Few people get to work in an office alongside a painting that could be worth R16-million. This could be due to the fact that there are only a few paintings in this country worth this amount and perhaps few people would be able to get any work done in the company of such national treasures.
For almost the last four months Alex Richards, the head of paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, and his colleagues at Cape Town’s Strauss & Co offices in Newlands have been working under the watchful gaze of Irma Stern’s titular Young Arab. She encountered her subject during a trip to the Congo in the early forties. Stern made portraits of a range of subjects, but it is those termed as “Arab” that are the most sought after. Her artwork dubbed Two Arabs sold for R21,1-million at an auction held by Strauss&Co in 2011. Stern’s depictions of Muslim Africans were primarily captured during visits to Zanzibar in 1939 and 1945, according to art historian Michael Godby. This makes this Stern painting rare.
Due to its Congolese influence, Young Arab would have been included in an exhibition in Elizabethville at the end of her stay in the Congo; and, again, at her so-called ‘Congo Exhibition’ at the Gainsborough Gallery, Johannesburg, in December 1942. Presently, it takes pride of place at the centre of a large open office at Strauss & Co, where other lots are located that will go under the hammer for the upcoming auction in Cape Town on Monday March 6.