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Irma Stern brings Cape Muslim culture to Iziko

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What She Saw by avant-garde artist Irma Stern showcases the heart of a lived Cape Malay Culture experienced by ordinary Muslim people.  As the first female Africanist of the 30s and 40s to capture such interests, the exhibition a must see.

“She had done this at a time when it was not allowed for women to travel. She travelled to East Africa on a quest to find exotic people, a subject first introduced to her by her mentor at an art school in Berlin,” says Iziko art gallery curator Carol Kaufmann.

Stern was born in 1894 in Schweizer-Reneke, Transvaal. She studied in Weimar and Berlin and had her inaugural exhibition in Berlin in 1919. On her return to South Africa, equipped with influences from German expressionism she had her first exhibition but that was dismissed as “immoral” and became subject to police investigation.

Although she is well known for her oil paintings, she has also worked as a sculptor whose portrayal of African people gave her white counterparts insight into the African ways of life.

What She Saw is a segment of Brushing Up On Stern, which captures Islamic practices as they are celebrated by ordinary Muslim people in their daily lives.  The exhibition is from an adaption of South African author and poet Gabeba Baderoon, who is renowned for her novels regarding Muslims and Cape Malay culture and history.

Filled with oil portraits of members of the Cape Malay community accompanied by installation art of the garments they wore, makes What She Saw a three dimensional spectacle which comes to life as, Stern serves as a narrator on how Islamic practices are lived and experienced by ordinary Muslim people.

Most prominent amongst her works is the oil on canvas portrait of The Malay Bride illustrating a Muslim bride dressed in traditional Islamic bridal wear wearing a Medora matched with a Victorian style dress. The portrait is a favourite amongst spectators and shows the accompanying installation of the hand gold embroidered chiffon Medora worn by the bride in the portrait.

“She was very interested in painting portraits with very thick applied paint. She painted this portrait in the 40s of a traditional bride which is a very iconic portrait. The bride wears a Medora in exquisite fabric in metallic thread,” says Kaufmann.

“At the time, Stern visited Cape Town as a Jewish woman in an attempt to flee execution from the German Nazis in concentration camps when a bride at a Muslim marriage ceremony caught her attention. She depicted these people at a time when it wasn’t favourable to do so. She engaged with all these people. They knew her,” says Stern.

The exhibition is on until 1 November 2015 at the Iziko National Gallery. The gallery is open from 10am until 5pm Monday to Friday. Entrance fee is R30 for Adults, R15 for children over 5 years old, students and pensioners. The exhibition is free for children under 5 years old.

For more information contact the Iziko art gallery on 021 481 3970. (Nailah Cornelissen)

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