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CONGOLESE WOMAN (1946) BY IRMA STERN
The formal and painterly qualities of this elegant and luscious portrait study are evident. What is perhaps less evident is the history behind works of this kind. The knowledge that the artist visited the Congo and that this picture was painted there is of interest. Possibly, however, the appreciation could be heightened by an awareness of the epic background details, which resulted in this and other works of this period.
There has been much academic debate focusing on whether Irma Stern reduced her African sitters to mere stereotypes or a preconceived idea of 'an' African glamour based on her own romantic needs; or, did she decisively create her own terms, producing tantalising and seductive images which are capable of engendering complex debates as well as thrilled appreciation?
Irma Stern's wanderlust was severely challenged by World War II. The gates of Europe had shut, leaving her smarting with a longing for fresh visual material. She was not to be put off and, in characteristic fashion, a plan was formulated. Having already visited Senegal -- which she described in a newspaper interview as, '... a moral cesspool but the most paintable spot I've ever struck' -- she, this time, struck on Zanzibar. Childhood memories of the reminiscences of an Arab cook employed by the family fuelled this idea and spurred her on. The trip was a great success and the work she created there bears testimony to this. Not only did she masterfully capture on canvas this 'exotic' world, but went several steps further by framing these images in strips of intricately carved wood, which she brought back in quantity -- these frames draw us immediately and unquestionably into the world portrayed.
By 1942, the war dragging on, she was preparing an even more ambitious plan; her sights were set on the Belgian Congo. Her courage and confidence in the achievement of this plan can only be described as astonishing -- after all, she was neither a missionary, philanthropist nor government official, but an artist and an individual who usually enjoyed great worldly comforts.
The dynamic correspondence between Irma Stern and her friends Richard and Freda Feldman who lived in Johannesburg, kept up for nearly 30 years (from the 1930s until her death in 1966), contains valuable information. Irma's correspondence (published in Mona Berman's Remembering Irma, Cape Town, 2003) reveals the urgency and enthusiasm of her planning, and her experiences. In March 1942, she writes from Cape Town:
'The Congo -- I am getting all the information I can -- I am getting letters of introduction also to the Belgian Congo government -- I want a change badly. Here if war is at the door -- what do I do -- but sit and get bombed. I have no bomb to throw back! There I can at least enjoy adventure of a more primitive nature -- cannibals or lions or such things, and yet paint -- I now still have money to go there -- maybe later -- I have spent it all. My plans are to go up to Elisabethville by rail -- truck my car -- then the road stops -- and I can rail my car for 12 hours then I arrive at Albertville. I shall want to paint the Watussi -- and a tribal much further north still beyond the Kivu (Lake Country).
'I met Dr Jokl and his wife here (the eye specialist). They were both up in 1936, and he is going to send me road maps etc. I can only go there from May on as that is the dry season -- up to then lots of things may happen.'
A month later she writes,
'I have my Exit Permit to the Congo -- I am leaving middle of May.
'In case of trouble there -- mental or maybe real or political or such -- may I write to you for help?
'I intend railing my car to Elisabethville and there getting a native driver-mechanic and starting a 2000 miles trip through the Lake district -- to get to the Watussis and Magbewena.'
Her plans realised, she writes on 8 July, 1942,
'Here I am in the heart of Africa -- so to say. I am working like hell -- but it is a great task -- the heat -- the sun rays -- the altitude -- I am at present rather high up on a plateau which is not quite as hot as the other places. I am here since about 10 days or so -- have seen two dances of the Watussi -- this is Watussi country. I have painted the dancers and after that -- the slave musicians. A very large composition -- very savage -- I am still recuperating from that work.
'Have been in the Congo 5 weeks -- have not heard one single word from anybody.
'... I am expecting a Watussi lady in tomorrow. They are grand -- they do not walk or work -- they are the nobility -- the rest are slaves to them. They are carried about in litters by four men. It is very quaint.
'One lives in a constant fear of getting this that and another here. It makes life rather restless -- the meat is full of worms I hear -- we can only eat it when properly cooked ... the vegetables if raw and not soaked with Pomanganate and boiling water are full of something else -- so what can you do. ... It is a marvellous country but my God -- you must get used to it!'
Her return to Johannesburg was rewarded with hotel comforts, and a rapturous response to her hard work. She exhibited almost two hundred works, comprised of sketches and paintings from this trip. Months after her return, despite the accolades, bored and unhappy again, she writes to Richard and Freda: 'I wish I were still in the Congo.' In 1943, her Congo Journal was published by Van Schaik publishers. Her vivid and immediate letter-writing style is apparent in the Journal.
By 1945, she was planning a return trip to Zanzibar, recounted in Zanzibar, also published by Van Schaik in 1948. The success of her Zanzibar experience and her memories of the Congo precipitated her second visit there in 1946. This work -- Congolese Woman -- was done on this trip and bears testimony to her triumph over trying circumstances and can be placed amongst her masterpieces. The four year interval since 1942 had wrought substantial changes in the country. This trip was not as harmonious as the first. Again her correspondence enlightens us. On 9 June, she writes from the Kiscugi Guest House on Lake Kivu,
'Here I am on my destination -- I am writing with very dull light -- it is more or less always a dull light in the rondavels ... I am not quite happy here and feeling very lonely. It is all quite a different world as to what I had in mind from former time -- a world full of hinderance of joy of torture as far as the European is concerned ... The first time after my arrival -- that I went into the forest by car -- I was stuck for hours -- thinking of having to spend the rest of the night in the forest -- surrounded by natives goggling at me with the Chauffeur trying every damned thing that might make the car roll on -- for hours. At last we got all the gazing natives to push for a mile or so -- till we got down a hill and thank heavens the car started.'
On this trip, one of the few good things was the food, a change from the 1942 visit:
'The food is very good here -- fresh strawberries and artichokes -- all well prepared -- even good coffee. It is not at all cheap. I am paying £1.10 a day for Hotel and food -- and £12 for my house per month + Chauffeur and wash-boy + water carrier.
'All would be well -- if I could only feel free and happy.
'The Congo has a creeping horror for me -- every night I dream heavy dreams of my mother and wake up in despair -- it is all rather silly -- but -- I cannot get out of that mood of downheartedness.'
This visit was shorter than her previous one and was described by her as a 'hoodoo trip'. She had been ill having contracted malaria and she was depressed, yet she returned with fourteen large canvases of which this is one -- as well as several fine charcoal drawings and a large number of sketches.
By 1947 she had more than regained her equilibrium -- the highlight of that year being her exhibition in Paris at the Grand Palais. Before her lay twenty more years of life and of painting, during which time her style and subject matter underwent several changes. The 1940s, most critics agree, was the period of her greatest genius.
Director and Curator
Irma Stern Museum of the University of Cape Town
23 October 2007
THE PROPERTY OF A LADY