Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South presents the works of three pioneering women artists, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) and Irma Stern (1894–1966), together in South Africa and in Africa for the first time. The exhibition examines the constructions of ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘indigenous’ identities through portraiture and self-portraiture. It also considers the time and place in which each artist produced their work, and gives some insights into their experiences, inspiration and concerns. The viewer is invited to consider and engage with one iconic artwork by each artist.
Download the catalogue here. Explore the exhibition below.
Each artist practised from a different context in the Global South: Kahlo in Mexico, Sher-Gil in India and Stern in South Africa and the Congo. Although all three artists travelled extensively, these places had the profoundest impact on their work and their sense of themselves in the world. This section of the exhibition introduces aspects of the socio-political backdrop against which these pioneers of modernity in the Global South produced their most important work.
This section introduces documentary material comprised of photographs, films, diaries and objects that situate each artist’s practice within specific personal and socio-cultural contexts. Moreover, the content reveals a transformative narrative for each of the artists, from childhood into adulthood and from early European influences to an embodied, local, indigenous identity formation.
Frida Kahlo’s own identity was the central motif around which her artistic expression was manifest. In this exhibition, the focus is not on Kahlo’s surrealist paintings but on the ways she constructed her identity within the broader context of a new post-revolutionary Mexico. Central to Kahlo’s thinking was ‘Mexicanidad’ (‘Mexican-ness’), a new Mexican identity founded on indigenous culture and heritage.
The photographs of Amrita Sher-Gil in the exhibition take the visitors through Sher-Gil’s experiences in Europe and her decision to return to India in 1934. These images are a testament to the role of personal agency in the construction of a modern subject. In India, Sher-Gil painted her relatives but also depicted the poor, women and everyday life subjects.
Irma Stern’s work was informed by her personal history and experience of travelling throughout Africa and Europe. As a result of her father’s imprisonment during the Anglo-Boer War, the Stern family moved to Germany. During World War I, Stern was an active member of the Novembergruppe in Berlin, but the rise of antisemitism in Europe precipitated her return to South Africa. In colonial Cape Town, however, being Jewish and a woman meant that she was also something of an outsider in the art circles of her home city.
The exhibition design references the cultural and architectural heritage of each of the artists. For Kahlo, the Pre-Columbian architecture of Mexico; for Sher-Gil, Sikh and Mughal architecture in India; and for Stern, Watusi Congo vernacular architecture. A form is abstracted from the architecture to produce a motif that contextually represents the artist.
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940). Oil on canvas pasted on board. Collection of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Nickolas Muray Collection of Modern Mexican Art. © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust
The subject of many of Kahlo’s paintings was herself (“I paint myself, because I am what I know best.”) She painted fifty-five self-portraits that embody, on the one hand, an external Mexican identity imbued with Pre-Columbian cultural references and symbols, and, on the other hand, an inner subjective realm arising from several traumatic experiences.
Kahlo painted Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace (1940) after her divorce from Rivera and at the end of her affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. The work reflects the influence of her mestizo heritage, and the Catholic symbol of the thorns is combined with Kahlo’s indigenismo politics, which is suggested by the ‘natural’ elements of flowers, leaves, cat and monkey. Here, Kahlo’s complex identity is foregrounded, and shown to be a hybrid repository; of the modern and natural worlds, and of the religious and the secular.
Amrita Sher-Gil, Three Girls (1935). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.
Three Girls (1935) is the first painting Sher-Gil did upon her return to India in 1934. She was on holiday when she met her nieces at her grandparents’ home in Amritsar, and she painted the three sisters, Beant, Narwair and Gurbhajan Kaur with repeated sittings over a period of two to three weeks. The work depicts three young women contained in a pose that suggests a contemplative melancholy.
Irma Stern, Watussi Woman in Red (1946). Oil on canvas. Courtesy private collection, South Africa
Watussi Woman in Red (1946) was painted around the time of Stern’s second trip to the Congo in 1946. It is a portrait of a young woman dressed in red, set against a lush yellow background. The portrait is not a commission or a simple facsimile of her subject, but rather a robust interpretation in which the artist constructs a self-image that, according to Arnold, is ”infiltrated by her personal and social history and experience”. The young woman depicted in the painting is Princess Emma Bakayishonga, sister of King Mutara III Rudahigwa (1912–1959).
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) was born on 6 July in Mexico City. She claimed 1910 as her birth date, as this year was the start of the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo attended the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1922. In 1929 she married Diego Rivera. Kahlo was a self-taught artist and held her first solo exhibition in New York in 1938. The following year she held a solo exhibition in Paris. Her first solo exhibition in Mexico was in 1953.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) was born on 30 January in Budapest, Hungary. She undertook formal art studies at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1930 to 1934. She won a gold medal at the Grand Salon in Paris and was elected an Associate in 1933. Sher-Gil returned to India where she participated in an exhibition at the Simla Fine Arts Society and was awarded a prize for one of five paintings on the exhibition. She travelled to South India in 1937. She was awarded a prize for a painting exhibited in Delhi and held a solo exhibition in Lahore in 1937.
Irma Stern (1894–1966) was born on 2 October in Schweizer-Reneke, South Africa. She studied art in Weimar, Germany in 1912, and in Berlin from 1918 to 1920. She held her first exhibition at the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin in 1919. She returned to Cape Town in 1920 and had her first South African solo exhibition in 1922. Stern travelled and exhibited regularly, both in South Africa and internationally. She was awarded the Prix d’Honneur at the Bordeaux International Exhibition in 1927. She travelled to Zanzibar in 1939 and the Congo in 1942. She exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and won the Regional Award at the Peggy Guggenheim International Art Prize in 1960.
Liminal Identities in the Global South forms part of JCAF’s first research theme: Female Identities in the Global South. The second of three exhibitions in this theme explores hybridity and resistance in the artistic practices of seminal women artists from Latin America, alongside artists from the MENA region, the African diaspora and South Africa. The exhibition considers heterogeneous forms of expression across art, architecture and music, from the 1960s to the present.
Liminal Identities in the Global South explores hybridity and resistance in the artistic practices of seminal women artists from Latin America, alongside artists from the MENA region, the African diaspora and South Africa. The exhibition considers heterogeneous forms of expression across art, architecture and music, from the 1960s to the present.
Given the impact of Covid-19, the pandemic body is a second curatorial thread running through the exhibition. The pandemic has placed many of us in a state of limbo or liminality, so that we are caught between a pre-Covid-19 world and one in which we imagine a better future.
The exhibition is divided into five areas: Prelude, Requiem, Movements I, II and III, each consisting of a particular colour based on the coronavirus alert levels. Moreover, each area is conceptualised according to a musical tempo, either moderate, fast or slow, denoting a time-based experience of the exhibition.
The exhibition begins with a Prelude, an archive that includes the concept of anthropophagia (cultural ‘cannibalism’ or assimilation) developed by Oswald de Andrade in his Manifesto Antropófago (1928), and embodied in the painting Abaporu (1928) by the painter Tarsila do Amaral. In the 1970s, architect Lina Bo Bardi developed a quintessential Brazilian architectural language derived from indigenous vernacular expression. These concepts resonate with contemporary South African society, which is engaged in asserting itself against Western postcolonial cultural domination through various decolonising movements.
Covid-19 has placed many of us in a state of limbo, so that we are caught between a pre-Covid world and one in which we imagine a better future. The pandemic can be understood as an ‘event’ – a rupture in the normal run of things. As such, it changes our perception of the world around us. Within this liminal state, the exhibition reflects on previous pandemics such as the Black Death (bubonic plague, 1346–1353) and the Spanish Flu (influenza, 1918–1920).
The pandemic body is a second curatorial thread running through the exhibition and is alluded to in the masks that appear in the works. The ubiquity of the mask in our time is at once ominous and comforting. Masks filter the air we breathe, helping to prevent infection and possibly death, since it is through breathing that we can be infected by the virus.
This section of the exhibition explores the precarious nature of life, suggested by images of the female body in the landscape, rituals performed by women, and bouquets of flowers that decay over time. The passage of time, which encompasses death, ritual and trace, points in turn to liminality.
During afflictions and disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic we discover our ‘radical vulnerability’ and the need for grace. In this section eternity is represented by the colour gold and by luminescence and reflection.
Jane Alexander (1959–) was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She obtained an MAFA from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1988. Select exhibitions include: Venice Biennale (1995); ‘The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994’ (2001); ‘Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent’ (2004); Gwangju Biennale (2014).
Lina Bo Bardi (1914–92) was born in Rome, Italy. She obtained an architecture degree from the University of Rome in 1939 and shortly thereafter moved to Brazil, where she spent most of her life. Select exhibitions include: Venice Architecture Biennale (2009); ‘Lina Bo Bardi: Habitat’, MASP Museum, São Paulo (2019); ‘Lina Bo Bardi: Together’ organised by the British Council and the Lina Bo and P.M. Bardi Foundation, exhibited in London (2012), Chicago (2015) and São Paulo (2016); ‘Lina Bo Bardi Dibuja’ at Fundación Joan Miró, Barcelona (2019).
Lygia Clark (1920–88) was born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil. She studied with Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, and then with Isaac Dobrinsky, Fernand Léger and Árpád Szenes in Paris from 1950 to 1952. Select exhibitions include: São Paulo Biennale (1959); Venice Biennale (1960); Documenta (1997); ‘Tropicália: a Revolution in Brazilian Culture’, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2005); ‘Lygia Clark: the Abandonment of Art 1948–1988’, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014).
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (1939–) was born in Omdurman, Sudan. She graduated from the College of Fine Arts Khartoum (1963) and the Royal College of Art, London (1966). Select exhibitions include: Whitechapel Art Gallery (1995); National Museum of Women in Art, Washington DC (1994); ‘Women in Crystal Cubes’, Sharjah Art Foundation Art Spaces (2016).
Kapwani Kiwanga (1978–) was born in Hamilton, Canada. She studied anthropology and comparative religion at McGill University. She was the winner of the Marcel Duchamp Prize (2020) and the inaugural winner of the Frieze Artist Award (2018). She has been on group exhibitions at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, as well as the Whitechapel and Serpentine Sackler galleries in London, and held a solo exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (2019).
Ana Mendieta (1948–85) was born in Havana, Cuba. When she was twelve she and her sister were sent to live in the USA as refugees. She obtained an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1977. Select exhibitions include: ‘Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective‘, New Museum, New York (1987); ‘Ana Mendieta: Earth, Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972–1985’, Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC (2004); ‘Ana Mendieta’, Art Institute of Chicago (2011); ‘Ana Mendieta: Covered in Time and History’, Jeu de Paume, Paris (2018).
Lygia Pape (1927–2004) was born in Nova Friburgo, Brazil. She was a founding member of Grupo Frente in 1954, then developed ideas that would combine with the defining principles of the Neo Concrete Manifesto, of which she was one of the signatories. Select exhibitions include: Venice Biennale (2003); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2004); ‘Lygia Pape: Magnetized Space’, Serpentine Galleries, London (2011); ‘Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2017).
Berni Searle (1964–) was born in Cape Town, South Africa. She received her MFA from the University of Cape Town (1995). Select exhibitions include: ‘Approach’, Krannert Museum, Champaign, Illinois, Johannesburg Art Gallery and USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, Florida (2006–7); Dak’Art (2012); Havana Biennale (2012); Venice Biennale (2001, 2005); Cairo Biennale (1998); Johannesburg Biennale (1997).
Sumayya Vally/Counterspace (2015–) is an interdisciplinary architectural studio led by Sumayya Vally. Through her design, research and pedagogical practice, Vally is committed to finding expression for hybrid identities and contested territories. Johannesburg serves as her laboratory for finding speculative histories, futures, archaeologies and design languages, and for revealing the invisible. Her work is often forensic, and draws on performance, the supernatural, the wayward and the overlooked as generative places of history and work. She is based between Johannesburg and London and is the lead designer for the Serpentine Pavilion 2020 plus 1.
Explore the virtual tour of the exhibition below.
This exhibition proposes a realm in which these subjects explore worlds of their own choosing, in which they might be mother, martyr, warrior or hybrid. The exhibition is divided into three areas or worlds. The first is configured around the Fall which evokes the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, a realm where the natural and human worlds meet.
The animal-human hybrid figures represent the second world of the exhibition. Hybridity refers to the mingling of species, races or cultures, a crossing of one thing with another. These figures are both abject and powerful, beautiful and repulsive. This uncomfortable ambivalence is meant to provoke a response in the viewer, who must consider the relationship between themselves and other, different subjectivities.
In the third world of the exhibition, the viewer is reminded that the body is real and embedded in race, religion and identity. They offer an intimate depiction of women, who are transformed by the aging process, or whose faces are concealed behind Farsi calligraphy or veils of Belgian lace.
The exhibition design presents three other-worldly or dream-like spaces, connected by metaphorical ‘bridges’ that nonetheless draw attention to the constructedness and tangibility of the exhibition environment. Lorraine O’Grady expresses this conceptual framework of identity bridges:
Because I was raised by West Indian parents in one of the most traditional areas of New England culture, Boston’s Back Bay, my childhood placed me at a distance from wherever I stood and required me to always build a bridge to some other place. One had to be several things at once … both Caribbean and New England, both African American and West Indian, both black and white … and to daily negotiate the differences ….
Bharti Kher is based in New Delhi. Her work explores cultural misinterpretations, social codification and hybridity. She has come to be known for the use of the bindi as a central motif in her work, which often explores the link between tradition and modernity and is deeply concerned with the role, experiences and conceptualisations of women in India.
Bharti Kher, Warrior with cloak and shield (2008). © Bharti Kher. Image courtesy the artist. Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli | View of Bharti Kher in her studio in New Delhi, a multi-storey space where Bharti produces her artworks, which also houses her collection of Indian artifacts and heritage that inspire her process. Photo by Bharti Kher Studio
Nandipha Mntambo lives and works in Johannesburg. Working in photography, sculpture, video and mixed media, she explores the interconnectedness of human and animal, feminine and masculine, and attraction and repulsion. Her work tests and challenges perceived antitheses, while also exploring female experiences in and of the body.
Nandipha Mntambo, What Remains (2019). © Nandipha Mntambo. Image courtesy Stevenson, Johannesburg and Cape Town | The artist giving a tour of her studio, image courtesy of the artist
Wangechi Mutu lives and works in Nairobi and New York. Her films, sculptures, collages, installations and paintings explore femininity, violence, consumerism and excess, and the intersection of nature and culture, frequently challenging depictions of women and the female body throughout history.
Wangechi Mutu, A Dragon Kiss Always Ends in Ashes (2007). © Wangechi Mutu. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels | Portrait of Wangechi Mutu, 2019. Photo by Cynthia Edorh
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian artist based in New York. She works in photography, film and video, on themes such as gender, identity and politics, examining the contrasts between Islam and the West, and the spaces in between.
Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy (1999), film still. © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels | The artist working in her studio, inscribing her photographic works with Farsi calligraphy texts by Iranian poets. Photo by David Regen
Berni Searle lives in Cape Town and works in the time-based media of photography, video and film. In her performative narratives, the self is a figure that embodies history, land-memory and place. Often politically and socially engaged, her work also draws on the universal emotions associated with vulnerability, loss and beauty.
Berni Searle, Lament IV (2011). © Berni Searle. Image courtesy the artist | The artist working in her studio. Photo by Chris De Beer Procter