Although billed as ‘a multimedia theatre play about the life and work of Irma Stern’, Studio Bartels’ production, Irma, might be more accurately described as a gripping dramatization of the processes of research and collaboration.
Irma was co-created by Eva Bartels, a visual artist and theatre-maker from the Netherlands, and Iman Isaacs, a South African director, actor, and theatre-maker with Cape Malay roots. Both Bartels and Isaacs were involved in writing Irma, which was directed by Isaacs and performed live by Bartels. The play developed out of the conversation between these two female artists about a third, the South African painter, Irma Stern (1894-1966), and expanded into a dialogue which courageously tackled the intersection of decolonial and feminist art history, themes of extraction versus exchange, and the ethics of image making. Invited into this conversation as part of the Fringe audience in the One Church Brighton basement, I left feeling energised and inspired by this brave and thoughtful piece of theatre.
Like most conversations with strangers, the play began with introductions. Bartels introduced herself and then, via a photograph on the wall, Isaacs, her collaborator. More than a mere formality, getting a sense of the background of each of the women who researched and created Irma helped us understand their differing perspectives as the play unfolded. Bartels talked about how Amsterdam, the city where she is based, is currently undergoing a process of reckoning with its colonial history, involving cultural institutions such as the Rijksmuseum. She talked about her Jewish heritage and that she is making a series of 10 plays, each about a different female artist. This information gave some context to Bartels’ interest in Irma Stern. Stern was a white South African artist from a German-Jewish background. She achieved international recognition for her art in the 1930s and 40s, during the same period that Jews were being persecuted under the Nazi regime in Europe, and black South Africans were suffering persecution before the introduction of Apartheid law in South Africa in 1948.
On the other hand, we learn that Isaacs, whom Bartels met during a trip to South Africa to research Stern, had more reservations about focusing on Stern as subject matter for a project. As one of South Africa’s best-known artists, Stern, who studied in Weimar Germany and has links to the Expressionist movement, has received a lot of attention from European art historians and artists. Stern has often been celebrated by these art historians and artists, without them looking critically at how she operated within a highly racialized society and how this was expressed in her work. The opportunity to investigate Stern critically through this collaborative piece of theatre is clearly what drove Isaacs to get involved. Although not physically on stage, Isaacs’ voice is made present throughout through her contribution to direction and the script. Furthermore, she frequently appears on-screen in re-enacted video calls between her and Bartels, punctuating the play with the duo’s discussions and debates (and amusingly heralded by the theme tune to the sitcom FRIENDS – Bartels’ choice of ringtone).
A key question explored by Bartels and Isaacs is whether Stern’s portraits are the result of extraction (an exploitative interaction in which the artist takes from the sitter) or exchange (a more equitable interaction in which both artist and sitter are engaged in a process of giving and receiving)? Stern was complicit in racist attitudes towards black South Africans, as is made clear by the passages of her diary Bartels reads out. Like other so-called ‘primitivist’ artists such as Gauguin, Stern seems to have idealised qualities of naivety, closeness to nature, and an anachronistic separation from modernity, which she attributed to her black sitters. The Irma audience is encouraged to examine copies of portraits by Stern which are stuck to the wall or blown up as projections. These portraits emphasise different examples of traditional dress and portray sitters with solemn, unreadable facial expressions, and eyes that gaze at something unseen, beyond the frame. The sitters are rendered mysterious in a way that would have appealed to the white South African or European buyers of Stern’s work, who wanted something beautiful and ‘exotic’ for their walls. The artist does not seem to have paid much attention to distinguishing the character of individual sitters. Some would argue their individuality had been erased in these idealised portraits. Unlike many of Stern’s white sitters, her black sitters’ names are not recorded and their portraits instead have titles identifying them by their ethnic or cultural group, such as Watussi Woman or Two Arabs. For Isaacs, who has Cape Malay roots, this erasure of identity is personal. In one of the play’s most poignant moments, a projection of Stern’s painting Malay Bride is brought to life with moving eyes superimposed onto it. Isaacs wonders who this unnamed woman was. Could she have been a relative? What traces of her survive in this portrait? Flicking restlessly from side to side, the eyes are an evocative visualisation of the necessity and futility of the attempt to recover Malay Bride’s identity and to understand the world from her point of view. In light of this erasure of individuals, Bartels and Stern seem to firmly conclude that Stern’s portraiture should be viewed as the result of extraction.
So, should we cancel Irma Stern? Irma is a show which searches for more complex answers than contemporary internet culture often wants to offer us. It is refreshingly unafraid to show its creators to be mistake-prone and human. Instead of editing out a moment where, through a slip-of-the-tongue, Bartels described the subjects of Stern’s paintings as ‘exotic’, it was retained as a springboard for Bartels to share her self-reflection on her own unconscious biases with the audience. Performing as herself, Bartels’ style of delivery was informal, relatable, and direct. She held eye-contact with individuals in the audience and put us at ease with humour. Although Bartels mostly performed as herself, at times she morphed into different characters, trying out different perspectives. At one point she was a hilariously befuddled guide to the Rijksmuseum; at another, she played Irma Stern herself. Bartels did not hide the emotional struggle of immersing oneself in research and collaboration. At the emotional climax of the play, there was a movement sequence where Bartels hid in a black sack. She had hit a dead-end where it seemed that all portraiture was to be viewed as extraction and she was doomed only to make abstract paintings – or even worse paintings of flowers! Manipulating the black sack from within, she transformed into a monster-like creature, as her multiple internal voices battled it out over the way forward.
Irma’s set design reflected the show’s sense of radical honesty. Three walls carved out the stage. Each was completely covered with notes, pages of script from different stages of the writing process, drawings, and photographs. It was like one giant brainstorm, which we were invited to come right up to and scrutinise in detail at the end of the show. As for cancelling Irma Stern, Bartels and Isaacs bring in the view of art historian (and Stern expert) LaNitra M. Berger. Berger points out that, as a successful female artist who had a significant impact on art being made in her country, Stern only just makes it into the art historical canon and is not well known outside South Africa. Rather than airbrushing Stern from history, this show makes a strong case for continuing to re-evaluate and build our knowledge of such historical figures.
Having emerged from that black sack, by the end of the play Bartels appears to have become energised by the research process, which has led her to reassess her own methods for creating portraits of others. Isaacs and Bartels have landed on a new question: how can portraits be made in a more ethical way – through a process of exchange rather than extraction? Bartels’ suggestion of an extended conversation with the sitter, explored onstage and in the workshop which accompanied this event, is just one possibility. Irma is a show that leaves an opening for the audience to take up its mantle and develop further alternatives for art practice based on exchange. Irma is an invitation to creativity and self-reflection, from its creators to its audience. This inspiring production aligns with ONCA’s work to support art for social change, and to support efforts to decolonise arts and culture. It is a deserving winner of the Green Curtain Award 2023. I am excited to see what Bartels and Isaacs will do next.