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Bonhams to sell works by South African artists who loved Zanzibar but fought over its doors
The Arab Priest by Irma Stern sold last year for £3m. Photo: Bonhams.
LONDON.- The artists Freida Lock (1902-1962), an English immigrant to South Africa, and Irma Stern (1894-1966), a German immigrant to the Cape, both loved Zanzibar. It also inspired some of their best works. Stern’s ‘Arab Priest’, which sold at Bonhams for £3m., holds the record for South African art: now Bonhams is selling a similar image by Freida Lock titled ‘Portrait of a sheik’.

Estimated to sell for £50,000 to £80,000, Lock’s ‘Portrait of a sheikh, Zanzibar’, is a vibrant oil painting in an original Zanzibar frame. But therein lies the rub: both artists used the ornately-carved wooden Zanzibari door frame strips to frame their works. This resulted in a large measure of tension between the two artists, as Stern asserted unique authorship over their use.

Hannah O’Leary, Head of South African Art at Bonhams, comments: “This battle over Zanzibari door frames does not reflect well on two of South Africa’s leading artists. But both women were passionate about Zanzibar and both loved to use its carved doorframes to frame the work they did locally. It certainly adds to the interest of this image.”

Although predominantly known for her interior and still life paintings, in 1948 Freida Lock travelled to Zanzibar, producing some of her most famous portraits and street scenes. Among these are her portraits of Arab sitters, composed with a great sense of vigour in both colour and brushwork. ‘Portrait of a sheikh, Zanzibar’ was a personal favourite of Lock's, to the extent that she hung it above her bed. The portrait's pride of place is immortalised in the artist's painting of her bedroom, completed in 1949: ‘Interior with Green Hat’. In ‘Interior with Green Hat’, the portrait is merely a faceless swirl of dark beard, white turban, and a green and yellow background, but its composition is unmistakeably the present lot.

The sitter was not, in fact, a sheikh (in the sense of formal nobility), but rather a distinguished Arab man in traditional dress from the Tabora region of Tanzania, whom Lock met during a visit to the island of Pemba (about 80km from the island of Zanzibar). He returned to Zanzibar with Lock, who was so delighted with the resulting painting that she insisted on taking a photograph of the sitter with his portrait.

Born in Cheadle Hume, England, Lock initially studied agriculture at Reading University at her parents' persuasion. Her studies were cut short when the family moved to Stellenbosch in 1921 to establish a fruit farm, where she assisted with cattle maintenance and fruit packing. However, Lock was determined to become an artist and finally, at the age of 30, she returned to England to take up art studies at the Heatherley School of Art. Notably, Heatherley was the first school to admit women and men on an equal footing.

At Heatherley, Lock encountered the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Braque; it was also here that she met Terence McCaw and Gregoire Boonzaier, with whom she would co-found The New Group in 1938. The New Group consisted of a number of young, independent artists united in their desire to expose a conservative South African art world to European modernism. Lock's ‘Portrait of a sheikh, Zanzibar’ reflects an innovative, self-assured artist who has achieved these broader aims, while simultaneously conveying something of her own unique and vital personality.



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