Over the past two weeks, auctions around the world have taken a hit due to coronavirus, with marquee sales postponed to summer. Nevertheless, this week’s London sales have seen consistent interest among collectors for top-quality works of non-Western art. On Wednesday, a rare picture by foremost South African artist Irma Stern, Watussi Chief’s Wife, sold for £447,000 at Bonhams Modern & Contemporary African Art sale, which achieved a solid total of £1,770,000 and boasted records for eight artists. Noting the unprecedented challenges facing the art market at the moment, Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams Director of Modern & Contemporary African Art, expressed overall satisfaction with the auction’s solid results.
Stern’s market has spiked recently as keen buyers focus on overlooked modern masters. Her career-defining achievements as a painter were made in Europe and Africa amid the geo-political conflict of the 1930s. She completed the portrait in the Bonhams sale in 1946 during her second trip to the Belgian Congo. The woman depicted, a member of the Tutsi (Watussi) aristocracy, is shown in traditional ceremonial Rwandan dress, and is said to be a member of the Rwandan nobility who became a political exile after Belgian colonization in the 1930s. It is one of two portraits of the woman that were included in Stern’s major 1947 solo exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Peppiatt attributed the competitive bidding for the work to the sitter’s having been someone “whose innate nobility Stern deeply admired.” Other notable modern paintings were still life works by Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko, which sold for £187,000 – and another by Stern which went for £87,000.
Also contributing to the sale’s solid numbers was an archive of more than 1,000 images sourced from the family-run studio of South African photographer, Z.J.S Ndimande, which brought in £40,000. Founded in 1940, the Greystown studio was forced to relocate in 1968 due to pre-apartheid redistricting. Taken between 1964-1983, the set of photographs represent a time of communal resistance throughout the nation — regional photo studios were crucial spaces for documenting citizens during political strife, and Ndimande’s shoots vividly capture each sitter.