Marlene Dumas at Iziko Soth African National Gallery
by Virginia MacKenny
In 1982 Marlene Dumas became the first South African artist to exhibit on Documenta, the world's premier contemporary art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany. In 2005 she commanded the highest price for a living female artist at auction with The Teacher (1987) fetching $3.34 million. Dumas' work does not, however, reproduce well. Anyone who received the pink and orange invitation, Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil is Banal) (1984), to her exhibition currently on at SANG in Cape Town without having seen her work before might have wondered what all the fuss is about. Seeing the cover to her exhibition catalogue might have reinforced the feeling. With reproduction we get the picture, but not the painting and, particularly in Dumas' work, it is the painting's surface that manifests the content.
Dumas grew up in Kuilsriver outside Cape Town, studied art at Michaelis, the University of Cape Town's School of Fine Art, and left South Africa in 1976, aged 23, for further study in Amsterdam. There she encountered painting in the real instead of through reproduction and there she explored further the topics that have remained a staple in her oeuvre - sex, politics, race and death. 'Intimate Relations' is Dumas' first solo exhibition in South Africa and, in a sense, is a homecoming for the artist. The exhibition is curated acknowledging her rootedness in South Africa and is structured in the manner of a retrospective. It shows a good cross-section of her production over the last 34 years from work from her student days to work finished this year.
Curator Emma Bedford (ex-Iziko curator now Goodman Cape director) has been fairly canny in her structuring of the exhibition and her placement of images. Opening with a couple of teasers inserted into the exhibition from the permanent collection that one walks through to get to the Dumas show, she primes her audience for what is to come. Miss Rosebud (1973), a work produced by Dumas in her student days, is an ironic inclusion in 'Romantic Childhood', flanked as she is by stereotypical images of children at play and a Julia Margaret Cameron photograph of a girl at prayer. Dumas' image of a blonde doll in a red bikini top with dislocated legs splayed open runs contrary to the surrounding display and is an iconoclastic gesture, busting apart the innocence of childhood. In the next room, under the heading 'Concealing and Revealing', Schaammeisje (1991) stands awkwardly in a short tunic, head bowed to our scrutiny.
Thus prepared, visitors enter a room displaying only images of females. Directly ahead is a pair of three-metre large, totemic, Magdalena images both painted in 1995: Manet's Queen and Newman's Zip. The references to Mary Magdalene, penitent sinner and Christ's erstwhile follower and possible lover, two male modernist painters and the depiction of two female figures both naked and yet hidden, one by darkness and one by hair, succinctly encapsulate a range of Dumas' ongoing concerns. She is an iconoclast with a love of images and tradition, she is a painter who degrades paint beyond its capacity and she is a woman fascinated by the representation of the female body.
Dumas' Ouma, the matriarch, takes pride of place on one wall. However, possibly the most telling, and disquieting, of the images in this room are three of the smallest: Give the People What They Want (1992), Liberty (1993) and Justice (1993). These images depict young girls where historically a woman is portrayed. Each holds the same somewhat awkward pose, frontally viewed with both arms bent outward as if in supplication or display. Disturbingly exposed, each girl is revealed naked to the public eye.
The girl in Give the People What they Want holds a cloth behind her, framing the lower part of her bare body. Justice is represented traditionally with a blindfold. A cloth once covering her, the remnants of which are still visible in ridges of paint, has been removed. Far from the purveyor of impartiality and unbiased fairness, this image seems instead to speak of an abusing gaze. This sensation is reinforced in its curiously odd partner Liberty. In a South African context, where statistics of the abuse of minors are the highest in the world, these images are deeply disturbing. That they were painted shortly before South Africa's first democratic election is telling. They personify a transgression against innocence to which Dumas, in her act of uncovering the small bodies, seems party.
Dumas appears cognisant of this. Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil is Banal) (1984) is a seminal image in an ongoing conversation in which the artist engages with the iniquities of the world and her own part in them. While it may not reproduce well on the invitation and posters, it is well chosen to situate the concerns of the exhibition. This self-portrait is an arresting piece of self-scrutiny. A powerful range of oranges frames the blue-eyed, pale face full of lyrical pinks and lilacs. Disrupting the ease of the image however, smudgy grays, blues and tainted yellows sully the lower section of the face. Most notably disjunctive in the image is the darkly stained hand that seems unconsciously carried. As a young Afrikaner growing up in apartheid South Africa, Dumas admits her complicity, albeit unknowing, with the regime. With hindsight she says she fears her 'own weakness and blindness' and finds herself 'the best example of evil'.
That the world is a violent one Dumas' work amply attests. Her sexual images, while rarely depicting actual copulation, are more often than not brutal in the aggressiveness of their display. Death is ever present. While this exhibition does not have any of Dumas' well-known mortuary images, it is laden with images of mortality. There are male and female Ophelias. There are images of the victims of war. Bodies are rendered post-coital, horizontal, on the slab. Even in birth death seems present. In her depictions of contemporary deaths recorded in the media, Dumas acknowledges acting with a level of hindsight. Despite having lived for over 30 years in Amsterdam, in the film accompanying the exhibition she states, 'South Africa is my context' and ends her catalogue with a short afterword: 'I want to say I think I paint the dead now because I couldn't paint them then'.
While time may not have changed her context it has affected, albeit subtly, her painting. The nuanced and complicated Het Kwaad is Banaal seems rich in colour and surface density in comparison with more recent images. Almost monochromatic in comparison, Dumas' palette now seems to have become more and more limited, her paint quantities more and more reduced. The Blindfolded Man (2007) is a case in point. A virtuoso painting, it is a lesson in brevity. The blindfold has virtually no paint on its surface. It is reliant instead, on the white of the canvas to provide its 'colour'. The forehead of the man is a softly bruised expanse of paint thinned beyond its capacity to hold the granules of pigment that dissipate in a veil across its surface.
Reaching the edge of the head, the colour residue pools and darkens in such a manner that it seems to crumple the temple of the skull. The speckles stain and fleck the ruined face with its smashed nose of scrambled blue-black marks. The spoiled form has a scrawl of a mouth slewed in pulpy damage. Discoloured and distorted, this head of a tortured man is anonymous but deeply felt. Its source is a man in Palestine, but it could as easily summon to mind the recent newspaper images of Abu Ghraib or belong to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Eloquent in its muteness, this painting speaks of Dumas' concern with damage done.
Such moments of absolute mastery, where the speed of execution in the construction of the image shows an ability to create, with extreme brevity, a concentrated image of great subtlety and power are evident throughout the exhibition. However, it must also be noted that there are works on the exhibition that do not hold as strongly. The Dumas show is uneven. Perhaps this is because in an exhibition almost exclusively devoted to the body, sexuality, violence and mortality, Dumas takes an unusual route.
While she chooses to paint in oils - a medium extolled for its jewel-like colours and rich surface, she actively works against these qualities dulling down both the colour and the viscerality of the paint. Technically some of her paintings are so swamped in turpentine and so leached of oil that they are in danger of dropping off the canvas. This evisceration of the medium for expressive ends is sometimes successful and sometimes not. While some paintings, such as the aforementioned Blindfolded Man, are brilliant in their extreme leanness, some, such as Male Ophelia (2006) while interesting in concept, simply remain dull and somewhat crude in both execution and drawing.
A useful comparison might be seen in two images that sit side by side in the large central gallery - a portrait of Naomi Campbell, Naomi (1995), and a more recent one of friend, local artist Moshekwa Langa, Moshekwa (2006). Ironically the Campbell portrait looks better in reproduction than in real life - its arid flatness of surface is reformed into a smooth and somewhat glamorous image in print although the colour in the catalogue image is badly lost. Face-to-face, however, the ultramarine down Campbell's face is sludgy and blunt and the surface simply lacklustre rather than expressive.
The image of Moshekwa Langa, on the other hand, while employing almost the same tonal range and colour palette, is represented with immediacy and verve. Astonishingly, given the directness of the painting, Langa is eminently recognisable, and the paint remains, despite its thin dryness, alive. The dark purple ultramarine swept across his forehead is a painterly tour de force that captures the colour on his skin, the structure of his skull and opens up his forehead into an infinity.
Dumas' relation to painting is a complex one. The Image as Burden (1993) reflects both the seriousness and weight of the task as well as a certain tenderness towards it. Once again brevity of means is the chosen method of approach. The body of the woman being carried is virtually devoid of paint, except for a mask-like blue face, leaving it as an open repository of meaning and engagement for the viewer. Dumas' own thoughts are often conveyed both in pictorial and written form in the exhibition and the catalogue as fragments, glimpses of feeling, smidgens of thoughts. Her verbal reflections provide another layer, short and pithy, to our sense of her practice. Her relationship to the poetic is reiterated in her constant references to poets, mainly female, such as Antjie Kroeg, Ingrid Jonker, Emily Dickinson and Elisabeth Eybers. Like added strokes the artist presents her process in a constant seeking that can't define or secure certitude. Throughout, the figure is central, both in her concerns and in the painting format. Often in an undefined background it is lost in the void, but also found in the void. The singularity of many of Dumas' images allows us a focus unusual in an accelerated world.
'Intimate Relations' gives us access to the personal life of the artist, her family and friends and her background. A central section to the catalogue is entitled 'Love letters'. Revelatory without being sensationalist, it, like the exhibition, makes us privy to the diverse influences and passions that inform Dumas' life and work. This exhibition provides a rich and fascinating insight into one of the more demanding painters in contemporary art.
Virginia MacKenny is a painter and currently lectures at UCT's Michaelis School of Fine Art. She was formerly ArtThrob's KZN Editor
Opens: November 8
Closes: January 13
Iziko South African National Gallery
Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
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