A century ago, newspapers used scare quotes to highlight the fact that artist Irma Stern was a controversial perpetrator of “modernism” and “expressionism”.

They also frequently ran photographs of the genteel white folk who crowded her exhibitions. Men typically wore suits with neckties, and women ankle-length skirts and preposterous hats. At a recent Cape Town sale of Stern’s work, organised by auction house Strauss & Co, attendees rewrote the style rulebook. T-shirts, denim shorts and distressed jackets decorated with sequins are okay. But it is not just the dress code of Stern collectors that has changed. The critical tone and focused scope of new scholarship and exhibition-making around this enigmatic colourist has shifted the dial on Stern too.

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