marlene dumas

The South African/Dutch artist was here, yesterday, at Wits, speaking to a large audience of students and academics and artists. She is large is many ways. Large yellow hair, large smile, wide bright pink cheeks and large eyes, and she’s physically attractively large too. A failed sound system didn’t make hearing her easy – particularly if you have my ears, which seem to be forever troubled since years of blasting them with drum’n’bass through tiny earphones day in, day out – and so I struggled to hear everything she said. And she struggled to speak. Clearly painting is easier than talking for Dumas, and maybe it’s a mistake to get any artist to talk about their work. The work is there, that’s enough. I’m having déjà’vu here… isn’t there something on this on Uncle Zip’s blog, or Tim Etchell’s blog, no doubt articulated far more articulately than here? Nevertheless, I wanted to hear her speak. I went to Intimate Relations when it was on at Cape Town, before Christmas, and I found her paintings so haunting, I could barely stand to stay in the gallery. I rushed through, ran away, and left J gazing alone. To me, they were clearly linked to war, to power and to death and I struggled to find the courage to confront myself in her work, as it clearly demanded. So hearing her speak, with all her humour, made me reconsider her work, & this weekend I will return to her paintings, and visit the exhibition now that is has moved to Johannesburg.

I ‘m not making this interesting am I. Sorry. But there was something about her talk yesterday that struck a chord, that I understood, I felt, profoundly. I think it was when she spoke of this particular painting.

Take a good look.

In fact, it was inspired by a photograph of adolescent boys engaging in a ritual which, I believe, would lead to their circumcision. Dumas says that often, in Europe, people assume the painting is of the Holocaust. ‘I like to take my work out of its context,’ she said, and I think she added that she likes to take away specific cultural interest. And it was this that really got me. I am currently very interested in pursuing, in my writing about certain people I have met in southern Africa, an oblique approach, an indirect (re)presentation, an approach which does not allow familiar images to be conjured in the imagination. This is I think important for me writing as a European (a white European, though I’m not convinced the colour is ultimately important whatever I’m told) about Africa. So much rubbish has been written by ‘us’ about ‘them’, that new approaches must be found. I don’t think the answer is simply to say, foreigners can’t write about Africa, or Europeans shouldn’t write about Africa, or white people shouldn’t write about Africa etc etc… I think new approaches have to be found, new ways of talking about each other, interpreting each other, confronting each other and inevitably, therefore, ourselves. For me, anyway, this oblique approach applies when I am writing about Hackney, too, or the Dorset village where some of my family live, or the Liverpool suburb where my mother-in-law lives. And I heard something similar in Dumas yesterday. She was resisting categorising of her work, pulling back from ready description and analysis. Spontaneity seemed a more important criteria to her painting, and a will to explore. Is it possible to make paintings about love? she asked. Is it possible to paint sorrow and the complexity of emotion? And ultimately, she explained, It’s not what other people think about what you’re doing (that matters): you the artist have to be ready.


What a relief, I thought, what a relief.

(See this, too.)


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