Bonhams previews its October sale of South African Art by announcing this star lot by 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.
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.
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.