South African painting was used as noticeboard


23 July 2015

The valuable painting Arab in Black by South African painter Irma Stern was recently discovered in a London flat, where it was being used as a kitchen noticeboard, covered in bills and letters.

“An art expert spotted a painting valued at up to £1-million (over R19-million), which was once sold to help fund Nelson Mandela’s legal defence, being used as a noticeboard in a London flat,” reported the British newspaper, The Guardian on 21 July.

Betty Suzman, the sister-in-law of the anti-apartheid activist and politician Janet Suzman, donated the painting to a charity auction in the 1950s to raise cash for the defence for the trial of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others charged with high treason.

It was the first big treason trial, and the activists faced the death penalty. In 1961, the case was dismissed after the trial had dragged on for five years, but three years later Mandela, Sisulu and others were re-arrested and given life sentences for treason.

A serendipitous find

The painting was spotted by a specialist in South African art at Bonhams auction house during a valuation visit to the flat.

“I spotted this masterpiece hanging in the kitchen covered in letters, postcards and bills,” said Hannah O’Leary. “It was a hugely exciting find, even before I learned of its political significance.”

The Guardian reported that the heavy, ornate frame was itself rare and valuable, made from the timbers of elaborately carved antique door cases from Zanzibar, which are now barred from export. Stern spent several periods working in Zanzibar in the 1930s and 40s, and used the frames for what she considered her best works.

The artist

Stern was born in 1894 in Schweizer-Reneke in what was then Transvaal, to German Jewish immigrant parents. She studied in Weimar and Berlin and had her inaugural exhibition in Berlin in 1919. She died in Cape Town in 1966, where her house in the suburb of Rosebank is now the Irma Stern Museum.

During her life, she travelled extensively in Europe and explored southern Africa, Zanzibar and the Congo. “These trips provided a wide range of subject matter for her paintings and gave her opportunities to acquire and assemble an eclectic collection of artefacts for her home,” says the museum.

Stern is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s leading artists whose paintings have been increasing in value. A similar painting of a Zanzibar subject and also framed in the antique timber, was sold for £3.1-million at Bonhams in 2011, setting a world record.

Arab in Black was painted in 1939. It depicts an Arab man from the island of Zanzibar.

In her 1948 book Zanzibar, the artist described the population as “bearded figures belonging to another age – a thousand years or more back; gold glistening on their coats, silk woven into their rainbow-coloured turbans, wound artfully, each particular race having a different traditional way. their faces expressed depths of suffering, profound wisdom and full understanding of all the pleasures of life – faces alive with life’s experiences.”

The painting will be sold at Bonham’s auction of South African art in London on 9 September.

Source: SAinfo reporter