Marlene Dumas

Kaapstad South-Africa 1953, lives and works in Amsterdam

The work of Marlene Dumas is often about the tension between looking and being looked at – and, in fact, about the problem of interpretation. She makes frequent use of existing depictions, from pornographic pictures and police photographs to art reproductions, which she collects for her own personal archive of visual material. This material reflects the social codes that determine how we look at things: Dumas enjoys undermining these codes and revealing their inconsistencies. Her uneasiness with the ideal of reducing the artwork to its essence can be explained from this point of view. To her, there is no single essence, no single truth.

There are plenty of seeming truths, and these are repeatedly brought up by Dumas – in The First People from 1990, for instance, which consists of four man-sized portraits of babies. ‘Certainly no Pampers babies,’ says Dumas. In comments on the work, there is a predominant opinion that the children are unbelievably ugly; the vulnerable and greatly enlarged rendering of their bodies is shocking to many people. Responses seem to have been unconsciously influenced by the advertising cliché of the happy baby which has become the norm.

These paintings of Dumas are fairly realistic, precisely by way of several non-realistic measures, such as the use of scale enlargement and the technique by which she allows details to flow together or be accentuated. ‘Motherhood is a shock,’ says Dumas, ‘because you haven’t realized how the babies actually look.’ Perhaps her ‘first people’ express some aspect of that confrontation.

In Black Drawings from 1991-1992, 111 drawings have been grouped as a block into a single work. The drawings, done in India ink, are the faces of all very different black people: men and women, old and young, all with their own distinct features and their own emotional aura. For each of these faces Dumas must have drawn on her archive of images and situations. In its entirety, however, the work is also a reaction to photographs from ethnographic books, which were meant to show not the individual but the ‘type’.

Black Drawings undoubtedly stems from Dumas’ youth in South Africa and attests to an aversion and resistance to the uniform, clichéd image of ‘the black’. The piece of slate that has been attached at the lower left of the work could stand for this clichéd image: a thing that is only black, without any individual characteristics. Another striking element is the drawing at the upper right, possibly a self-portrait of the artist. Here we see a young and evidently white girl, her hair combed into two smooth ponytails. She is holding her hand in front of her face in a gesture of defense or shame. Dumas does not have the illusion that one can resolve wrongs with art, but it is typical of her to let her voice be heard. To bring up what isn’t right and to find out why it isn’t right: that is Dumas’ intention.