Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Dancers (within Zanzibar frame.)
Lot 61*
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
Watussi Dancers
£ 800,000 - 1,200,000
US$ 1,100,000 - 1,600,000

Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Dancers (within Zanzibar frame.) Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Watussi Dancers (within Zanzibar frame.)
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
Watussi Dancers
signed and dated 'Irma Stern/ 1946' (lower left)
oil on canvas
92 x 97cm (36 1/4 x 38 3/16in).
within Zanzibar frame.


  • Provenance
    A private collection.

    Cape Town, Argus Gallery, Irma Stern: Paintings from Zanzibar, 1946-7.
    Cape Town, Martin Melck House, Irma Stern: Paintings from Zanzibar, 1947.
    London, Grosvenor Gallery, Irma Stern Memorial Exhibition: Paintings of Europe and the African Continent 1914-1965, 1967, catalogue no.49.

    This dramatic rendering of the legendary Watussi dancers of Ruanda-Urundi is rare amongst Irma Stern's paintings of the Tutsi. The artist's depictions of Watussi dancers are generally known through the many gouache and wash studies on paper in private and public collections. This painting is an important and powerful expression of what Stern experienced on her first Congo tour of 1942. The composition is similar to that of an earlier work housed in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, titled Bahutu musicians (1942). Both paintings depict their subjects from an elevated perspective; the musicians, like the dancers, meet their audience's gaze with a sidelong glance.

    Stern first experienced a Watussi dance at the Kigali festivities on 21 July 1942. This was an important day for her because it provided the opportunity to meet King Rudahigwa Mutari III and his new Queen, Rosalie Gicanda. They had travelled from the royal residence at Nyanza, in southern Ruanda-Urundi, accompanied by the Queen mother. Also in attendance at the festivities were Government officials, missionaries, Arab traders and European visitors. Shortly after the Kigali festivities, Stern was introduced to the royal family and able to paint portraits of both the King and Queen.

    This visit brought the painter into direct contact with traditional practices and rituals, providing her with the 'authentic' African experiences she so keenly sought. She mentioned her intention to travel to Kigali from Astrida in a letter to her friends Richard and Freda Feldman in Johannesburg:

    "I intend on 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" (8 July 1942).

    Stern's journal offers a spirited account of the celebrations taking place in and around the market square. Captivated by the surrounding sights, colours and sounds, she describes the bright red soil underfoot dampened by water carriers, "the dense crowd of natives surrounding the square, which looks like a multi-coloured wall", and the flowing white garments of the Queen mother, "like an Egyptian statue", the beautiful new Queen casting down "her languid eyes, closing her eyelids which shine blue."

    It is at this point that the dancing commenced. She describes the spectacle thus:

    "A Watussi runs in, yelling and beating the ground with his stick, followed by twenty to thirty men, all yelling. 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. Their whirling yellow loin-cloths are decorated with geometrical patterns: red suns, black moons, and arrow heads, the symbol of birds in flight. The rhythm of the dance grows faster and faster, until it ends in a frenzy. The musicians then enter crouching low [...] A new group of dancers, clad in red with blue tassels and fringes, comes to the fore: they are followed by another and still another."

    By the evening the sacred cows of the Watussi are led into the arena and paraded past the Royal Box accompanied by singing and dancing:

    "They beat the ground and dance to the cow in a frenzy, throwing up their long arms, swinging their sticks, beating their chests, absolutely lost in adoration. And then comes another cow, just as magnificent, and the same worship starts again. More and more cows follow, until there are hundreds of cows and guides and dancers. The air vibrates to the ecstatic yells of the crowds, and night falls. Throughout the night the dance goes on, continuing for two days and two nights: the Fête at Kigali" (Congo, 1943).

    Watussi Dancers visually renders the drama Stern describes so vividly in her Congo journal. It offers a striking contrast to the smaller impressionistic sketches on paper illustrated in Congo (p. 35), now housed in the Irma Stern Museum. In these smaller works on paper, the dancers are depicted from a distance and their facial features are not acknowledged.

    This oil painting provides a close-up of the action. The dancers' energy is palpable; the viewer cannot avoid the animated expression and direct, almost unnerving stare of the dancer in the near foreground. His eyes are wide and his lower jaw thrust forward as he pants and screams; the swishing mane of his white crown accentuates the rhythms of the dance. This is a painting of immense power and emotional expression. In a letter to the Feldmans, Stern mentions meeting a Belgian painter in Astrida:

    "a very pleasant man - but his work is smooth and sweet - of course they like his work immensely. It takes away a bit of the wild charm to have another artist working pretty-pretty things so nearby."

    One senses that Stern felt such "smooth and sweet", "pretty-pretty" art was inauthentic. Her visceral depiction of the dance was produced in opposition to this aesthetic.

    The Fête Nationale was instituted in the late nineteenth century to celebrate Belgium's independence from the Netherlands. On 21 July 1831, Leopold I took the constitutional oath in Brussels as first king of Belgium. His son, Leopold II, would later become notorious for exploiting the Congo Free State as a private venture. By the time Irma Stern visited the Congo in 1942, the Belgian government had been in control under a United Nations mandate for over 30 years. The feudal kingdom of the Watussi in Ruanda-Urundi was subject to Belgian colonial rule, and military parades by the indigenous Force Publique and traditional dancing had become customary to celebrate the Belgian national day.

    Although Stern devoted several pages in her journal to the celebrations in Kigali, she does not comment on the Watussi's relationship with their colonial masters. However, this painting positions the dancers firmly in a colonial setting. The dancers' beaded head bands sport the colours of the Belgian flag; red, yellow and black. It is possible that the otherwise traditional colours or designs were replaced specially for 'national' festivities in order to identify with and reflect the authority of the colonial power.

    Stern resided in the Congo for five months, producing an impressive body of work. Neville Dubow has commented that her paintings of this period demonstrate "extraordinary vigour and decorative control". Stern executed enough material for three exhibitions, at the Musée Ethnographique in Elizabethville, the Gainsborough Galleries in Johannesburg, and finally at the Argus Galleries in Cape Town. In total 47 of these Congolese scenes were sold, demonstrating their popularity with the local intelligentsia and affluent patrons.

    Reviewing the exhibition at the Gainsborough Galleries, Herman Charles Bosman commented: "I am personally grateful to Irma Stern for having thrust before the world, in so bold and uncompromising a fashion, the only things in life that matter. She has created a wide and unsentimental world, brilliant with the raw colours of feeling, where the spirit is a woven mantle, and the earth is pageantry" (Smuts, p.14).

    Stern's extensive painting trip to the Congo, Rwanda and the Great Lakes was an exploration which expanded on her previous trips to Swaziland, Pondoland and Zanzibar in her quest to experience first hand African tribes in their 'natural' environments, living lives largely 'untainted' by Western civilization. Her primitivist disposition not withstanding, it "is Stern's particular 'journey' that helps us reflect on the larger discourse of 'primitivism' and within it, gender, race and class dynamics in settler communities" (Kellner, p.105).

    M.Berman, Remembering Irma, (Cape Town, 2003).
    N.Dubow, Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 1974).
    C. Kellner, Representations of the black subject in Irma Stern's African periods: Swaziland, Zanzibar and Congo 1922-1955, MA dissertation, University of Cape Town, (Cape Town, 2012).
    H.Smuts, At Home with Irma Stern, (Cape Town, 2007).
    I.Stern, Congo, (Pretoria, 1943).
    H.Proud, ed., Brushing up on Irma Stern: featuring works from the permanent collection of the Iziko South African National Gallery, (Cape Town, 2015).
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  1. Eliza Sawyer
    Auction administration - South African Art
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  2. Giles Peppiatt
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