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Auction PR Publicity Announcements News and Information

Picture of Watussi Princess who Caught the Eye of Irma Stern for Auction at Bonams

Bonhams hosts its next sale of South African Art in London, on October 25-26, following two sales which have seen world record prices achieved for works by leading local artists.

Heading the line up for this sale is a stunning Irma Stern, ‘Watussi Woman’, from the early 1940s, when Stern was at the height of her artistic abilities and travelled to the Belgian Congo to seek inspiration for her work. ‘Watussi Woman’, an oil on canvas painted in 1942, is estimated to achieve a price of £1m to £1.5m at the Bonhams sale.

Stern kept a journal during her time in the Congo, and eloquently expresses her fascination with the elegant Watussi people and the inspiration for this portrait of Emma Bakayishonga, the sister of the Watussi king Mutara III Rudahigwa.

“She casts down her languid eyes, closing her eyelids which shine blue. On her brow she wears the symbol of the horns of the sacred cow. Two long-shaped cream-coloured bands are held on her forehead by little square beads. Her hair is a huge arrangement of black, just perfectly proportioned to the size of her long oval-shaped head. She purses her lips as the Egyptians did. From beneath her long flowing robe her bare foot emerges. Never have I seen such beauty; it is like the black basalt foot of an Egyptian statue. It is expressive of a highly-bred cultured ancient race.”

Giles Peppiatt, Director of South African Art at Bonhams says: “We are honoured to be selling this masterpiece by Irma Stern. This hugely powerful work captures all her signature strengths. The picture has not been seen for some ……….years and so is fresh to the market. It will doubtless attract a great deal of enthusiastic attention for South Africa’s leading artist, and one of the top five women artists in the world.”

The sitter, Princess Emma Bakiyashonga, was the sister of the last king of Rwanda, Mutara III Rudahigwa. He died in 1959, “under mysterious circumstances” following a routine vaccination administered by a Belgian doctor. Many Rwandans believe he was poisoned by the Belgians. His death precipitated a crisis in the country and Rudahigwa’s successor, King Kigeli V ruled for just two years before being overthrown by a coup d’etat. Rudahigwa’s wife, Queen Rosalie Gicanda, continued to live in Rwanda following her husband’s death in 1959. In 1994 she was among the first victims of the genocide, shot and killed on April 20th. As she had been a living symbol for Tutsis, her death effectively signalled the beginning of the genocide.However, the subject of Stern’s portrait died peacefully of old age.

Watussi woman is a masterpiece painted by Irma Stern during her 1942 journey to the Congo. On the heels of the success of her 1939 journey to Zanzibar, where she had found great artistic inspiration, Stern set her sights on the Belgian Congo in 1942. For her, the Congo represented the very heart of Africa. “The sound ‘Congo’ makes my blood dance with the thrill of exotic excitement; it sounds to me like distant native drums and a heavy tropical river flowing, its water gurgling in mystic depths.” Her friends, worried about the safety of a woman travelling on her own in deep Africa and puzzled by her continuing pursuit for the new and the exotic, tried to dissuade her from going. Stern regarded their entreaties in her typical fashion and ploughed on with her planning, departing in May 1942.

In her journal Congo, published in 1943, Stern describes the richness of the country to all senses and her satisfaction at having found the untainted native populations she had been seeking throughout her artistic career. “At night the forest glows with swarming fire-flies, and a buzzing and singing begins, a dark, heaving noise of frogs; the insects sound at night like a huge orchestra. The forest is alive with animals… It is all like prehistoric days when man was still in his childhood.”

It is likely that work was begun on the present lot in July or August of 1942. On 8 July 1942, Stern wrote to her friends Richard and Freda Feldman from Astrida (now present-day Butare in Rwanda): “I am here since about 10 days or so – have seen two dances of the Watussi – this is the Watussi country. I have painted the dancers and after that – the slave musicians…I intend staying here till July 21 – then I go to a nearby place called Kigali where there will take place a huge Watussi dance – lasting two days…I am expecting a Watussi lady in tomorrow. They are grand – they do not walk or work – they are nobility – the rest are slaves to them. They are carried about in litters by four men. It is very quaint.”

In Congo, Stern describes her visit to Kigali for the Fête Nationale where she encountered the Rwandan Royal Family. Stern was granted permission to paint the King, and presumably other royals, on the day following the Fête. The Watussi, renowned for their height and statuesque features, were extremely attractive to Stern as subjects for her paintings. Famous for her beauty, Emma Bakiyashonga was also immortalised in sculpture by the Belgian artist Alphonse Darville.

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