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MARLENE DUMAS : INTIMATE RELATIONS (article first published : 2007-12-5)

Intimate Relations, the exhibition and book on the occasion of her first solo show in South Africa, is a celebration. Marlene Dumas dedicated the book as a love letter to her mother.

Marlene Dumas was born in 1953 and grew up in Kuilsriver Cape Town completing her school years in Stellenbosch with Marlene van Niekerk and Sandra Kriel as class mates. She did a BA fine art at Cape Town University, was awarded a bursary to Atelier 63 in Haarlem, the Netherlands, and studied at the Institute of Psychology, University of Amsterdam, between 1978-1980.

Globally, Marlene Dumas is one of the most acclaimed painters of her generation. In the first chapter of Intimate Relations, Dumas herself starts the book with: “All I know is that I want to make marks.” At the Michaelis Art School at the University of Cape Town, she had exposure to influential thinkers, artists, ideas and practices that included conceptual art, body art and performance. She describes her university days as very stimulating in a theoretical way. She moved to Holland in1976 which was a very critical time in South Africa. “There I learnt a lot about ethics, philosophy and theory in South Africa, while in Holland I started to look at paintings for the first time.” She then realised she was not a victim of a bad system but had been part of the wrong system.

Through all the letters she wrote to her mother (mostly when she was travelling on a train) we – as readers and viewers who love and respect her art – get a better understanding of Dumas as an individual and as a painter. More than in any other book about her, this one gives a much deeper insight into her early adult life.

As early as 1982 she was selected by Rudi Fuchs for Documenta VII, which made her a global artist. While living in Amsterdam she was confronted with a more sexually tolerant society. She writes the following words in Amsterdam in1993:

“I’m aware that I’ve used a great deal of sexual terminology, but it’s all bound up with my subject matter. No, they’re not all self-portraits./ No, it’s not always my daughter. / No, I had a happy childhood./ No, I’ve never slept with museum directors./ Yes, I find compassion the most difficult thing there is and not easily compatible with creativity. / Yes, I find myself the best example of evil.”

Dumas faces express a range of emotions that we as the viewers are able to identify. As an artist she is interested in a visual complexity which cannot be taken in at one viewing but which unravels or reveals itself over time.

Reading the book I was fascinated to find a Rembrandt etching of 1631,”Pissing Woman, next to Dumas’s work “Pissing Woman” done in 1997. The series Blindfolded is perhaps the most moving. Calling up images of men confronted with war, with a firing squad, or dead men, or men with eyes that look right into one’s soul.

Much has been written about Marlene Dumas but never has a book been published where, we as the reader, feel we understand the artist and can come to terms with her way of thinking, and her final output.

The book was made to accompany the first solo exhibition of her work in South Africa. It also includes essays by Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall as well as a literary creative response to the artist’s work by her former classmate and now leading Afrikaans novelist and poet Marlene van Niekerk.

In the preface director of Art Collections Iziko Museums of the Cape, Marilyn Martin tells about Dumas generosity towards South African artists. Together with Emma Bedford she devised a project titled Fresh and young South African artists such as Tracey Rose, Moshekwa Langa and others benefited.

Marlene Dumas : Intimate Relations is a book that should be owned and read by all artists who are trying to create worthwhile art and by art lovers who want to get to know more about the life of Marlene Dumas , who although living an a foreign country, is to her deepest core a true South African. For people who do not get a chance to visit the exhibition, the publication creates a fantastic opportunity to get to know more about one of South Africa’s most important living artists.

Marlene Dumas : Intimate Relations by Emma Bedford is published in paperback by Jacana in 2007 with 60 full colour illustrations and retails at R220. – Marianne Meijer




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