Irma Stern’s purchase of the stool confirms her unfailing eye for quality and her instinctive response to objects of rare beauty. As renowned African art historian, Sandra Klopper points out, Stern probably acquired her stool in Europe through her contact in the 1920s with a number of German Expressionist artists, several of whom had begun to collect carvings from Africa soon after the turn of the 20th century. It’s also possible it may have been acquired during her trip to Zanzibar in 1939.1
Stern’s Buli stool is comparable to the Prestige stool of the Buli master in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – each sculpted wooden throne incorporates a standing female figure with arms raised, palms forward and fingers supporting a seat on the figure’s head. Both have a dark, lustrous patina. Serving as the receptacle for the chief’s spirit rather than merely as a seat, both are objects of great symbolic significance. The cicatrisation markings on the stomach and abdomen are, furthermore, associated with beauty and civilization. While the figure appears in the background of a still life Stern painted in 1940,2 in this 1952 painting, the powerful female towers above an array of gourds and papayas – forms expressive of fertility and continuity.
1. Klopper, Sandra (2007) The Buli Caryatid Stool in the Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town: Irma Stern Museum. Page 1.
2. See Arnold, Marion. (1995) Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye, Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press. Page 130 and illustrated in colour on page 146.
Irma Stern Museum
Smuts, Helene. (2007) At Home with Irma Stern, Cape Town: Committee of the UCT Irma Stern Museum and the Trustees of the Irma Stern Trust. Illustrated in colour on page 16.
Catalogue. (2003) Irma Stern: Expressions of a Journey, Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery. Illustrated in colour on page 178.
Arnold, Marion. (1995) Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye. Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press. Page 130 and illustrated in colour on page 146:
One of the most valuable items in Stern's African collection is a Zairian carving that she painted several times (p. 126). Known as the Buli stool, it is a Luba caryatid stool originating from the village of Buli where a group of exceptional carvings was produced by a master craftsman or his school, c. 1890-1910. As serene as the Greek caryatid figures that support temple lintels, the African woman probably represents a female ancestor. Literally and symbolically supporting the seated chief, she draws attention to the Luba system of matriarchal descent and affirms the importance of women in Luba society. Scarification marks and the hairstyle indicate elevated social status and impart authority to the stool; the large head, the seat of intelligence, suggests power. ...
In the 1952 painting, Stern emphasizes the functional nature of the stool. She depicts it not as a symbol of power or a form imbued with ritual and social significance, but as an object holding a pawpaw. So strong is the carving that it fails to be trivialized by the actvity of supporting fruit and exerts its presence over the collection of gourds or pots and fruit at its feet. The decorative bias is sustained by the introduction of background patterns that are taken from block-printed cotton.