'Watussi Woman' signed and dated 'Irma Stern / 1942' (upper left) oil on canvas 85.5 x 85.5cm (33 11/16 x 33 11/16in).
PROVENANCE: A private collection
LITERATURE: I. Stern, Congo, (Pretoria, 1943), illustrated p. 49 H. Smuts, At Home With Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 2007), illustrated p. 15
On the heels of the success of her 1939 journey to Zanzibar, where she had found great artistic inspiration, Stern set her sights on the Belgian Congo in 1942. For her, the Congo represented the very heart of Africa. "The sound 'Congo' makes my blood dance with the thrill of exotic excitement; it sounds to me like distant native drums and a heavy tropical river flowing, its water gurgling in mystic depths." Her friends, worried about the safety of a woman travelling on her own in deep Africa and, puzzled by her continuing pursuit for the new and the exotic, tried to dissuade her from going. Stern regarded their entreaties in her typical fashion and ploughed on with her planning, departing in May 1942.
In her journal Congo, published in 1943, Stern describes the richness of the country to all senses and her satisfaction at having found the untainted native populations she had been seeking throughout her artistic career. "At night the forest glows with swarming fire-flies, and a buzzing and singing begins, a dark, heaving noise of frogs; the insects sound at night like a huge orchestra. The forest is alive with animals... It is all like prehistoric days when man was still in his childhood."
Watussi Woman is a sublime portrait of a noblewoman in the court of HM Mwami Rudahigwa III, monarch of the Watussi in the territory of Ruanda-Urundi, then part of the Belgian Congo. In an extraordinarily fortuitous development, the identity of the sitter has been confirmed as Emma Bakayishonga in Rwanda in 1942. Famous for her beauty, Emma Bakayishonga was also immortalised in sculpture by the Belgian artist Alphonse Darville. The information is kindly given by her brother, the current monarch, HM Kigeli V.
The subject is shown seated in voluminous white robes set against a muted cream-yellow background and her pensive face is depicted wearing the feminine headdress and adornments of Watussi royalty. Around her neck is a blue and white glass beaded hoop neckpiece, on her right wrist, just visible, is a pink and red bracelet, further denoting her exalted status, for she is a princess of the royal court. This is a singularly important portrait in the series that Irma Stern made in 1942 of women of the royal Watussi court. It resonates with the iconic Watussi Queen (1942) in the private collection of Mona Berman (Berman, Cape Town, 2003, illustrated p.90).
It is exceptionally rare to find portraits identified by name among Stern's African works. One notable exception is the portrait of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sheik Said Bin Ali El Magheri (1939), in a private collection. Recent research into the back stories of some notable work from her period in Rwanda has revealed the identity of members of the Watussi royal family. This is further confirmed by the recorded archives of the colonial history of the Watussi dynasty and its transformation during the period of occupation by another royal dynasty - that of Leopold and thence Baudoin, of Belgium. Thus pivotal new information re-frames her work from this period to one containing historical significance and additionally presenting evidence for the artist's sympathetic engagement with real individuals, rather than idealised types. It also emphasises the point that Irma Stern's accounts can be verified and they were not unduly exaggerated or embellished.
Prior to encountering the people of Rwanda themselves, the artist, a product of her time, was aware of the prevailing colonial mythologies about the feudal Watussi Kingdom. The nobility were portrayed as being exceptionally tall, descendants from Nilotic ancestry, exceptionally beautiful and noble in bearing and unimaginably privileged - aristocrats never being required to walk or work - borne in palanquins by enslaved servants who enabled this life.
On 8 July 1942, Stern wrote to her friends Richard and Freda Feldman from Astrida (now present-day Butare in Rwanda): "I am here since about 10 days or so have seen two dances of the Watussi this is the Watussi country. I have painted the dancers and after that the slave musicians...I intend staying here till July 21 then I go to a nearby place called Kigali where there will take place a huge Watussi dance lasting two days...I am expecting a Watussi lady in tomorrow. They are grand they do not walk or work they are nobility the rest are slaves to them. They are carried about in litters by four men. It is very quaint."
Irma was extremely excited and enthusiastic about finding Watussi subjects to paint. Indeed this was pivotal to her Congo trip and the area of her main focus: "I painted the king and the queen and the queen mother of the Watussi. Their movements were dignified beauty, their features long necked, long faced were exquisite, a beautiful and timeless majesty. Here I had found as I thought, the quintessential of beauty."
She had heard through envoys and contacts at the Cape that the annual Fête Nationale at the capital of Kigali could provide the opportunity for her to view the spectacular Watussi dance festivals presided over by the King and his retinue, and may offer the wished opportunity to paint the royals.
Indeed, in her own words "A missionary takes me to see the Royal Box. There sits the Queen Mother of the Watussi, wearing a stupendous beaded crown, adorned with flowing white ospreys. She looks like an Egyptian statue. Next to her, in flowing white garments, sits the young and beautiful new queen. She casts down her languid eyes, closing her eyelids which shine blue. On her brow she wears the symbol of the horns of the sacred cow. Two long-shaped cream-coloured bands are held on her forehead by little square beads. Her hair is a huge arrangement of black, just perfectly proportioned to the size of her long oval-shaped head. She purses her lips as the Egyptians did. From beneath her long flowing robe her bare foot emerges. Never have I seen such beauty; it is like the black basalt foot of an Egyptian statue. It is expressive of a highly-bred cultured ancient race. My chief desire is to paint the Queen."
At this occasion of the Fête Nationale in July 1942, she describes in her letters and diaries the procession of the King and his royal household from the palace at Nyanza to Kigali, the presence of other colonists and European visitors, all accommodated in a palm enclosure away from the dust and heat. She wrote: "The first group of dancers enters the arena, unbelievably tall and slender men, like reeds, their well-moulded young bodies garlanded with brilliant ropes of beads, swaying in a strange rhythm, and at the same time swinging long sticks. White cow-hair, held by beaded head-bands, hangs down their backs. The rhythm of the dance grows faster and faster, until it ends in a frenzy."
With her artist's eye for colour and exotic subjects, Stern details the scene describing the fantastic Ntore dancers and drummers wearing spectacular colobus monkey headgear, the antics of athletes and the gifts of herds of sanga cattle offered as tribute to the apparently unconcerned royal party by their feudal subjects. Irma Stern is singular in providing the context for her work, and the scenes she described were ultimately sketched, drawn or painted. She provided a context that demonstrates not only an interest in the Watussi people and their culture, but one that also showed a currency with developments in Europe.
Thus the context for the painting of the subject was set enabling her to be identified as an important member of the royal household, sister to the reigning King HM Rudahigwa III and his successor HM Kigeli V, Princess Emma Bakayishonga, Watussi Woman (1942).
Renewed interest in her Rwanda portraits have doubtlessly been stimulated by the tragedy that befell Rwanda from 1994. Queen Rosalie Gicanda, exquisitely portrayed as the young wife of Rudahigwa in the charcoal drawing entitled Rwandan Queen (1942) in the Permanent Collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, was tragically one of the first victims of the genocide in 1994 at the advanced age of 80 years. A superb matching charcoal portrait of her husband, HM Mwami Rudahigwa (1942), now in a private collection, shows the king wearing a ceremonial headdress of beadwork and white plumes. Rudahigwa died suddenly at the height of his power in 1959 of suspected poisoning by the Belgian administration. This precipitated a political crisis for Rwanda, briefly relieved by the succession of his younger brother HM Kigeli V whose rule was short lived when in 1962, he went into exile in the USA.
Kigeli V has recently confirmed the identity of the formerly unknown subject of this portrait, as his own sister, Emma. She would have attended royal functions with other aristocratic women described and depicted by Irma. Contemporary photographs clearly show the formal attire of this privileged woman to be consistent with Irma's depictions. Voluminous light-coloured fabric worn toga style drapes their elongated forms; bouffant, upswept hair is encircled by a light-coloured raffia diadem (igikubwe) worn low over the forehead, accented by a beaded square in the centre. Tucked into another headband in front of the left ear are two light-coloured or occasionally black and white beaded pins terminating in flared knops (intambo). Around the necks of noblewomen are worn glass bead hoops, worked in a palette of colours including white, blue and red, reserved for women of their exalted status.
Irma had rented a house on a lake in Rwanda in mid 1942 and recorded her impressions as she prepared energetically for the forthcoming exhibitions of her work. From her ledger books, letters, accounts and interviews it appears that the artist was extremely organised, business-like and resourceful about this first trip to the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, as it was called. In her daring and unprecedented act of travelling alone to Central Africa, she focused on all the preparations for creating a body of work for three immediate exhibitions. The first exhibition was to be held at the end of her sojourn at the Musée Ethnographique in Elizabethville (where she sold 11 works in October 1942); thereafter she planned to take the remaining unsold work to Johannesburg when she returned to South Africa. With the help of her friends - the Feldmans -she had secured spacious accommodation and art materials at the Criterion Hotel in order to complete work from her initial sketches in preparation for a pre-arranged exhibition at Gainsborough Galleries (1942) where she sold twenty five works. Finally, refreshed and re-capitalised, she returned to Cape Town where at a final showing of her Congo production at the Argus Gallery in 1943, a further eleven works were sold, including the acclaimed oil on canvas Watussi Queen (1942) to F. Feldman in December of that year for the sum of 50 Pounds. Other Watussi studies were listed at this sale including No.40, Watussi Woman that was sold to A. de Pass for 24 Pounds 56 shillings, presumably a charcoal at the price.
Her Congolese/Rwandan works were surprisingly well-received at subsequent exhibitions, supported by local intelligentsia and affluent patrons. This success may have been bolstered by her early acclaim in Europe, and as many of the patrons were émigrés from Europe, it is not unlikely that they were aware of cultural movements and tastes abroad. The meticulous records in Irma's own hand give details of who purchased works, the prices and the forms of payment. The format of each exhibition was the same: a selection of oils, gouaches and charcoals totalling about 100 works printed in a price list matching the invitation embellished only by the distinctive signature that became her own iconic brand. Stern was ingenious at marketing herself and invited appropriate celebrities to open her shows, with details like flowers and refreshments recorded in the ledgers.
The critic and great friend of Irma's, Richard Feldman could have been describing this beautiful portrait of Emma Bakayishonga when he wrote in The Jewish Times of 27 November 1942:
"The portrait of a Watussi woman in white is probably the most character full. The sensitivity and tenderness lavished on this portrait show Irma Stern at her best."
BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Stern, Congo, (Pretoria, 1943) M. Berman, Remembering Irma, (Cape Town, 2003) H. Smuts, At Home With Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 2007)
We are grateful to Carol Kaufmann, Curator of African Art, Iziko South African National Gallery, for her assistance in cataloguing this lot, and to His Majesty Kigeli V for his assistance in identifying the sitter.