Stunning Portrait from Irma Stern's Zanzibar Epiphany at Bonhams African Art sale

In the summer of 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, the South African painter Irma Stern, wearied by the sameness of her life in Cape Town, made a trip to Zanzibar. She returned to the island in 1945 – coincidentally as the Second World War was drawing to a close. These two visits proved pivotal to her career and inspired a body of work which has come to be seen as definitive. As Stern herself wrote, she was "conquering new ground for my work and my development." A painting from that time, Arab with Dagger, leads Bonhams' Modern and Contemporary African Art sale in London on Wednesday 17 March. It has an estimate of £700,000-1,000,000.

Arab with Dagger, painted in 1945, is one of several key works that Stern executed of members of Zanzibar's Arab community. She was particularly fascinated by the older men in whose faces she saw, in her own words, "depths of suffering, profound wisdom and full understanding of all the pleasures of life – faces alive with life's experiences."

As with many works from Stern's Zanzibar trips, the painting is perfectly framed in wood cut from Arab doors. In their complete state, the highly distinctive doors were subject to an export ban, but there was nothing to prevent Stern's Arab carpenter from converting them into picture frames.

Bonhams Director of African Art, Giles Peppiatt said: "Arab with Dagger is a remarkable work and shows Irma Stern at her best. Like many of her portraits from this period, it conveys not only an individual likeness, but also the fatalism and the deep spiritually that the artist found among the Arab people, and which she so much admired."

Writing in the spring edition of Bonhams Magazine, Claire Wrathall shows how Stern's Zanzibar works represent a perfect blend of the inspiration she took from her new environment with the influence of her artistic training in Germany after the First World War, and especially that of her mentor, the great German Expressionist painter and sculptor, Max Pechstein. Of Arab with Dagger, Wrathall writes: "It's an uneasy portrait, a suspicious rather than a sympathetic one, but that air of unease gives it the emotional truth that defines Stern as South Africa's first true Expressionist."

Bonhams has sold many works from Irma Stern's Zanzibar period including Arab Priest (1945), which achieved £3 million in 2011, making this the world auction record for a painting by Stern and the most valuable South African painting ever sold at auction. It was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority and is part of the collection for the forthcoming Orientalist Museum in Doha.

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