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Tooting Her Horn

Robyn Sassen

She was tempestuous, gluttonous, selfish and vulnerable: everything that an artist as genius is supposed to be.

Johannesburg's art world is poised on an Irma Stern festival at the moment. Stern was the only white woman artist born in South Africa who had the balls and the financial backing to be her own artist in a modernist Europe that proverbially washed her feet with its hair. South Africa shunned her, criticized her bitingly, and did all within its conservative, other-hating power to bring her down. Stern was a South African German Expressionist. She lived from 1894 until 1966 and enjoyed the fruits of the whole continent of Africa in all its splendour, like a true white woman and a real modernist painter.

And it's an interesting corporate decision to embark on a large scale exhibition of this nature. The Standard Bank of South Africa is the corporate entity responsible. In 2000, Standard Bank brought Marc Chagall in all his schmaltzy expensive glory to Johannesburg. 'Twas a great show. One highlight for me was getting to see the work in real life, but best of all was the chance to take a bunch of black eight-year-old girls around the Chagall show. None of the girls had ever been in an art gallery, before. In Chagall's shtetls, fish, donkeys, the girls saw informal settlements: spaces they know, coloured not by cleanliness and uniformity, but by improvisation and the surreal, spaces which only their inhabitants have the power to make into happy ones. Unrestrained from making analogies between great European art and their own lives, they looked deeper into the canvases than most academics can.

Two years later, Joan Miró's stuff was trotted out under African skies and painted with a local interpretative rubric. It was an exhibition which focused on his bronzes made of found objects. African craft and art these days is about precisely that: giving ostensibly throwaway detritus new life and immortality as art. In Africa, it's part economic/part conceptual gesture. In mid-twentieth century Europe, it was an ideal about colonial values and shuffling aesthetics onto their heads.

And now we have Irma. She's no longer a big international figure, she's not black nor a postmodernist and thus doesn't fit any established values in terms of what seems to keep galleries ticking these days. And the Stern festival is all very refreshing for this reason. Work-wise, her material is resplendent: she was a great bold brave colourist, with an eye for volume and life like Cézanne and a jazzy lilt to her brush work which made still lives with things like chrysanthemums reek with burgeoning sexuality and wild life.

One funny thing about a show like this is that wherever you mention the project, Stern experts come needling out of the woodwork, usually from the mouths of little old conservative-looking women with drawn-on eyebrows. They'll tell you, while sucking boiled sweets, "I was her last model", says one, or "I knew her mother", says another. "We used to have tea with her", a third told me. Mona Berman, whose parents, Richard and Freda Feldman, were genuinely close friends of Irma's, is using this fest of an exhibition to launch a book she's just written on the friendship. In her book she reproduces text and images never before seen, drawn from the prolific exchange of letters between the friends, written over a period of close on 40 years, and kept carefully until now.

Far be it from me to challenge the memories of the old ladies of my community. I feel that it's funny though, because they lay claims to her in a way that was probably not quite the case so many years ago, when she was being shunned by gallery establishments and doing unspeakable things like driving through Africa on her own to paint the people she saw. It would have taken considerable social bravery to stand behind one so strongly vilified by the powers that were.

Indeed, the art world is a fickle place. It would shoot its own mother if needs be, in the name of kow-towing to those perceived to be in power at the time. Nowadays, the Stern exhibition is fuelled in other ways by opinion which, in truth, is but another exercise in critical interpretation and historical backstabbing. Was she a racist? Is a question on many academics' lips in terms of her representation of the "other". Was she a feminist? She broke many different frameworks in terms of women's values (she damn right nearly broke her own front door, too, anecdote tells us: she bought a doorframe from Zanzibar, and had it installed in her lavish home in Cape Town, but grew too fat and was compelled to go through it sideways).

Stern never painted a self-portrait because she thought she was ugly, but she looked for and explored the beauty in others through her work. She was tempestuous, gluttonous, selfish and vulnerable: everything that an artist as genius is supposed to be. She was romantic and emotional, she got hurt easily and kept a diary of her pains. If a feminist, she was very mildly liberal. This lady with all her foibles and weaknesses was not an ideologue and it's rather a shame that many are painting her thus. Her work is magnificent and it should be allowed to make its own sounds within the perception of the beholder.

Looking at Stern via her work and the many words that have been spoken and written about her of late, I see a different picture than the one so popularly portrayed. It's kind of a cheeky picture, because I'd never have the gumption to say something like this about Miró or Chagall, but perhaps it's a territorial sense of ownership. Perhaps it's the fact that the little old ladies laying claim to her with alacrity bring me back to a sense of community.

Stern's voice is as strong as her European male counterparts. The corporate decision to present an exhibition of her work with all the hype and glamour of previous shows is brave, simply because of the parochialism and self-hatred endemic to our culture. As South Africans, we do tend to be reluctant to toot our own horn in public. But perhaps, with the opening of this Stern fest, the time for tooting is nigh. Kudos to the Standard Bank for the insight.

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