White on black

November 8, 1996

Elaine Williams talks to Marlene Dumas, the white South African artist who specialises in painting black people.

Marlene Dumas, one of the speakers at ELIA, is a white South African who chooses to paint black people. It, she says, is a combination that is fraught with pitfalls and leads to a great many misconceptions.

Black Drawings is a wall of 112 unframed portrait heads, evocative of passport photographs, arranged in a grid. It was the first of Dumas's serial drawing installations and the one in which the issue of race really became prominent. Black Drawings was part of an exhibition in 1992 which started off in Holland where she now lives, travelled to London and Philadelphia. She remembers its reception well: "A white Dutch critic, confused by their loose smudgy style, said they looked like victims of apartheid. I was upset by that. That's not what I was trying to portray. My source was some photographs taken by Europeans of half-naked black women, an excuse for sexy pictures. What interested me was the facial expression of these women when looking at the camera. There were all kinds of feeling in those faces.

"I have been accused of trafficking in misery. I think that is very unfair." In Philadelphia however, she was given a completely different interpretation: "A big black man walked up to me. He wanted to congratulate me because they were the best portraits of strong black people he had seen."

That was nearer the mark. As an Afrikaner who grew up on a farm in Cape province Marlene Dumas is only too aware of race issues, but she has never set out "to show somebody else's problems" in her paintings. She seeks to express her own relationship to these images. Her aim has always been to represent human beings in all their variety and complexity. "It was the Dutch critic's preconceptions that made him write what he did," she says.

She starts from her own experience. "A lot of me is Afrikan, I don't have experience of life in the ghetto, or being in prison or living in the bush. That's why I won't paint that." Indeed the race of many of her portrait heads is deliberately ambiguous, highlighting volatile and unpredictable emotional states from aggressiveness to extreme passivity.

Dumas is one of Holland's best-known contemporary artists. This year alone she has exhibited alongside the late Francis Bacon and solo exhibitions of her work have been held at the Tate Gallery, London, Washington and now Japan. She begins with traditional concepts of portrait-making and of the artist's model, but then gives them a fresh twist. Thus vertical, full-length paintings of babies, making them look strangely strong and savage contrast with a horizontal painting of a naked man lying down, making him look weak and vulnerable. She has also painted a series of Magdalenas, strong black women in a vertical frame who look you straight in the eyes. Unlike the Magdalena of a Caravaggio, for example, these women look self-confident; angry, irritated, perhaps, but never enticing.

Over the past few years she has concentrated on groups of individual portraits, arranged in grids, like so many identity cards - though they simultaneously play upon differences. Dumas draws from mass media, always using photographs, so the heads of Paloma Picasso, Bridget Bardot, Iman, the wife of David Bowie and Manet's Olympia can be placed alongside those of psychiatric patients. She writes: "It is as if one wants everyone you've ever met, the dead and the living, to be touched by your hand. Everyone is different and yet quite similar. All discrimination becomes senseless and useless."

As she wrote to those compiling the Tate exhibition: "The dark-haired step-mother can be a wonderful person, while the soft-spoken blonde mother could be a witch."

Dumas, fascinated by the mask-like effects created by mass-media, has focused on the iconographic face of supermodel Naomi Campbell. In doing so, however she distances herself from artists who have appropriated and used ethnic art, such as Picasso and Giacometti and the Dutch artists she knows "with houses full of African masks". "Naomi Campbell is black and beautiful but if I use her image, which is public property, I am not doing what these artists do when they take and use art from other cultures."

When do you misuse somebody else? That is a question Dumas likes to pose. "I was asked at the Tate why I paint black people. Well why not? I have always liked contrasts, mixtures of things, but I take only from what I understand. I don't like to go into people's cultural shops and take from here and there. Mine are not like postmodernist works where things are on top of one another, you know, Buddha sitting next to Christ with an apple on his head."

Dumas, who was born in Cape Town in 1953, is the only member of her Afrikan family to have left South Africa, her brothers are still farmers. After studying at the Michaelis School of Art, Cape Town University she gained a scholarship to the Netherlands and has lived and worked in Amsterdam since 1976. At Michaelis she longed to escape from a constricting education where all reference was made to European art seen only in books. She wanted to paint emotions, and though aware of apartheid she was never directly political.

"There were photographers portraying injustice directly and they were critical of us painters for not becoming involved, " she says. "I was very aware of the problems, I had guilt feelings but I was confused as to what role an artist could play. I couldn't paint a black person being hit on the head. I didn't want to be an illustrator, illustration is one of the worse things you can do in painting. I feel a big psychological release now that apartheid has gone."

Marlene Dumas will speak at the ELIA conference.

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