For some the year 1972 was a pretty run-of the-mill kind of year. But not for the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was the year it first acquired The Firs cottage – a “national treasure” and the home of South Africa’s grand dame of art, Irma Stern.
Today, half a century later, the UCT Irma Stern Museum is one of the university’s lesser known, yet unique treasures. And in celebration of its 50th anniversary on Thursday, 3 February, friends of the museum and other distinguished guests gathered to celebrate and mark the momentous occasion.
In attendance were members of UCT’s Leadership Lekgotla, including Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation Emeritus Professor Martin Hall, as well as human rights activist and member of UCT’s Council Associate Professor Dianna Yach. The evening line-up included musical performances and finger food based on a meal Stern prepared for guests during a dinner party in 1962.
“We as a university proudly share the responsibility of this unique museum with the trustees of the Irma Stern estate, and to be able to stand here on its 50th anniversary really speaks to the success of this joint commitment to preserve this unique experience for generations to come,” Professor Phakeng said.
Moving through time
The Edwardian-type two storey house where Stern once lived is simply extraordinary: lush lawns, tall trees and striking fauna and flora as far as the eye can see. Some of her rooms have been impeccably preserved – just as she left them. Most notably her studio, where her easel remains propped up, her paint brushes, rags and oils remain untouched.
Addressing the audience, Phakeng said that even though Cape Town’s conservative community once dismissed Stern because they misunderstood her work, she was bold, broke boundaries and achieved national and international acclaim for her work. The artist held 100 solo exhibitions in her lifetime in South Africa and Europe and became an icon of South African art.
“When you talk to people who have met Irma Stern, they all have different things to say – how she looked and [they talk about] her bold personality.”
“When you talk to people who have met Irma Stern, they all have different things to say – how she looked and [they talk about] her bold personality. Of course, there’s also [that] critical voice [that speaks of] the kind of art she did and how she represented some people. Whatever it is, that’s what happens to a bold woman – everyone has something to say, good or bad,” she said.
Associate Professor Yach who also serves as the Chair of the Irma Stern Museum Committee said she was delighted to share the meaningful occasion with so many friends of the museum, and to reconnect for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She told guests that while the pandemic negatively impacted the globe, it forced the museum team to think creatively and to find new ways of celebrating the work, life and collections of Irma Stern.
The goal of the museum committee, she explained, is to ensure that the once “amazing unrecognised jewel on UCT’s crown” continues to shine “ever brightly”. One way of doing this is to create welcoming spaces, which engage with existing and past Irma Stern Museum audiences. But their main objective, she added, is also to attract new and diverse audiences, including the youth.
“We want people to come here and not see the museum as a dead space, but as a living, breathing environment where we have critical conversations about issues [that] matter, including coloniality, decoloniality, transformation, anti-racism, homophobia and gender issues,” she said.
“Even though we cherish aspects of the museum and its life that have gone before, [our focus now] is about breathing life into Irma’s legacy by encouraging regular participation and understanding the [role of the] museum in its broader social context.”
To mark the museum’s 50th anniversary, the team have been working on an impressive programme, which visitors can enjoy throughout the year. This includes an exhibition by internationally recognised contemporary artist Athi-Patra Ruga, which will run from 19 March to 18 June 2022.
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