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Iziko Museums of South Africa is pleased to present Irma Stern’s ‘Arab Priest’: Image and Context, opening to the public on Thursday, 2 May 2019, at the Iziko South African National Gallery.
Irma Stern’s ‘Arab Priest’: Image and Context marks the return of the Arab Priest artwork to South Africa which is on loan for a year. The artwork will first be seen at the Iziko South African National Gallery, and will then travel to the new Javett Art Centre as part of its inaugural exhibition of 100 iconic South African art works. The return of the painting is in terms of the agreement signed between the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) and the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), which now owns the painting.
The purchase of Irma Stern’s Arab Priest (1945) by the QMA for its planned Orientalist Museum in Doha is the first-ever acquisition of a work of art representing a Muslim subject by a major South African artist for a prestigious art museum in the Arab world. The projected new museum in Doha posits itself in its official mission statement as “the only institution of its kind… dedicated to Orientalism – an influential period in art history – based around Western artists’ first experiences and impressions of the ‘oriental’ East”. This positioning of Stern’s work in the context of Orientalism as a product of the colonial representation of Arab cultures is a concern of this contextual exhibition.
The Iziko SANG exhibition highlights and debates the assumed Orientalist subtexts that are evident in Stern’s work, as well as in works by her contemporaries in the dominant colonial culture of South Africa of the 1940s. To highlight this precise point, Stern’s Arab Priest is positioned on the exhibition as a pendant and contrast to James Eddie’s realist Portrait of Hadjee Izik Fatah (1945) – a painting of an Imam that is perfectly contemporary with Stern’s, and which was acquired for the Iziko SANG’s permanent collection that same year.
Stern was of course first exposed to Muslim culture in the Cape, and thereafter sought out related subjects when she visited Dakar in 1938, and Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945. She was of course, as this exhibition reveals, not the first South African to travel up the East Coast of Africa in pursuit of such subjects. In the days before apartheid in 1948 and South Africa’s subsequent isolation, artists like Freida Lock, Hugo Naudé, Terence McCaw, Nerine Desmond, Alexis Preller, Walter Battiss and J. H. Pierneef all travelled northwards by ship to work in Zanzibar and other East African locales.
The maritime connections between port cities such as Cape Town, Durban, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and onwards via Aden carried not only merchandise and tourists, but also Muslim pilgrims on their way to the Holy sites of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Palestine. This Indian Ocean sea route was also one taken by colonial South African artists; just as the European artists whom we now define as ‘Orientalist’ travelled to the Near East to paint the Islamic cultures that they represented with their assumed ‘objectivity’.
Irma Stern’s ‘Arab Priest’: Image and Context will run until 24 June 2019, and will then travel to the Javett Art Centre in Pretoria, South Africa for an exhibition in September 2019.
Issued by: Ellen Agnew
Communications Coordinator: Iziko Museums of South Africa
Telephone: 021 481 3830 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Issued on behalf of the Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa
About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)
Iziko operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium and Digital Dome, the Social History Centre and three collection‑specific libraries in Cape Town. The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage. Iziko is a public entity and public benefit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure. The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (*excluding the Castle of Good Hope, Groot Constantia and Planetarium and Digital Dome). Visit our webpage at www.iziko.org.za, join our online community on Facebook (www.facebook.com/IzikoMuseums), Instagram (@izikomuseumssa) or follow us on Twitter (@Iziko_Museums) for regular updates on events, news and new exhibitions.