Born in Cape Town in 1953, Marlene Dumas is one of South Africa’s most celebrated artists. Today, she lives in Amsterdam, exhibiting all over the world. Her collections feature prints, paintings, collages and installations. The work of Marlene Dumas concentrates on the extreme fringes of the life cycle: from birth to death, stressing both the psychological value and the physical reality of the human body. She is one of Africa’s most acclaimed artists; her work prized by collectors the world over, including Nigerian-born entrepreneur and trustee of the African Leadership Academy, Tunde Folawiyo, who helps young Africans to realise their potential, working towards a brighter tomorrow. Internationally acclaimed Marlene Dumas is one of the greatest talents in the African art world.
Marlene Dumas was born on 3rd August 1953. She was raised on the family vineyard, just beyond Cape Town’s city limits in the Kuils River region. Her native tongue is Afrikaans. She studied painting during the 1970s, at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, where she was exposed to the decade’s preoccupation with art theory and conceptualism. This was before the age of the television, which did not become widespread within South Africa until later that decade. Most of the art Dumas saw was in reproduction. Dumas developed a particular interest in the work of Diane Arbus. She honed her attentions on photography.
It was one of Diane Arbus’s works in particular that had a profound impact on Dumas. Arbus introduced Dumas to “the burden of image” – the complexities of representing the human form.
In 1975, Dumas accepted a scholarship to study at the Institute de Ateliers, a Dutch art foundation run by artists. She continues to live in Amsterdam to this day. Dumas explored the relationship between image and text in those formative years, working in collages, drawings and clipped photographs.
In 1984, Dumas began to focus on painting. Working almost exclusively from photographic sources such as snapshots, Polaroids, and even images torn from newspapers and magazines, Marlene Dumas concentrated on figures and heads. For one painting, she may adjust the colour, using her signature palette of greys, blue and red. For another, she may take an original image and crop it, honing in on a tiny figure in the background. In this way, Dumas removes subjects from their original context in her images, stripping them of all identifiable information. Dumas captures her subjects in their own moment in time, yet maintains enough distance that their dignity is quietly observed. She has composed pieces in a range of subjects: Pregnant Image, 1988-90, The Blindfolded Man 2007 and The First People I-IV (a collection of images of babies). Marlene Dumas concentrated on a famous writer for Death of the Author, 2003, and herself in Self Portrait at Noon, 2008.
During the 1980s, Dumas released a collection of paintings which she called The Eyes of the Night Creatures. These works explored recurring themes, including ethical and racial intolerance, particularly in The White Disease, 1985. In the late 1980s and early part of the 1990s, Dumas concentrated on the subject of babies and pregnancy in a series of works. From 1998 through 2000, Dumas worked with Anton Corbijn, a renowned photographer, on a project entitled Stripping Girls. This collaboration concentrated on Amsterdam’s peep shows and strip clubs. Corbijn exhibited his photographs in the show, whereas Marlene Dumas took Polaroids which she used as a base for her images.
In Dead Marilyn 2008, the historical and personal collide as with so many of Dumas’s portraits. In this work, a female body fills the expanse of a small canvass. The work is the precursor of a collection of paintings of weeping women, depicting grief and mourning. Dumas created the exhibition the year her own mother died. The basis of Dumas’s image of Marilyn Monroe was controversially an autopsy photograph. Dumas used smeared brushstrokes of white, grey and blue-green, creating the image in a small size with delicate rendering to make it a portrait of intimacy. The idea of celebrity, sensationalism and the mystery of the Monroe’s true persona came into question in the piece. In Dumas’s The Pilgrim 2006, she shifts her interests in public notoriety to an image of Bin Laden. His soft smile and peaceful eyes contrast almost irreconcilably with Western perception. By taking a subject in this way; by stripping them of public persona and historical significance, Dumas leaves the viewer trying to resolve their perception of the subject with the reality before them; balancing politics and identity with sometimes shocking, unsettling intimacy.
Dumas created Great Men for the St Petersburg’s Manifesta 10. The exhibition is a collection of 16 pencil and ink portraits depicting famous gay men such as Rudolf Nureyev, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, James Baldwin, Alan Turing, Leonard Matlovich, Tennessee Williams, Vaslav Nijinsky and Oscar Wilde. Each subject was persecuted, in one way or another, because of suspicion regarding their sexuality. Marlene Dumas commented at the time that the series was intended to contribute to a change in mentality within Russia, at a time of increasing legislation against homosexuality in the country.
Marlene Dumas is an avid educator, pointing out in interview the importance of having dialogue with fellow artists – that art is something you learn from people, from being around them. Dumas exhibits in museums the world over: from Amsterdam to Paris to New York. In 2008, Dumas’s painting The Visitor 1995 sold at auction for £3.1 million, making her the highest-fetching female artist alive at the time.
If you’re interested in African Artists, you should check William Kentridge out. He is best known for his drawings, prints and animated films.