The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern Exhibition at the Norval Foundation

WORDS Gina Dionisio PHOTOS Natalie Whitehead Photography

The Norval Foundation, situated in Cape Town’s Steenberg area, presents its latest exhibition – The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern – a small body of significant works produced by the artist during her two stays in Zanzibar and the period surrounding 1939-1945.

The exhibition, which opened this month and runs until 28 March 2022, is the first time in nearly 40 years that a body of these Zanzibari works, considered among her finest, are exhibited together.

Irma travelled frequently between South Africa and Germany as a child and this pattern continued into her adult life. During the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, she exhibited throughout Europe and was both better known and respected there than in South Africa, where the reception of her work was overwhelmingly negative.

Unable to return to Germany yet uncomfortable in South Africa, she spent time in remote parts of the country and undertook a number of intrepid journeys to Senegal, the Congo and Zanzibar, an island which she had visited briefly as a child in 1904 during a voyage to Europe.

The paintings from her time in Zanzibar consist primarily of portraits of Arab imams and men at prayer or in groups at the mosque but also include portraits of fathers and sons, sheiks, merchants and fishermen as well as a striking series of Zanzibari women from Arabic, Indian, Bohari and Swahili communities. These women have been captured dancing at marriage celebrations, in quietly meditative states or engaging directly with Irma as a painter. A number of sumptuous still lives also date from this period, as well as a handful of paintings of Arabic architecture and private walled gardens.

The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern Exhibition at the Norval Foundation
The Zanzibari Years: Irma Stern Exhibition at the Norval Foundation

This body of work is hallmarked by a series of powerful portraits with an immediacy that reflects the mutually focused engagement between the artist and her sitters. Her heavily-laden brush deposits swathes of colour and a tracery of mark that evokes at times the sweep and syncopation of Islamic calligraphy. The calligraphy that she encountered in the carved cartouches of the lintels of Zanzibari doors and the Islamic manuscripts which she collected, affirmed and liberated her mark-making. The boldness of her impasto brushwork results in a tangible embodiment of her sitters and their contexts, such that her decision to frame the works using fragments of Zanzibari doors feels completely in keeping. The distinctive frames, made of lintels, bosses and decorative door edgings, read as windows or architectural framing devices that evoke a spirit of place.

Irma returned with a number artefacts, some of which were reproduced in the partly-handmade book, Zanzibar, published by J.L. van Schaik in 1948. Some of the fragments that Irma brought back as well as a complete Zanzibari door form part of this exhibition at the Norval Foundation, enabling an appreciation and analysis of the symbolic structure of the Islamic door and the pattern-language integral to this carving tradition.

This period of the artist’s work, frequently regarded as a high point of her painterly career, is the exclusive focus of the exhibition which has – in its presentation – been profoundly influenced by her book, Zanzibar. The book has informed not only the choice of works to be presented but also the selection of objects that provide the viewer with a glimpse into the island world where Irma lived and worked. This exhibition allows viewers to imagine with empathy the context that gave rise to some of her most distinctive works.

Irma Stern: The Zanzibari Years is curated by Karel Nel and runs concurrently with three other exhibitions – Congress: The Social Body in Three Figurative Painters; Jackson Hlungwani: Alt and Omega, and Athi-Patra Ruga’s installation iiNyanga Zonyaka. These exhibitions are not to missed if you find yourself in Cape Town over the festive period.

For more info on the exhibitions currently on display at the Norval Foundation, visit

Looking for more on local art? Read about Ben Orkin’s Extra Safe exhibition.