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Islamic beauty sells for £1 million in South African Art Sale at Bonhams in London
Irma Stern continues success with £1M price for a study of an Islamic woman. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Bonhams sale of South African art in London today (19th March 2014) saw an Irma Stern (1894-1966) titled ‘Zanzibar Woman’ break through the million pound mark to make a total of £1,082,500 (R19,289,760).

The top ten paintings in this sale included another Stern painting titled ’Istanbul’ for £326,500, three Alexis Prellers, two Pierneefs, an Alfred Neville Lewis, a George Pemba and a Stella Shawzin. In total the sale made over £2.75million (just under ZAR50million)

Hannah O’Leary, Head of South African Art at Bonhams, comments, “Despite the Rand currently trading at its lowest rate against the pound for many years, today we saw bidding on the best works as hotly contested as ever. We are delighted that ‘Zanzibar Woman’ fetched over £1million, just shy of ZAR20million, placing it among the highest prices for Irma Stern’s work, and rightly so. New world record prices were set for Stella Shawzin (‘Balancing Figures II’ £76,900) and Neville Lewis (‘The peach pickers, Franschhoek’ £56,250), in both cases smashing their previous records, also set here at Bonhams in London, three times over. Bonhams now holds the world record prices for all of South Africa’s most significant artists, including Irma Stern (£3,044,000), J.H. Pierneef (£826,400), Alexis Preller (£748,000), Gerard Sekoto (£602,400) and Stanley Pinker (£337,250) among others, thus cementing Bonhams position as the undisputed global leader in the market for South African art.”

Irma Stern’s 'Zanzibar Woman', 1939, is an oil on canvas within its original Zanzibar frame, which makes it of additional interest to keen collectors of this artist’s work. This vibrant portrait in was acquired directly from the artist in the 1950s and by direct family descent to the current owner.

In the lustrous colours and vibrant brushwork of this 1939 portrait of a ‘Zanzibar Woman’, Stern’s fascination with the culture and traditions of the Spice Island comes to the fore. As Marion Arnold has suggested about this work, in keeping with the artist’s most accomplished depictions of women, it “[depicts] the sensuous interplay of warm flesh tones, dark glossy hair, rhythmic bodies and brightly coloured and patterned cloth”. However, while most “are almost invariably posed against neutral grounds that serve as the foil for the hues of their clothing... Zanzibar Woman (1939) is unusual in providing a context for the model”. Indeed the sitter is set against an urban, architectural background, with a small figure appearing above her shoulder, poised to disappear down a narrow alley.

Beyond an evocative portrait of an individual, the painting thus also offers a fleeting glimpse of the bustle of the Zanzibar streets: scenes so powerfully evoked in Stern’s prose yet largely relegated beyond the frame of her painterly preoccupations. As such, the work not only conjures up the dance of optical contrasts – reds, pinks and greens – and rhythmic brushwork for which Stern’s compositions are renowned. It also strikes up a dialogue between the traditional, interior space of the harem (to which Arab women in Zanzibar were largely confined) and the exterior space of street and bazaar, which Stern, as an outsider, was able to explore with great delight.

Along with several paintings and sketches that the artist bought back to Cape Town from her 1939 Zanzibar trip, Stern also carried several examples of the island’s elaborate lintels and carved wooden door strips (composed of repeated symbolic motifs), which she reassembled as frames for her best works. Set within this original frame, the alluring ‘Zanzibar Woman’ is a marriage of the most sought-after features of Stern’s work.

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