Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South

November 14, 2022

Articles, Mandie's Pick

An absolute must-see is the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation’s unique exhibition which features the work of these three groundbreaking Modernist women artists with a focus on their lives and practices, all of whom had careers that overlapped for a period of eleven years. The exhibition aims to reposition their contribution to the rewriting of art history through their artistic production.

What makes this exhibition all the more captivating is that the viewer is led through an intricately designed biographical narrative that tells a full story of each artist’s life and work, culminating in a single painting by each artist and marking the first time work by Frida Kahlo and Amrita Sher-Gil will be presented in Africa. An extensive display of photographs, clothing, journals and other objects that further contextualize the art, the artist and their practice provides insight into the artists’ backgrounds and styles.

Fritz Henle, Frida in her studio (1943)
Fritz Henle, Frida in her studio (1943). Courtesy Fritz Henle Estate

One of the most iconic artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo was a self-taught Mexican painter born to an immigrant German father and an Indigenous-Spanish mother. Kahlo is best known for her highly symbolic and genre-defying self-portraits, with her characteristic unibrow and moustache as part of her personal and artistic style. At the age of 22 she married the famous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, 20 years her senior – theirs was a tumultuous relationship.

Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita at her easel
Singh Sher-Gil, Amrita at her easel. Simla, India, (1937). Courtesy The Estate of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil and PHOTOINK

Born to an aristocratic Sikh Indian father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother, Amrita Sher-Gil is not only credited with introducing modernism to India, but with elevating the daily lives of Indian women through her emotive paintings of female friends and family, and self-portraits. Lastly, painter, sculptor and ceramicist Irma Stern was born to immigrant German-Jewish parents in Schweizer-Reneke, SA at the turn of the century and trained at an art school in Germany, at a pivotal point in both countries’ histories. Her colourful style and diverse subjects were inspired by her wide travels and she rebelled against the more conservative customs of the South African art world at the time, yet in spite of this, she would eventually become one of the country’s most celebrated artists.

Each of the artists was not only at the forefront of depicting powerful interpretations of women’s lives, but equally, a master of their artistic craft. The exhibition demonstrates how each of these singular women is tied together across generations and continents by overlapping commonalities.  

This is the third and final exhibition that concludes JCAF’s first research theme Female Identities in the Global South. The first two exhibitions also showcased influential international women artists and explored themes of identity, the body, personal expression and resistance.

The exhibition runs till February 2023 – admission is free but booking is essential.

Main Photo Credits: Irma Stern in her studio (1936). Courtesy National Library of South Africa, Cape Town