When Do Black Lives Matter?: Irma Stern’s Representations of Black Women in the Global South

LaNitra Berger

2020 was the year that changed everything. I was one of the lucky ones who kept my academic job and was able to work at home during the pandemic. I worked on two books simultaneously: a monograph on Irma Stern and an edited volume on social justice and international education.

Working on these books while experiencing the unequal and unjust ways in which the pandemic wreaked havoc globally, gave me a different perspective on my research. Then, in May 2020, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and for the first time in decades, white people in the United States were outraged by police violence, an issue that has plagued Black communities in the US since we arrived as enslaved people. The phrase “racial reckoning” was frequently used to describe the social and corporate response to racial injustice. Although I have always considered myself to be a social justice advocate and art historian, publishing these two books in 2020 sharpened my focus.

In 2018, I brought George Mason University students to South Africa to learn, through an examination of public monuments and memorials, how the country was confronting its past. Students had very little American context for that discussion at the time, even though we live in the American South. But in 2020, the very monuments we thought would last forever, mostly from the Civil War, began to topple. Suddenly, students were hungry to discuss race through the lens of art and art history. Their eyes opened, they looked around them and questioned every street sign and statue.

For art historians, museum curators, public and digital humanists, and anyone else who cares about art, this is our time. We have a new and unique opportunity to educate people about why art belongs in public debates about social issues.

I will start this essay the way I usually end my talks about Irma Stern, by asking the question: When do Black lives matter? To Irma Stern and to us? The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a rallying cry. It’s a statement of defiance, a eulogy, an art-historical approach and a policy proposal. But for me, the when is important. Are Black lives important when people drive by a house and see a Black Lives Matter sign? When it’s time to give out promotions? When they see a homeless person on the street? When they’re looking at art in a museum?

This question is important from my perspective as a US-based Black art historian studying a white South African artist. In the past few months, racial violence in the US has become more frequent and more normalised in mainstream media. Police brutality has continued to be a scourge on society. For Black women specifically, maternal mortality is a significant public health crisis. For decades, Black women have been disappearing in the US and around the world, vanishing, with no one but family and friends willing to search for them. In 2022, the Black American basketball player Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia on charges of possession of “illegal” substances. For months, it was unclear if or when she would be freed and whether her race, gender and sexuality played a role in her detention. Black women are everywhere, even in art, but when do we really see them? And if we do, when do they matter?

This lecture series for which this essay was initially written was called The School of the South. All of the talks explored women artists in the Global South. The Global South is both a broadly defined geographic area and an idea, an ethos. As Matthew Sparke notes in the inaugural 2007 issue of the journal The Global South: “The Global South is everywhere, but it is also always somewhere […]”1

Sebastian Haug describes the ethos of the Global South as “a marker for anti-hegemonic engagement that can happen anywhere.”2 This is an important idea because it allows each of us to carry this analytical, Global South tool with us wherever we go. In whatever diasporic context we find ourselves, and whatever academic, professional or personal situation we’re in, as students of “The School of the South” we can challenge prevailing notions of authority, flip the classroom and demand that everyone with raised hands be acknowledged.

As a Black American scholar writing about Stern, I found myself toggling between various points in the Global South that have inevitably shaped my relationship to her. My initial interest in South Africa began as a child watching apartheid-era violence unfold on TV and wondering if Nelson Mandela was really alive in prison or would ever be released. My parents explained that the violence and inequality I saw on TV was similar to what they had experienced in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and 1960s. As an adult, I went to graduate school at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in the American South where the vestiges of slavery and segregation remain. From there I moved to Berlin, Germany where I searched the archives for traces of Stern and her relationship to the German Expressionist movement. Outside of a handful of scholars, the study of German Expressionism still focuses mostly on the male artists who dominated the movement. Later, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa where Stern looms large for her artistic contributions and her big personality, but her story unfolds in the shadow of apartheid. Today, her work dominates at auction and is well represented in museum collections and exhibitions. The historical narrative in South Africa credits white South African women for playing a large role in establishing modernism in the country, women such as Irma Stern, Constance Stuart Larrabee, Sarah Gertrude Millin and Nadine Gordimer, to name a few. But it is really the interplay between gender and race that each of these artists, and others, explore in their work.

Irma Stern, Maid in Uniform (1955). Courtesy the Trustees of the Irma Stern Collection, Cape Town

While doing research at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town, I viewed Stern’s 1955 painting, Maid in Uniform every day. I was captivated by the various shades of her blue uniform and, most importantly, by the woman’s physical posture and facial expression. I love this painting so much that I used it for the cover of my book on the artist. It has only been in the last few years that I’ve understood why it is so important to me. When a Black American female colleague saw the book cover, she immediately identified with the woman and, importantly, with “the look”. She recognised the combination of strength, self-confidence and fury in the woman’s face, and remarked that almost every Black child can identify that look on a Black woman and know exactly what it means. I realised that she was right: as a precocious, boundary-pushing child, I had encountered that look from many of the Black women elders in my life. But as an adult and now a mother myself, I see even more layers to the expression, and the many others in Stern’s paintings of Black women. I see exhaustion. I see frustration. I see anger, a particularly “dangerous” emotion for Black people to have.

Portrait of Amelia Harris, Alabama (ca. 1902). Image courtesy LaNitra Berger

I come from a line of Black women who worked as domestics. I can trace my family lineage to the first person brought to the United States as an enslaved woman. She was raped by her master, so that subsequent generations had lighter skin, which did not lift them out of segregation in Jim Crow Alabama. My maternal grandmother, Eva Louise Tidmore, worked in domestic service in and near Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s. She is pictured here.

Portrait of Eva Louise Tidmore, Alabama (ca. 1950s). Image courtesy LaNitra Berger

Putting Maid In Uniform next to the photograph of Eva Louise Tidmore, we see several points of comparison and departure. Both images depict a Black woman from the 1950s. Both women work in domestic service. In Stern’s image, the woman is wearing a maid’s uniform and she is sitting, glowering away from the viewer. We don’t know her name or anything else about her. In the photograph of Eva Louise, we see a maid who is not in uniform, since, if you were commissioning a personal photograph, why would you want to be captured in your demeaning, subservient role? The only way to know that Eva Louise worked in domestic service was to know her personally. Because of her light skin tone, most people who see this photo don’t know that she was Black. Again, we don’t know anything about the sitter in Stern’s painting, but I can tell you this about Eva Louise: she died at 43 of a gangrene infection in her foot. Like Stern, my grandmother was a diabetic whose condition was poorly regulated. When she got an infection in her foot, she refused to be treated in a segregated Black hospital. So, we have these two images of contemporaneous Black women where context provides a richer understanding of the sitter and her environment. We know one woman by name and the other is unknown. Does one matter more than the other? I argue no, they are the same. Like Eva Louise, Stern’s sitter was likely someone’s grandmother, with a lineage and important stories to tell. In our next iteration of Stern scholarship, this is the type of work we should be doing.

In 2019, a very important museum exhibition, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse to Today, toured from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Curated by art historian Denise Murrell, the exhibition and its excellent catalogue essays argue that Black female models were central to the development of global modernism even as they have been overlooked and ignored in the scholarship. The central argument focuses on Edouard Manet’s Olympia (c. 1863–1865), shifting attention from the voluminous scholarship focused on the white prostitute as the central modern figure to Laure, the Black maid standing next to her holding a bouquet of flowers, whom Manet spent significant time studying and painting as a model. As Murrell argues,

[it is] only when Manet’s Olympia is seen as an emphatically bi-figural work, representing issues of both gender and race as central to modern life, that the extent and influence of Manet’s radical modernity can be fully understood.3

What is specifically fascinating and relevant about the project is a section of the catalogue in which Murrell and her team research and document three Black women models: Catherine Dubois, Carmen Lahens and Elvire Josephine Van Hyfte, who all posed for Henri Matisse. The essay on each woman covers her life, her relationship to Matisse and her reactions to and reflections about being a model. In an interview, Catherine Dubois reflects on a time when she observed people looking at a Matisse painting that depicted her, and debated whether she should tell them that she was the model. She marvelled: “The idea that a living person can find themselves on the walls of a museum, that she had once been right beside Matisse and is now right beside us.”4

“Like Eva Louise, Stern’s sitter was likely someone’s grandmother, with a lineage and important stories to tell. In our next iteration of Stern scholarship, this is the type of work we should be doing.”

The notion of the Global South as an “anti-hegemonic space” should, I argue, guide future work on Stern and other modernist artists who painted Black women. Both “Olympia” and Laure are depicted through the male gaze for a white male European audience. We don’t know anything about Stern’s model, but we can see the complexity of the race, gender and class relationship between a Black model and a white artist living in the apartheid era.

Recovering and documenting the stories behind Black female models challenges the prevailing scholarly narrative that Black women don’t matter, that they mean “nothing”, as art historian T.J. Clark wrote about Manet’s Laure.5 For many white South Africans, and for many Americans too, Black women care for and raise their children, as Stern’s maid in uniform was likely doing. These women bring their own complex and valuable stories with them to work every day.

Irma Stern was born in the small Transvaal town of Schweizer-Reneke in 1894 to German-Jewish immigrants. Her childhood was disrupted by political and social turmoil, from war to disease outbreaks. From a young age, Stern began travelling frequently between Europe and Africa, a practice she continued for the rest of her life. In 1910, the Stern family moved to Germany again from South Africa. They settled into an apartment on Berlin’s most fashionable boulevard, the Kurfürstendamm, in the Charlottenburg neighbourhood. Berlin, by then a bustling metropolis, was a European centre for fashion, politics and culture. Because of their commercial success and family fortunes, Samuel and Henny Stern could afford to expose Irma and her brother Rudi to a life that few in Germany or South Africa could imagine. The Sterns provided Irma with the educational advantages to succeed as an artist, such as exposure to cultural excursions, access to books and entrance into German high society.6

Stern’s studies in Germany coincided with the emergence of expressionism, giving her the opportunity to interact with artists who were critically engaging with politics in their work. Her relationship with German artists such as Max Pechstein and her immersion in a cultural environment that nurtured its beginnings meant that expressionism had a significant and long-lasting impact on Stern’s artistic career, influencing her stylistic approach and her understanding of the relationship between the artist and society.

Stern’s global mindset was further developed by the onset of World War I, an event which would reshape the world order. The devastation from the war created an international political and social vacuum that left an impression on Stern and an entire generation of artists who struggled to describe their frustration in visual terms.

In 1916, while still a student at the Weimar Academy, Stern painted her own response to the war in an oil painting she called Das Ewige Kind (The Eternal Child). She had seen a gaunt young girl riding on a tram and decided to paint her. This work marked a turning point in her understanding of the relationship between art and society.7 Years later, reflecting on her decision to paint the child, she stated: “I shuddered and awoke to my own generation.”8

Stern’s The Eternal Child was the first serious painting that demonstrated her artistic vision and social consciousness, helping her to understand how to shape her female subjects from a female artist’s perspective.9 The work attracted the attention of expressionist artist and political activist Max Pechstein, who would become Stern’s primary mentor in Germany.10 Pechstein was one of the most prolific expressionists, working across media in drawings, lithography, painting and woodcuts, in addition to his political work creating posters for socialist causes.11

Over several decades, Stern and Pechstein developed a deep bond characterised not only by an interest in painting, but also by a shared curiosity about cultures outside of Europe. Stern brought her South African childhood experiences to the relationship. Like his contemporaries, Pechstein had viewed African and Oceanic sculpture in the ethnographic museum in Dresden and was interested in using African sculptural techniques of abstraction in his own work. Pechstein’s interest in African sculpture exemplified a larger effort among German Expressionists to pursue their interest in the African continent.12

Pechstein introduced Stern to his gallery dealer, Wolfgang Gurlitt, owner of the well-known Galerie Fritz Gurlitt, who commissioned her to complete a set of lithographs called Dumela Marena, Images from Africa, that were Stern’s interpretations of African life for a German audience. One can see Pechstein’s influence on Stern in the model’s sculptural qualities even though Stern had had much more contact with Black women than he had because of her childhood in South Africa.         

Around the same time, 1920, Stern moved back to Cape Town to establish herself as an artist in South Africa. This was not an easy task for a young, Jewish woman artist.

By 1923, Stern had begun travelling throughout South Africa and the Kingdom of Swaziland searching for new subjects. She packed her painting materials and headed east to Zululand and the Natal coast for several weeks, completing her first (unpublished) travel narrative, Das Umgababa Buch. A 1923 Cape Argus article noted about her trip that Stern was “keenly interested in South African subjects and some time ago spent a few months living among the native tribes in Natal.”13 During these visits, Stern was working on her technical skill as a painter. She also met and established a rapport with several local people, which would allow her to complete her paintings.

The naming conventions for Stern’s work at the time show the evolution of her relationship to her models. A 1923 painting called Composition, for example, positions three naked Black women in a triangular grouping near a basket of fruit and several protea flowers in the background. The colours are rich and luxurious: deep ochre skin tones, golden-yellow robes and blue waters. The name focuses attention on technicalities and away from the people: on the way figures are arranged on the canvas, not who the individuals are. A work from 1925, Three Swazi Women, identifies the women as Swazi and shows them in a similar triangular arrangement as Composition. Enrobed in colourful, flowing fabrics, the women are standing, embracing each other, nearly spilling out of the foreground. There’s a sense of movement in the work that gives it a dynamic energy.

Alain Locke and the New Negro

Outside of Europe, young Black scholars and critics observing global artistic developments took note of how artists were using Black bodies in their work. One such scholar was the African American philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke. Locke was the first African American to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England in 1907. He continued his studies at the University of Berlin from 1910 to 1911. While there, Locke followed the academic conversations about the “discovery” of African art by Europeans, specifically the Benin Bronzes that were confiscated by British soldiers during the punitive Benin Expedition in 1897. Convinced that African cultures were rich in artistic mastery and complex political and philosophical themes, Locke was searching for artistic evidence to counteract colonialist and white supremacist views that Black people were culturally, socially and biologically inferior.

In 1925, Locke published his seminal study, The New Negro, a critical anthology of Black artists, poets, writers, musicians and scholars who declared their autonomy from the dominant narrative in American society that depicted Blacks as politically and intellectually unsophisticated. In his own essay for the anthology, The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts, Locke describes African art’s ability to empower Black artists and shape modern aesthetics. He discusses how European artists incorporated African sculptural elements and Black bodies into their work to great acclaim on the continent.

Irma Stern, Pondo Woman (1929). Private collection

In his attempts to encourage young Black artists in the United States to rise above racism and segregation, Locke saw potential in Irma Stern, the only woman he mentioned among other German artists who were working to transform the way the Black body and African identity were depicted in modern European art:

Max Pechstein, Elaine [sic] Stern, von Reuckterschell [sic] […] All these artists have looked upon the African scene and the African countenance, and discovered there a beauty that calls for a distinctive idiom both of color and form. The Negro physiognomy must be freshly and objectively conceived on its own patterns if it is ever to be seriously and importantly interpreted.14

In other words, Locke wanted Black artists to fight against American stereotypes and embrace Blackness as an aesthetic asset in a similar way that he perceived artists in Germany treating Black subjects. And, he believed that Stern’s depictions of Black people were instrumental in this endeavor. Black lives mattered to Locke, and Locke believed that Stern’s work could assist him in the struggle for equality.

Stern and the Jewish Community in South Africa

Much of Stern’s success in South Africa can be attributed to her connections in, and support from, the Jewish community. Stern was an active member of this community in Cape Town, and her social life revolved around their events and activities. Many Jewish Capetonians were also prominent social activists who were outspoken early on about racism in South Africa. Some were Stern’s closest friends, and their activities not only kept her informed about South Africa’s decline into an apartheid state but also pushed her to examine her own work as an artist.

Immigrating to South Africa from around the world, often escaping persecution and anti-Semitism, Jewish South Africans occupied a liminal band on the whiteness spectrum in South Africa. At first they were not white enough to receive the same privileges as British or Dutch settlers, but just white enough to be counted as part of the minority white population that needed political legitimacy. They were acutely aware of this liminal status and its fragility, which caused intense internal debates in the community about the extent to which they should speak out against racial injustice. Some argued that it was their religious duty to do so; others countered that remaining silent was crucial to their community’s survival.

Stern had four close friends in the Jewish community: Hilda Purwitsky and Roza van Gelderen in Cape Town, and Richard and Freda Feldman in Johannesburg. There is not scope in this essay to discuss in depth these four fascinating individuals, so I will focus here on how they connected Stern’s work as an artist with Jewish identity and the need to improve the world through acts of social justice.

Purwitsky and Van Gelderen were progressive educational activists for Coloured girls in Cape Town. Richard and Freda Feldman were well-established members of Johannesburg’s Jewish community, where Richard was involved in politics and wrote prolifically about racial injustice and economic inequality. Purwitsky was also an art critic for Jewish newspapers such as the Zionist Record,and it was in these pages that she reviewed Stern’s work and implored other Jewish artists to use their work to address social themes. Like Alain Locke who attempted to define Black modernism in the US, Purwitsky was also searching for the artistic and social qualities that defined Jewish modernism in South Africa. Feldman was concerned with the deterioration of race relations in South Africa, especially in the mining areas. He devoted his career and his personal pursuits to projects that confronted racial and social inequality, and his critiques analysed political issues in a way that few other South African critics were willing to.15

Feldman was instrumental in shaping the social criticism of Stern’s work early in her career, commenting frequently on her role in changing the direction of modern South African art. His 1926 review for the Zionist Record was one of the first to argue that Stern’s use of modernist techniques to represent Black people as artistic subjects made her “an essentially South African artist” and “the first artist to reveal, to use the soul of Africa’s Black children.”16 Feldman was a proponent of incorporating social themes into South African art and would serve as Stern’s moral compass on race relations for most of her life.17 In the Zionist Record, for example, he wrote:

Art cannot be based merely on sentimental idylls. It must reflect our life. When our times are stormy, the art of the day reflects the storm. Some succeed to portray the coming calm after the storm, others the peace before, but these are few in number and recognized in their own time.18

Using Stern’s work, Feldman rendered racial politics more visible. In 1935, he published Schwartz un Vays (Black and White), a collection of Yiddish short stories about race relations and Black life in South Africa.19 On the cover of the book, he used a Stern painting of a Black African woman in the foreground of an ambiguous rural setting holding what appears to be a bundle of grass on her head. Whereas Feldman’s book criticises the exploitation of Black male labour in the gold mines, Stern’s painting refers to Black women’s physical labour as well, and the economic and social fracturing of Black communities as a consequence of mining and urban migration. Additionally, Stern’s painting on the cover of a book written in Yiddish shows how her work was linked to the Jewish community’s cultural and social agenda, bringing attention to the inseparable relationship between modern art and politics in South Africa.

“Venturing outside of South Africa’s racial and social constrictions to other parts of the continent gave her the opportunity to interact with Black women in a different cultural context: in places where they occupied all levels of the ethnic and class spectrum.”

Stern and Congo

Global political events heavily influenced the direction of Stern’s career in the 1930s and 1940s, forcing her to make important political and moral decisions about her work. Rising fascist movements and anti-Semitism in Europe prevented her from travelling there until after World War II. She shifted her focus from exhibiting in European galleries to exploring the African continent, travelling to Senegal and Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda), the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Zanzibar. Stern painted and drew sketches of many different types of Black women in central Africa, focusing on Mangbetu, Kuba and Tutsi women. These travel adventures not only allowed her to further assert her independence as a woman artist, but they also exposed her to more Black communities, where she interacted with women who spoke different languages and had different religious and social values. She produced an illustrated travel narrative called Congo in 1942, one of her most important works not only because it is beautifully illustrated and shows the breadth of her talent, but also because of the ways in which Black women are featured in the text.

In the last part of the Congo narrative, Stern visits Ruanda-Urundi and spends time with the Watussi (now known as the Tutsi). She had read about central Africa in the work of her friend, the anthropologist Leo Frobenius, and had likely seen references in European popular culture to the Mangbetu peoples’ distinctive head shape. Stern was eager to visit this area herself, and when she writes about it, she expresses her belief that the Tutsi are royally descended from ancient Egyptians. She admires them for their height and leanness, observing of their queen that,

She purses her lips as the Egyptians did. From beneath her long, flowing robe her bare foot emerges. Never have I seen such beauty; it is like the black basalt foot of an Egyptian statue. It is expressive of a highly bred cultured ancient race. My chief desire is to paint the Queen.20

Stern is obsessed with the Tutsi women because of their royal lineage. Notably, she does not include a portrait of the Tutsi queen in Congo despite declaring that painting the queen was one of her objectives. She does, however, include Tutsi Woman, a drawing of a woman with a long neck, delicate facial features and elegantly coiffed hair. Her dark skin contrasts with the lighter areas of her headscarf and clothing, and her long eyelashes bring attention to her almond-shaped eyes and long, thin nose. The drawing is pasted on top of a black-and-white reproduction of a Kuba textile, which adds to the work’s regal nature.

In a well-known 1943 painting titled Watussi Queen, Stern captures the young queen regally posed, adorned with colourful jewellery, flowing garments, and with the same almond-shaped eyes and long, thin nose. Her gaze is piercing but directed away and to the right of the viewer. Because of extensive research on Stern’s travels in the region, we know the identity of some of the sitters in her paintings. A 1942 painting, Watussi Woman, depicts Princess Emma Bakayishonga, as confirmed by Rwanda’s current king, H.M. Kigeli.21 This painting recently sold at a Bonhams auction for over 1.1 million British pounds. Is this the value of a Black life?

In her Congo adventures, Black women mattered a great deal to Stern, both aesthetically and from a cultural capital perspective. Not only did she admire their physical beauty, but she wanted to consume their royal class status. To be this close to royalty, even Black royalty, was clearly a delight to the artist. Venturing outside of South Africa’s racial and social constrictions to other parts of the continent gave her the opportunity to interact with Black women in a different cultural context: in places where they occupied all levels of the ethnic and class spectrum. In a letter to her friends Richard and Freda Feldman about her travels, Stern wrote:

I painted the king and the queen and the queen mother of the Watussi. Their movements were dignified beauty, their features – long necked, long faced – were exquisite, a beautiful and timeless majesty. Here I had found as I thought, the quintessential of beauty.22

Her travels on the continent add another layer to our understanding of how Stern viewed Black women outside of South Africa’s racial hierarchies.

“Black African women were central to Stern’s conception of modern art in South Africa even though she strongly believed in maintaining what she called ‘a colour bar’ or some form of racial segregation.”

Conclusion

Many new opportunities for scholarship and conversation have been set in motion through the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation’s School of the South lectures. Irma Stern is a complicated figure: cultural insider and outsider, woman artist, white and Jewish, problematic chronicler of Black life, famous and virtually unknown, all at the same time. Because so few women are represented in major museum collections and scholarship globally, conversations about the complexities and contradictions in the work of women artists have only recently begun to be conducted in the public domain. This situation is even more challenging for Black women, as artists, as models, as educators and scholars, and as humans. Overlooked, over-sexualised, overworked and overwhelmed, Black women have had to endure political and social struggles for gender equality while also fighting racial injustice and oppression.

Zanele Muholi, Massa and Minah II (2008). © and image courtesy Zanele Muholi

Irma Stern died in 1966 as apartheid-era violence was increasing significantly in South Africa and the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak in the US. By the time her former home became the Irma Stern Museum in 1972, Black women artists in the United States had taken the image of the maid such as we see in Stern’s Maid in Uniform and revolutionised it for a new Black feminist movement. African American artist Bettye Saar’s 1972 mixed-media work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, takes stereotyped images of Black women as domestic servants and turns them into a source of power and liberation. The work powerfully implores Black women not to be ashamed of domestic work, but instead to band together and resist these confining roles. In 2007, scholar and activist Angela Davis cited Saar’s work as the beginning of the Black feminist movement, suggesting that art is a catalyst of social movements and social action.

The academic and artistic space for Black women is expanding, slowly. After the decades of silence of the first half of the 20th century, Black women and Black women’s stories and experiences are becoming more a part of the fabric of art and art history. In 2008, South African artist Zanele Muholi created the mixed-media photography and performance work, Massah and Mina(h), in which she placed herself in compromising situations as a domestic worker to bring attention to this difficult, unrecognised labour. About her series, she writes:

In my latest project Massa and Mina(h) (2008), I turn my own black body into a subject of art. I allow various photographers to capture my image as directed by me. I use performativity to deal with the still racialised issues of female domesticity – black women doing house work for white families. The project is based on the life and story of my mother. I draw on my own memories, and pay tribute to her domesticated role as a (domestic) worker for the same family for 42 years. The series is also meant to acknowledge all domestic workers around the globe who continue to labour with dignity, while often facing physical, financial, and emotional abuses in their place of work. There continues to be little recognition and little protection from the state for the hard labour these women perform to feed and clothe and house their families.

In Stern’s Maid in Uniform, in the photograph of Eva Louise and in Muholi’s Massa and Mina(h) we see a representation of the notion that the Global South serves as a marker for anti-hegemonic engagement anywhere. In Stern’s painting, the Black woman’s expression and posture are defiantly anti-hegemonic. She is resistant to being painted, to the uniform, and to the social and political conditions that require her to wear it. Yet, so is Eva Louise. Unlike the woman in Stern’s painting, she is smiling, but her smile is part of her resistance. Her commitment to being immortalised in a photograph, dressed up with pearls, is a signal of her own resistance to Alabama’s repressive segregationist culture that denigrated Black women’s humanity and reduced their value to a few cents on the dollar. In Muholi’s photograph, the artist is in uniform on her knees, but with a look of self-possession. Both women are giving “the look”. These are not small acts of resistance, they are ways to proclaim that their lives matter.

I bring in my own and Muholi’s personal stories because even as academics we bring our personal interests and backgrounds to our intellectual pursuits and our work. With this, comes bias and the blind spots that we are obligated to analyse and explore. But too often we have accepted that there is one “official” and “omniscient” voice in scholarship. That voice is usually white and male, leaving very little room for other perspectives. What are we missing? What gaps exist in our knowledge? I was initially drawn to Stern’s work as a graduate student in the late 1990s. I found her biography intriguing, but I was first struck by her paintings of Black women. The women in the paintings seemed to jump off the canvas, embracing me the way only elders can. It is this deep connection that has allowed me to continue studying Stern for more than 20 years. That kind of dedication does not only come from an academic search for knowledge; it comes from a deeper relationship to the work.

Black African women were central to Stern’s conception of modern art in South Africa even though she strongly believed in maintaining what she called “a colour bar” or some form of racial segregation. Yet, the paradox in her work is that she deeply connected to Black women as much for their physical beauty as for their acceptance of her, even though she upheld the prevailing views of segregation. Despite these contradictions, the artistic value of Stern’s work is recognised both academically and financially. She has influenced artists and thinkers as far away as the United States, where her approach to painting Black women has inspired intellectuals to consider new possibilities for developing race consciousness in art.

We need to think about why so many people are comfortable with ignoring the ways in which Black women are subjected to racialised subjugation, disenfranchisement and violence. How do images of Black women confront or confirm our beliefs about what is just, fair, equitable, humane or morally right? How many inconvenient truths are we willing to ignore to get through the day? And finally, what can each of us do to disrupt the resulting troubling racial narratives in our own lives? I urge you to ask yourself, When do Black Lives Matter to you?

Biography

LaNitra M. Berger is an award-winning art historian, educator and social-justice advocate working to making higher education accessible to all students. Her scholarly interests are in art and social activism in the African and Jewish diasporas. Berger is the author of Exploring Education Abroad: A Guide for Racial and Ethnic Minority Participants (NAFSA, 2016), and the monograph, Irma Stern and the Racial Paradox of South African Modern Art: Audacities of Color (Bloomsbury, 2020). She is also the editor of Social Justice and International Education: Research, Practice, and Perspectives (NAFSA, 2020). She has lived in Berlin and Cape Town, and has lectured widely on Irma Stern and modern art in France, Belgium, South Africa and the United States.


References

  1. Sparke, M. (2007). “Everywhere But Always Somewhere: Critical Geographies of the Global South”, in The Global South vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 117.
  2. Haug, S. (2021). “What or Where is the ‘Global South’: A Social Scientist Perspective”, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2021/09/28/what-or-where-is-the-global-south-a-social-science-perspective/.
  3. Murrell, D. (2018). Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, p. 4.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Murell, D. and Clark, T.J. (1984). The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, Revised Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 103, 93, 146.
  6. Schoeman, K. (1994). Irma Stern: The Early Years, 1894–1933. Cape Town: South African Library, p. 36.
  7. Ibid, pp. 51–52.
  8. Ibid, p. 52.
  9. Irma Stern Diaries. The female gaze is an important concept in understanding and interpreting Stern’s work. Griselda Pollock’s foundational text, Vision and Difference, signals the paradigm shift in thinking about how we view women artists and their work within the discipline. Her work has continued to influence other feminist art historians and the discipline in general. See Pollock, G. (1988). Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and the Histories of Art. London and New York, NY: Routledge.
  10. Schoeman, op. cit., p. 63.
  11. See Moeller. M. (ed.) (1996). Max Pechstein: sein malerisches Werk. Munich: Hirmer Verlag; and Fuldha B. and Soyka, A. (2012). Max Pechstein and the Rise of German Expressionism (Interdisciplinary German Cultural Studies). Berlin: DeGruyter.
  12. Jill Lloyd has written a comprehensive study of primitivism in German Expressionist art. See Lloyd, J. (1992). German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.
  13. “Miss Stern: Her Work as a Set Designer” (1923) in Cape Argus (10 March).
  14. Locke, A. ([1925] 1997). “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts”, in Locke, A. (ed.). The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York, NY: Touchstone, pp. 63–264.
  15. Richard Feldman Papers, 1914–1968, University of the Witwatersrand Library, Johannesburg, South Africa, A804.
  16. Feldman, R. (1926). “Irma Stern’s New Paintings”, in Zionist Record (18 June).
  17. Ibid. Even Feldman, however, was a product of racist times in which Blacks were routinely infantilised. In the same articles, he describes Stern’s “natives” in a patronising manner, describing a Black woman in a Stern painting as “Nature’s unspoilt child with a facial expression that is free of pose.”
  18. Ibid.
  19. Feldman, R. (1935). Schwartz un Vays. New York, NY: Central Yiddish Culture Organization.
  20. Ibid.
  21. https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18966/lot/503/.
  22. https://www.bonhams.com/auction/18966/lot/503/irma-stern-south-african-1894-1966-watussi-woman/.


How to cite this article:
LaNitra Berger (2024), "When Do Black Lives Matter?: Irma Stern’s Representations of Black Women in the Global South" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/when-do-black-lives-matter/. Accessed 24 April 2024.