Mesmerizing Stern Masterpiece Leads Bonhams African Art Sale in New York

Swahili Woman, a superb portrait by the South African artist Irma Stern (1894-1966), leads Bonhams Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in New York on Wednesday 2 September. Offered in the artist's original hand-made Zanzibar frame, it is estimated at $950,000-1,200,000.

During the 1930s and '40s, Stern made long trips to Zanzibar producing striking portraits of Arab subjects which proved instantly popular with collectors. Swahili Woman was painted in 1945 and seems to have had a special meaning for the artist. When the work was not on loan, it hung in her studio in Cape Town for 20 years. It was not until 1965 that Stern sold the painting to the eminent collectors, the Rosenberg family.

Stern felt a strong, almost psychic, affinity with Africa and travelled extensively within her native South Africa, the Congo, Senegal and North Africa. However, Zanzibar was never far from her heart as Maev Kennedy writing in the summer edition of Bonhams Magazine says, "In Zanzibar, she found a different stimulus in the narrow streets and ancient houses of Stone Town, and the striking faces and distinctive robes of its residents. She recruited many models in the souk near her rented lodgings; she also bought extensively in the market, acquiring antiques and contemporary crafts."

Bonhams Director of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Giles Peppiatt said, "Bonhams has sold many wonderful Irma Stern portraits, including the record-breaking Arab Priest, but Swahili Woman is one of the finest we have ever offered. The fact that the artist kept the painting close by her for so long is a testimony to its mesmerizing and mystical qualities."


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