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Our Beauty Through Irma Stern’s Eyes

 Our Beauty Through Irma Stern’s Eyes

Swazi Woman 1925 image source:


We just wish the works were narrations of self-reflection


The roads we travel never end because we see the paths people have been on in their expression. This is true for Irma Stern whose work explores her encounters during her days of travel.

A 58 x 58 cm oil on canvas painting allows us to see in the sitters’ eyes, the intersections where white womanhood and Black womanhood held hands. The painting is a narration of her 1941 trip to the Eastern Cape. Her 36,5 x 27 cm 1925 conté crayon on paper work is a portrayal of the beauty she found in her relationship with women who come from the soil of Swaziland. All of her portraits of Black women show the sitters as the focal point.


Congolese Beauty
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In addition, if her canvases had a voice of their own, we imagine that the subjects would tell us of their conversations with Stern. We say this because her work, in our eyes, only portrays her fascination with the beauty of African women.


Irma Stern was born in South Africa on the 2nd of October in the year 1894. She created artworks that were tools of her travel documentation. If she lived during our time, maybe she would have taken photographs instead to use as references for her visual diary. Perhaps, her process of painting and drawing would have been an accompanying narrative to the entire story of her encounters with Blackness and Black womanhood in Africa.

Swazi Woman
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Her portraiture of the women who wore meters and meters of wrapped fabric over their hair, depicts a style of German Expressionism. It is an array of works that could sit on the walls that North European expressionism sat on during exhibitions with the objective to turn the artistic narrations on their head. In addition, by portraying Black womanhood with the removal of the male gaze, she focused on the story of the sitter rather than the story of Black womanhood told by white male subjectivity.


We cannot, of course, ignore the white gaze upon her works. Even though, her work explored the beauty of Black women in Africa, Stern’s voice in the work is not the most authentic. Since she was a white woman, it still serves as perception rather than self-reflection. In other words, our beauty is seen through her eyes.

Young Xhosa Woman
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What Stern did is important, especially within a space of expression that violently oppressed Blackness and erased it. We just wish history allowed us to see more works that excluded the white gaze on portrayals of Black womanhood.

Additionally, we wish the art that was created told our stories through our eyes for us. Then we would know what our foremothers thought of their own beauty. We would see them in a light they saw themselves. This would cultivate a beauty within us that comes from them rather than from unlearning imposed harmfulness.

Tshedza Mashamba