Strauss & Co, Africa’s leading art auction house, is honoured to offer an important oil painting by the pioneering modernist Irma Stern (1894-1966) recording devotion to Islam on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar. Children Reading the Koran (estimate R10 000 000 – 11 000 000/ US$551 350 – 606 485) was painted in 1939 by Irma Stern, a celebrated South African-born painter trained in Germany, following her first professional visit to the Sultanate of Zanzibar. This tranquil painting shows three, devout young children learning scriptures from the Qur’an.
Starting in 1930, Stern, a close confidante of German expressionist painter Max Pechstein, committed herself to recording aspects of Islamic ritual and faith across Africa. Her first works were made in Cape Town, but Stern expanded her visual research through committed travels to paint in Senegal, Tunisia and Zanzibar. Children Reading the Koran dates from the artist’s first visit to Zanzibar and records an encounter witnessed at a madrasa. These Islamic religious schools had been an important part of the island’s social and cultural life since the 1830s.
Stern made two professional trips to Zanzibar, first in 1939 and again in 1945. The artist’s experiences are detailed in a highly collectable artist’s book, Zanzibar, published in 1948. Paintings from Stern’s two Zanzibar visits are widely recognised as among her most vital and important works. Key examples are held in important public and private collections, notably the Iziko South African National Gallery, Rupert Family Collection and Orientalist Museum in Doha. In 2011, the Qatar Museum Authority acquired Stern’s Arab Priest, a 1945 portrait of a Zanzibari imam, for the Orientalist Museum in Doha.
This work, presented in its original wooden Zanzibari frame, has been held in private collections since it was first acquired in 1939 at an exhibition in Cape Town.
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