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Irma Stern’s brush with Rwandan royalty’s ‘timeless majesty’

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Stern’s 1942 charcoal sketch, Watussi King, auctioned by Strauss & Co a few years ago for R400 000, was probably completed during Fête Nationale held in Kigali.

A keen traveller, acclaimed South African artist Irma Stern was fortunate to have the financial means to explore the world. Her trips also provided her with an abundance of new sights and subjects from which she could draw inspiration for her prolific output.

Stern travelled to the Congo in 1942. Buoyed by romanticised accounts of the Rwandan nobility, she was consumed both with curiosity and the desire to paint the local royalty.

Well-connected with both the Belgian administration and the South African attaché, she found an opportunity to see the royal party at the Fête Nationale held in Kigali, a two-day celebration that included processions and public displays of drumming, singing and dancing.

“I painted the king and queen and the queen mother of the Watussi. Their movements were dignified, their features – long necked, long faced – were exquisite, a beautiful and timeless majesty,” wrote Stern in letters from this trip.

Stern’s 1942 charcoal sketch, Watussi King, auctioned by Strauss & Co a few years ago for R400000, was probably completed during the festival.

The subject is wearing the distinctive beaded and plumed crowns reserved for senior royalty. Stern’s disregard for political and ethnographic sensitivities is often underpinned by the generic titles she gave her works. She seldom identified African subjects by name, leading to many disputed identifications.

From photographs taken during the Fête Nationale, the sitter has been identified as Mwami Rudahigawa Mutara III, the king of Rwanda, who died in 1959. The circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery, with rumours he may have been poisoned by the Belgian administration.

The Rwandan monarchy lasted only two more years, coming to an end in 1961.

Source: For more details about the company’s 2017 auctions, call 0117288246.

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