During the 1930s and 1940s Stern repeatedly painted women wearing saris. Her interest in this theme was first stimulated by a trip to Durban in 1935 when she produced several gouaches of local Indian women draped in a rich array of these soft flowing garments. Returning to Natal the following year en route to the 1936 Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg, one of Stern’s friends reported that her intention, while there, was to devote herself to ‘landscapes, and her human subjects will be Indian’. Nonetheless, it was only some years later, when she travelled to Zanzibar in 1939, that Stern’s growing fascination with Indian women and their dress led her to focus increasingly on women wearing saris. The Mauve Sari is one of several remarkable works in this genre dating to 1946. Presumably produced either from sketches done during Stern’s second stay in Zanzibar in 1945, or in response to meeting the wives of Indian merchants in east Africa on a trip to the Congo and present-day Rwanda in mid-1946, these works attest to Stern’s daring juxtaposition of vibrant colours and her increasing attention to richly varied patterns. Always acutely aware of her own creative process, she noted in 1945 in a letter to Freda Feldman that her works were becoming more ‘abstract of curious values’, affording her ‘the same freedom in form and composition – as I have gained in colour’.
When Stern published Zanzibar (1948), her remarkable account of her second trip to the island in 1945, she commented repeatedly on her encounters with the local Bahora community. Originally Hindi traders who were gradually absorbed into the larger Muslim community, Stern described the surroundings of these wealthy merchants and their families as ‘gay and colourful’, the furnishing of their homes as ‘modern’. Noting at one point that it was lovely to see Bahora women resting in groups on the green lawns of parks, or sitting at the seaside to get a fresh breeze, she referred again and again to the saris they wore, even those of ten-year old girls, which she described as ‘expensive’. Astutely observant, Stern mentioned saris that were ‘as fine as cobwebs, or brocaded in real gold’, commenting elsewhere in Zanzibar on the paleness of a sari worn by an elderly woman. Attending a dance held in a dark house in the Bazaar, ‘women sat on the floor in all colours imaginable, combining the most absurd colours, and yet looking most beautiful, like a heap of multi-coloured gems shaken together’.
These extraordinary powers of observation are immediately evident in Stern’s inventive exploration of form and colour in The Mauve Sari. Importantly, though, the artist’s careful attention to detail extended beyond her fascination with saris to include what she described as the shining black hair and eyes, and the fragile, elegant bodies of the Bahora women she encountered on the island. Although, in The Mauve Sari, the sitter averts her gaze, thereby affording the viewer a chance to take pleasure in the voluptuous painterliness of the composition without transgressing her privacy, this work is perhaps most remarkable for Stern’s fine sense of balance between calm introspection and lively animation.
Purchased from the artist by the late Sol Munitz.
The Late Sol Munitz Collection.