Finding Roots. Irma Stern’s Zanzibar Paintings (1939 – 1945)

Two men share a cup of coffee together in close intimacy. Ochre turbans regaled with purple ribbons are wrapped around their heads suggesting faraway lands and stories yet untold brewing under the blanket of shared physical space.

There’s a cheekiness to the moment, captured in the wink of the man to the left. There’s a hint of sadness too, like a memory tinged with the sorrow of past tense.

Irma Stern – Two Arabs (1939). Oil on canvas. Private collection

I guess the best word to describe Irma Stern’s Two Arabs (1939) is afterglow. The warmth and vibrancy of the painting are unmistakable, but they are fading away, like a candid shot that has already lost its potency moments after it was taken. It’s become a souvenir sweetened by the mind’s eye instead.

“Their hands gesticulating, their faces expressed depths of suffering, profound wisdom and full understanding of all the pleasures of life — faces alive with life’s experiences”, wrote Irma Stern about the painting.

This is the feeling you get with most of Irma Stern’s paintings from her Zanzibar period — a deep nostalgia steeped in wisdom, longing that can be traced back to the artist’s childhood.


Stern was born in a small village community in South Africa to Jewish German immigrant parents. Her early idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when, alongside her family, she had to flee during the Boer War and move to Berlin. The next decade was divided between Germany and South Africa, as the Sterns moved back and forth between these two countries: they returned to South Africa in 1903, moved back to Berlin in 1904, settled in Wolmaransstad (South Africa) in 1909 and returned to Berlin in 1910.

It was in Berlin where Stern became an artist. She had started her art studies at the age of eighteen in 1912 in a private studio, but her fate as an artist wasn’t sealed until she met German Expressionist artist Max Pechstein five years later in 1917. Pechstein, as one of the leaders of the Die Brücke — an avant-garde group that aimed to use anti-naturalistic vibrant colors to jolt the viewers and provoke an emotional reaction in them — had a definitive and formative influence on Stern.

In one of the letters that Stern wrote to Pechstein between November 1917 and May 1918, she thanks him for his support, echoing the mentorship that existed between Emily Carr and Lawren Harris whose warmth can only be found at the crossroad of self-flagellating doubt and budding creativity :

“… for you have made me so contented, so eager to work and happy, with a few words you cast down all the dark hours of despair and inner conflict.”

Stern’s years in Berlin were vital for her development as an artist. This effervescent period saw her making connections, joining the Novembergruppe, having her first exhibition. It also led to her first forays into the exotic. Her first paintings of African people are highly eroticized and stylized, in line with the custom amongst artists at the turn of the century to view black bodies as primitive sex vehicles.

Irma Stern – Composition (1923). Oil on canvas. Private collection

What I find interesting and equally disturbing  about these paintings is that they could be showing anyone and everyone. They are highly generic and lack any individuality, as opposed to Stern’s later works. Unfortunately this is a style that she continued using all through the 1920s, as you can see in Composition (1923). 

Paradise Lost

After the end of World War I in 1920 Stern and her family returned to South Africa. It was the first time she was back to her homeland and seeing her place of birth not only through the scrutinizing eyes of an adult, but also through the eyes of an established artist. What titillating visions this return must have given her!

In her Umgababa Book (1923), Stern recollects her return:

“Africa – the word was the personification of everything desirable to me. The land of my childhood. The sun – its brown people – its sheer mountains. The endless sky…”

Yet settling in Cape Town was an experience that betrayed her warm childhood memories and years-long expectations to return to her paradise lost. Under the English rule and with a population of mostly white people, Stern found the colonialism in Cape Town stifling and disappointing.  She was looking for the authentic Africa, the continent of her childhood, and the next years would have her wandering in search for the soul of her lost home, taking her to other South African regions like Zululand, Natal, Swaziland and Pondoland between 1924 and 1929. What’s amazing is that she did all those travels by herself in regions that were inaccessible and avoided by motorists.

Did she romanticize about Africa? Who wouldn’t! In a 1926 newspaper interview for Cape Argus titled My Exotic Models, Stern explains her obsession with the paradise lost of her childhood:

“During these years I spent in Europe studying there was always an idea on my mind — back to Africa, the country of my birth, the land of sunshine, of radiant colours. To find all this I had to go to where there was no sign of Europe, no trace of civilisation — just Africa lying in the sun with its stretches of untouched land and its dark peoples as it has been lying, one might imagine since the day of creation.”


It would take another ten years  before Stern’s quest for the soul of Africa would reach its peak creative expression. By then she had settled in South Africa, avoiding Europe out of fear of the Nazis. She had loved and suffered. Then married without love and divorced after seven years. Her father had died. And while she was staying within the borders of one continent for the first time in her life, Stern was feeling as restless and uprooted as ever.

It was just the perfect timing then for this South African artist to fall in love with Zanzibar,  the islands on the East coast of Africa, a potpourri of colors, fragrances and cultures that had blossomed and coalesced under the rule of Arab, Swahili, Indian and British colonial rule.  Her first trip was in 1939, for four months between June and October. A second trip followed in 1945, between July 20 and October 31.

Finding Roots

There’s so much emotion in Stern’s Zanzibar paintings. For someone who had spent her formative years equally divided between two very different countries and continents, who was a woman in a field dominated by men, who carried her Jewish heritage with terror at the height of antisemitism, who survived two World Wars and felt uprooted everywhere she went, Stern’s creative expression as explored in her Zanzibar paintings is the closest thing one could call home.

Home because it taps into a universal quality that is larger than any ethnicity, nationality, gender, age or class.  It is love. It is goodness. It is beauty.

Stern captures her subjects’ humanity from all walks of life — with its trials and tribulations, woes and joyfulness. The unassuming beauty that comes forth from her subjects — no different than the untarnished beauty of the still lifes of flowers which she had painted — stems from Stern’s intuitive understanding of her subjects and her masterful use of color.

Irma Stern – Still Life with Tiger Lilies (1960). Oil on canvas. Private collection

The Zanzibar paintings carry generic names like Arab, Woman, Priest, though there is  nothing generic about these portrait sitters. If anything, they show Stern’s reluctance to get personal with her subjects, as if the act of getting to know someone muddies one’s clarity of vision with trivial facts. In that sense, yes, one can easily say that Stern’s portraits are fantasies, idealizations.

Irma Stern – Zanzibar Woman (1939). Oil on canvas. Private collection

Yet she tethers on the edge of intimacy, zeroing in on her subjects’ defining features — their large pensive eyes, their full lips, the silky light emanating from their skin. Stern takes us close to people of different ethnicities, be they Arabs, Indians, Swahili, from all social classes. She paints the highly respectable priests with the same dignity with which she paints the downtrodden. The feelings they convey — wisdom, sadness, contemplation, kindness, longing — and their dignity in the face of suffering are universal.

With tight cropping that leaves no room for context and by using limited color palettes that turn almost monochromatic, Stern strips down her art to the bare essential. It’s a minimalistic formula that cuts through all the noise and allows us to better understand the subjects.

Irma Stern – Arab Priest (1945). Oil on canvas. Private collection

It’s enough to read her description of Arab Priest (1945), as related in her book Zanzibar, to get a glimpse of Stern’s desire to capture the essence of her sitters, in this case by using color as a defining element:

“The most distinguished Arab, the truly wise and religious father, is dressed in a pure white robe with a turban around his white skull cap.”

White is also the dominant color in Arab (1939) where against a golden background an elderly man with a white beard, a white robe, and a white turban decorated with a black ribbon looks downward as he contemplates his sorrow. His arms glued tightly to the sides of his chest suggest discomfort, making the viewer all the more compassionate towards the sitter’s distress.  

Irma Stern – Arab (1939). Oil on canvas. Norval Foundation, Cape Town

In Arab in Black (1939), however, power and elegance are conveyed through the black of the man’s robe and beard. It’s as if consistency and continuity are more important than reductive color symbolism, as there is no white-black/good-evil duality present in Stern’s art.

Irma Stern – Arab in Black (1939). Oil on canvas. Private collection

The painting has a curious story. After it was auctioned in the 1950s to help fund the legal defense of Nelson Mandela, the picture missed for decades until it was found covered in letters, bills and postcards on the wall of a kitchen in a London apartment in 2015.

There are two things particularly striking about this painting. First is the highly ornate wooden frame, repurposed by Stern herself from the carved antique door cases found throughout Zanzibar. Whether this repurposing was a stroke of artistic and marketing genius or a sign of disrespect akin to looting, I’ll leave that up to you.

But you can easily see how powerful the frame is in altering the painting, in presenting it as an exotic window into another world, as if the Arab is looking down from a luxurious balcony. The frames to most of Stern’s Zanzibar paintings are just as impressive, having been repurposed from antique door cases.

Secondly, you may have noticed the black shape on the torso of the man. It is the hilt of his dagger, a sign of power. It’s a khanjar, an Omani dagger with a J-curved blade and decorated hilt, traditionally used for ceremonies. Even though he’s armed, the Arab — as seen through Stern’s eyes — conveys peaceful wisdom and kindness.

Equally stirring as her close-ups of faces (see Zanzibar Woman, Arab, Arab in Black) are Stern’s full-figure paintings (Two Arabs, Arab Priest, Meditation Zanzibar) where the subjects are anchored in their gestures, and are therefore far more expressive and self-revealing.

Irma Stern – Meditation, Zanzibar (1939). Oil on canvas. Private collection

Meditation, Zanzibar (1939) is a case in point in showing Stern’s artistry, as she achieves perfect harmony between the woman seated in meditation, the striped colorful pattern of her tunic and the ornately patterned carpet on which she sits.

The wall behind her seems to further harmonize the painting by combining the hues of her light brown skin, the yellow of her headscarf and the pink of her clothes, as if the woman’s body and soul know no limits, expanding into the background and beyond.

Despite all the attention to detail and patterns, the sitter’s downcast eyes and locked pose still pull at your heartstrings. For no pattern can distract you from her sadness.

A Matter of Beauty

The South African artist also left behind her narrow trails of self-incriminating words in journals, correspondence, interviews and travel books, words that are not free from the colonial mindset of the early twentieth century. These include references to savages, primitives, and a general fascination with the exotic, with otherness, that sometimes crosses the line into objectification. It’s no surprise then that Stern has been often criticized for her idealized depictions.

And yet her paintings tell more truth than any word she’s ever written.

I find that Stern’s art is no more fetishized than love itself. By this I mean seeing the best in someone, even if it’s ultimately a projection of the self and a nod to the old adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

We may analyze and question the artist’s motives all we want — her escapism, her idealization, her insensitive remarks about savage tribes — but her love of Africa, the home continent to which she returned so many times during her lifetime, remains undeniable.

There is always some fantasy involved when loving someone or something, when seeing them as exceptional, when eyes and mind highlight their best features. It is precisely Stern’s idealized love of Africa and its peoples that makes their beauty so palpable and relatable.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Thank you for this informative and fascinating exploration of Irma Stern’s African paintings. Whatever her motives, the emotion or mood captured in the featured portraits is striking and unforgettable. The “Zanzibar Woman” is my favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

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