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By Citizen Reporter


Stern’s ‘The Smoker’: A glimpse into Zanzibar’s cultural tapestry up for auction

Still in its original frame, Irma created it during her second visit to the archipelago in 1945.

The pioneering South African modernist painter Irma Stern journeyed to the East African archipelago of Zanzibar twice, in 1939 and 1945, where she produced portraits revered by generations of collectors for their mastery of form and subject.

Auctioneer Strauss & Co is proud to offer The Smoker (estimate R15 million – R17 million), a highly important Zanzibar portrait made during Stern’s second visit in 1945.

Zanzibar frame

Presented in its original Zanzibar frame, Stern’s extraordinary portrait will be offered to collectors during Strauss & Co’s flagship live auction of modern and contemporary art next Tuesday.

“The Smoker is a captivating depiction of a Zanzibari man intently engaged in the act of smoking a pipe and showcases Stern’s painterly skills at their triumphant best,” says Jean le Clus-Theron, head of sale, Strauss & Co.

“The portrait is a masterful blend of focused energy, flamboyant painterliness and intricate descriptive detail.

“Deriving from Stern’s coveted golden period of the 1940s, The Smoker’s importance is clear from the fact that it has appeared in two major South African surveys of her work, in 2003 and 2021,” Le Clus-Theron said.

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In 2021, The Smoker was shown alongside a contemporaneous portrait, Praying Arab (sold by Strauss & Co for R18.3 million in 2023) in curator Karel Nel’s exhibition Irma Stern: The Zanzibari Years at the Norval Foundation.

Nel’s exhibition highlighted Stern’s portraits from Zanzibar alongside earlier works from Cape Town and Dakar and underscored the continuity in her exploration of Islamic culture.

Adds Le-Clus-Theron: “We are doubly delighted to be offering this significant work a month before the opening of the 2022 edition of Venice Biennale.

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“Stern’s work routinely appeared in exhibitions at this important global art forum throughout the 1950s.”

“This year, after an absence of seven decades, Stern’s work will appear in Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa’s main curated exhibition, Foreigners Everywhere, alongside works by 330 modern and contemporary artists, many of them from the Global South.

“This is a timely acknowledgement of Stern’s importance to the story of global modernism.”

Committed to portraying Zanzibar’s people of all social classes as individuals rather than types, Stern brought to her portraits the same intensity and careful observation of individual character that define the portraits she painted of her friends and individuals in her immediate social circle in Cape Town.

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Other than Stern, South African modernists due to appear in Pedrosa’s 2024 exhibition in Venice include Dumile Feni, Maggie Laubser, Simon Lekgetho, George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, Lucas Sithole and Edoardo Villa.

Many are represented in the catalogue for Strauss & Co’s March auction.

Laubser’s recto-verso painting Malay Girl/ Still Life with Cat (estimate R900 000) is one of two powerful portraits by this pioneering expressionist.

Sekoto has two late works on offer, including Senegal and Paris from 1973 (estimate R300 000 – R400 000).

Villa has three works in the catalogue, including a striking painted steel work from 1998 (estimate R300 000 – R400 000.

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