Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Arab with Jug, 1945

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Lot 30*
Irma Stern
(South African, 1894-1966)
Arab with Jug, 1945
Sold for £ 842,500 (US$ 1,101,980) inc. premium

Lot Details
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966) Arab with Jug, 1945
Irma Stern (South African, 1894-1966)
Arab with Jug, 1945
signed 'Irma Stern/ 1945' (upper right)
oil on canvas
55.5 x 65cm (21 7/8 x 25 9/16in).


  • Provenance
    Purchased by C.M. Shub from Bothner's Gallery in Johannesburg, 1946.
    Purchased by the current owner from a private collector in South Africa, 2007.
    A private collection, South Africa.

    Johannesburg, Bothner's Gallery. A solo exhibition of Irma Stern's paintings. 1946.

    I.Stern, Zanzibar, Pretoria, 1948. Illustrated p.99.

    In 1945 Irma Stern visited Zanzibar for the second time. She spent just over three months in Stone Town, which included the holy month of Ramadan in August. Stern returned with a series of paintings which "in their fullness and richness of treatment must rank as the most assured and authoritative of her entire output" (Dubow 1971, pp.4-8). According to Dubow, Zanzibar brought about the "fullest realisation of her powers":

    "As much as she had earlier responded to the ancient rhythms of African tribal life, she yielded even more completely to the seductions of the spice island...Unlike her makeshift plunges through the Congo, she was able to live here on a scale grandiloquent enough to suit her temperament (tea parties with the Sultana and visits to the Sultan). It was, above all, a period which allowed her to match the opulence of her surroundings with a series of works of unabashed sensuality and considerable formal strength. As earlier, and further north, Delacroix had responded to the exotic stimulus of Algiers, so in Zanzibar with its enclosed world of turbaned sheiks and perfumed women, she found the mechanism to free the romantic that always underlay the expressionist" (Dubow 1971, p.7).

    By early September, Stern felt that she had "conquered new ground" in her development. "I am painting dramatic pictures, compositions and faces - not just types and races," she wrote to her friends Richard and Freda Feldman in Johannesburg.

    Today, Stern's Zanzibar portraits are among her most sought-after.

    Stern was particularly drawn to the bearded Arab men, dressed in soft, flowing cotton dishdasha and colourful, loosely wound turbans. At the Eid al-Fitr, the New Year celebrations at the end of Ramadan, she was struck by the "white bearded figures of another age - a thousand years or more back; gold glistening on their coats, silk woven into their rainbow-coloured turbans, wound artfully, each particular race having a different traditional way" (Zanzibar, 1948, p.35).

    Her fascination with Arab culture went deeper than the visual displays of colour and texture. She was also fascinated by a mental attitude and described this evocatively in an article for the National Council of Women in 1954. She observed an Arab selling beads and wrote:

    "He was unaware of everything. He sat in mental isolation. He lived in a world of his own, a spiritual world, untampered by travels and noise and desire for money or goods. He prayed. From this period in Zanzibar amongst the Arabs, there was born in me a desire to work amongst people who have a definite philosophy of life. In this I found a new truth – a truth from early times and handed down from age to age, a worship of spiritual forces" (Kellner, p.89).

    Stern returned again and again to this wise, spiritually pure figure in paintings titled Praying Arab, Arab with Dagger, The Smoker, Arab Carpet Seller, [Arabs during] Ramadan, Arab Fisherman and Rich Old Arab. Some were distinguished figures, such as the figure depicted in Arab priest (sold in these salerooms in 2011). Stern described him as "the most distinguished Arab – the truly wise and religious father" (Zanzibar 1948, p.12).

    The present lot is an equally powerful portrait. His face expresses wisdom and humility. It is the final portrait reproduced in Stern's text, Zanzibar (illustrated p.99). Arabic inscriptions have been inserted above and below the image. A rough translation reads: "once you taste it, there is a release, a relaxation". This most likely refers to the water jug the man is holding. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims fast during daylight hours. Only able to eat and drink once the sun has set, the water in this Arab's jug would represent a blessed 'release', offering the opportunity to quenching a day's thirst.

    The jug seems to be of a simple, ancient type with a high-neck and round bottom. These vessels were usually fitted with a strap handle and hung from a hook - often seen in window openings where a breeze could cool the water. Pottery and earthenware vessels had been imported to Zanzibar and other trading centres - such as Lamu and Manda island on the east coast of Africa for centuries. Pottery fragments from China, as well as the Middle East, dating back to the eleventh century, have been found in archaeological excavations in places like Manda island. Stern describes a scene at the Darijani bridge where pottery vessels were made and sold, very possibly of the type the old man holds in his hands. "Indian women hovering between a mass of brown clay pottery, pots of all shapes, the sun pouring down on to the riot of coloured saris wound around their voluptuous bodies ... Behind the houses the potter and his son are making the clay vessels, throwing the wet clay on a most primitively constructed wheel. The clay mounts and shapes by the touch of their hands. Long legged children with huge eyes and long plaits hop around the drying vessels, carrying the fragile ware into the sun to dry" (Zanzibar 1948, p.24).

    This portrait sits within one of the artist's handmade frames, constructed from sections of a traditional Zanzibari wooden door. The elaborately carved doors, door frames and lintels were status symbols for wealthy Arab, Swahili and Indian residents. Characteristic motifs include fish, date palm, pomegranate and the tree of life - symbols of life, abundance and wealth. In addition, the stylized chain motif, clearly visible in the frame of the present lot, signified security and protection, and was usually applied to the outer door frame.

    C.Kellner, Representations of the black subject in Irma Stern's African periods: Swaziland, Zanzibar and Congo 1922-1955, (Cape Town, 2012).
    I.Stern, Zanzibar, (Pretoria, 1948).
    N.Dubow, ed., Collections of the Irma Stern Museum, (Cape Town, 1971).
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  1. Eliza Sawyer
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