South African artist Marlene Dumas’ portrait paintings depicts the unglorified side of life; the mundane, sometimes morbid, mostly saddened, dispossessed expressions. Sprinkled with some overtly sexual gestures, they depict a human existence bent and shaped by an overwhelming invisible external force.
The Black Drawings (1992) which depict portraits of black people, and all the cultural feelings associated with this race of people, are presumably taken from polaroids arranged in a grid-like pattern. This is reminiscent of people catalogs, data bases of mugshots, which condemns them in a way before knowing anything else about them, and this grid arrangement was repeated in Chlorosis Love Sick (1994); a series of water-coloured bald women, Models (1994); a motley group of water-coloured men and women and Rejects (1994); the ones from Models (1994) that Dumas didn’t like, at first.
“Actually I’ve been busy with these two questions all my life – Why am I here and should I be here? ” Marlene Dumas 2012
Why she has stuck to doing portraits of regular people and not deviate to any other type of image over the past 40 years is intriguing. Indeed, it is in people that we gain the most meaning in our lives, but the dedication points to a desire, obsession even, to get to the bottom of something. The grid arrangement in its enormity, alludes to a certain ambiguity of intentions; is it a display, a glorification like a yearbook, a catalog for the socio-anthropomorphic or a catalog of suspects?
The desire to get to the bottom of what’s inside a person is evident in the self-portrait Evil Is Banal (1984) and Jule The Woman (1985), where aside from the eyes and lips, all the other parts of the body are blood red, as if her skin had been peeled off.
For Evil Is Banal (1984) the treatment is more subtle, metaphysical even, for there are no clues as to what exactly is so evil about the subject. Rather, what’s evil is hidden within her thoughts and manifested only in that thin sliver of white light reflected from her eyeballs.
In her essay, Every Prize Has Its Price (2012), Dumas recalls, with a certain amount of admiration, Jean Paul Sartre who in 1964 refused to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. She understood why (sort of), about not wanting to become an institution and inhibiting freedom. In her own experience, she came to Holland because she won a prize, but in winning, she also had to leave her mom which in a way (sort of) was the price to be paid.
Malevolent, with flashes of brilliant colours, and other times decrepit, she has a keen ability to weave in and out of focus, detailing usually around the eyes which incidently is a window to the soul. But it masks a deep condition, which is probably why she hasn’t done a picture of a pregnant woman, a woman giving birth, or even thought of it. Grinding, gnawing, always searching, it never stops, like being grabbed by the throat, there’s no escape.
The only reprieve, however temporary, the only solstice, is when one finds oneself unconsciousness, or having sex, (which incidently must be equal!) or overcome with loss felt at a funeral. But in the end, as usual, its back to the same out-of-the-darkness, grinding, suspicious yet melancholic, gnaw. Why else would one turn down a prestigious award?