, which she had installed as the front door to her home ‘The Firs’ in Rosebank, Cape Town, and also began framing her Zanzibar paintings in frames made from Zanzibar woodcarvings.
Stern also found on the island “a spiritual world, untampered by travels and noise and desire for money or goods. … In this I found a new truth – a truth from early times and handed down from age to age, a worship of spiritual forces.” And although she was well aware of the gender inequalities in the traditional Arab cultures of the island (“Arab women are still in purdah,” she wrote, “and only deeply veiled may they leave the house”), she found in her numerous paintings of Arabs, both men and women, the opportunity to foreground this sense of a timeless spiritual truth.
Meditation is a particularly fine example of this aspect of Stern’s Zanzibar work. On the one hand it perfectly illustrates the languid mystique of the exclusively feminine world of the harem, “filled with … lovely old eastern silks with heavy gold fringes, [the women with] trousers ruched at the ankles with the frills falling over their feet. Heavy perfumes hanging in the air – expensive, penetrating Eastern perfumes. ... The rooms are laid out with mats over old dark red tiles – Persian mats and straw matting in vivid array.” Indeed, there could hardly be a better illustration of the sensory experience Stern describes than this painting’s lustrous colours, with its strident contrasts of yellow, pink and green; the figure’s characteristic pose with her balletically out-turned leg; and the dazzling interplay of pattern between the carpet on which she is posed and her garments. But on the other hand it is more than a voyeuristic, orientalist glimpse behind the veil. The intensity and pathos of the woman’s expression suggests a strong empathy between Stern and her subject. In suggesting the possibility of a shared humanity, imbricated as it may be in layers of exoticism and stereotype, the painting complicates readings of Stern’s works that have tended to focus on the problem of otherness.
- Prof Federico Freschi
1. Irma Stern (1948) Zanzibar, Pretoria: JL van Schaik. Page 5.
2. Both this travel book and its companion volume Congo (JL van Schaik, 1943) recall Paul Gauguin’s decorated accounts of Tahitian folklore, Ancien Culte Mahorie, of 1892.
3. Joseph Sachs (1942) Irma Stern and the Spirit of Africa, Pretoria: J L van Schaik. Page 61.
4. Irma Stern, NCW News, op. cit. Page 8.
5. Zanzibar. Page 12.
The Collection of Mr and Mrs HL Schachat.
Purchased from Die Kunskamer, Cape Town, June 1972, by the current owner.
The Shill Collection.
The South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Cape Arts Festival, Homage to Irma Stern, 1968. Catalogue number 20, illustrated, with the title Meditation, Zanzibar ,and incorrectly dated 1934.
Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, Homage to Irma Stern, 1968. Catalogue number 13, with the title Meditation, Zanzibar, and incorrectly dated 1934.