Pretty ugly

Georgina Gratrix’s new exhibition converses with Irma Stern’s artworks at the iconic painter’s former home.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does the same apply to ugliness? “You can’t have one without the other,” says Mexican-born South African-raised artist Georgina Gratrix, whose exhibition “The Cult of Ugliness” is currently on at the UCT Irma Stern Museum.

Gratrix was the second artist-in-residence in 2022 as part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations. “The Cult of Ugliness”, which includes paintings and sculptures created during her residency as well as previously unexhibited paintings from her own collection, examines her relationship with Stern as an artist and the accusations of ugliness levelled at Stern’s paintings. 

The so-called cult of ugliness has a long history, with philosophers and writers using the phrase when comparing ugliness with beauty in an effort to distinguish between the two. Most recently, Italian cultural critic Umberto Eco used it in his 2011 book On Ugliness, in which he asks why it is that through the centuries there have been so many theories on beauty but none on what we call ugly. Gratrix has herself faced criticism of “ugliness” in her artwork, due to her boundary-pushing exploration of desirability and the grotesque.

When it came to Irma Stern, in a review titled “Art of Miss Irma Stern – Ugliness as a Cult”, one critic referred to her work as a “freak picture exhibition”. A hundred years later, Gratrix takes this sentiment as her point of departure to examine the ways in which Modernism, and in particular German Expressionism, have made an impact on her own work and how this historical influence continues to shape contemporary art today. 

A dedicated colourist known for testing the limits of oil painting, Gratrix works within traditional art modes, such as portraiture and still life, and has developed a unique style that is uncompromising in its commitment to the medium. In a sense, many aspects of Stern’s work – composition, colouration and subject matter – are reflected in Gratrix’s pieces. In this way, Gratrix makes both direct and indirect references to Stern. 

Born in Mexico in 1982 – almost a century after Irma Stern – Gratrix grew up in Durban. In 2005 she graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. In 2018, she was awarded the Discovery Prize at the 50th anniversary edition of Art Brussels for her presentation with SMAC Gallery. In the same year she received the Ampersand Fellowship Award and completed a residency at the Ampersand Foundation in New York City.

Gratrix has presented her work across the globe, including at the Armory Art Fair in New York, Dirimart in Istanbul, Bloom Galerie in Geneva, Galerie Kiche in Seoul, and the Norval Foundation in Cape Town. 

For more information about the exhibition and dates for walkabouts and events, visit the UCT Irma Stern Museum website at



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Athi and Irma. 

A golden milestone. 

Photographer looks at history through a feminist lens.

Credits: Georgina Gratrix