South African born artist Marlene Dumas has been called “one of the hottest names in contemporary art.” Working in a style that has been called “neo-expressionist” and “conceptualist,” Dumas creates lush, often disturbing and unnerving images of racial, sexual, and cultural subjectivity. Her work has been featured in the Venice Biennale and is currently on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London.
Can you speak a bit about how you started out as an artist and painter?
As a child, I drew all the time, so my family thought that I was an artist. We had never met an artist in real life before. We had read of van Gogh and Picasso and other male artists in the books. Women mostly got married and then did not draw anymore, so I did not call myself an artist ‘til long after my fine arts studies at the University of Cape Town. Drawings, one can make while driving in the back seat of a car, in bed, anywhere; oil painting is something else. That came much later.
How long have you been painting?
Do you have artists in your family?
Not in my field, but my oldest brother is a very good traditional wine maker. When [Nelson] Mandela and [former South African President] De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize, his wine was served in Sweden. My other brother is a very good unconventional preacher. He won a lawsuit against the Dutch Reformed Church in the apartheid days.
What was it like growing up a young artist in South Africa?
I wasn’t an artist in South Africa in the professional sense of the word – only an art student feeling guilty studying art, in the early ‘70’s.
When did you leave South Africa, and why?
I did not mean to leave South Africa. I only came with a bursary for a two-year period to study art in Europe. I was 23 years old and it was wonderful to be in Amsterdam where nothing was censored.
Do you go back to South Africa often? Do you have a studio there, and do you exhibit there often? “I am interested in death, so I’m also interested in sex”
Once every year to visit my family. And, no, and no.
“I am interested in death, so I’m also interested in sex”
How does sex and sexuality function in your work?
As a person, I am interested in death, so I’m also interested in sex. Without sex: no birth — no birth, no death. You can have love without sex, and sex without love, but you can’t have death without sex.
What place does the human figure take in your painting, philosophically, psychologically, metaphorically?
It’s my beast of burden. The poor figure has to carry all the weight.
Does a painting of child hold the same, or more, psychological weight when compared to a painting of an adult? What about a painting of a woman versus that of a man?
No, not more [weight]. With painting, in general, most people prefer to see a woman instead of a man – in American films, as you know, the naked man is still very much taboo, while the violent man is not.
I see that you collect a lot of pictures from magazines and newspapers. How do these materials feed into your work?
They are part of our collective unconscious. They picture our collective guilt, our poses, and our prejudices.
Who are your favorite painters in history?
I have just seen a beautiful show of Ingres in Paris [Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres]. He is so hard, clear and bright, and yet so soft at the same time. And Alice Neel: She is the only psychological portraitist of her generation. She still needs to receive the credit she deserves. She never wasted paint to impress.
Whom are you favorite artists working now? Which artists do you consider your peers?
David Hammonds, for one, but that’s because he is not a painter and does not take part in the overload of stupid group shows. In Holland, Rene Daniels is still the star of my, and the younger, generation, even though he has not painted since his brain damage several years ago.
How does living in Amsterdam affect your work? Could you live and work anywhere else?
Amsterdam is small enough for my peace of mind. My studio is my place of reflection. I don’t like to move studios.
Your husband is also a painter. In what way does this relationship help your practice as a painter?
He makes me laugh. That is what he told me to tell you!
Are you your harshest critic?
No, my partner is.
Can you speak about how your work is different now from the past?
I take more time to wait, to only paint something that really moves me — not to just paint because one likes to paint. To only paint when I’m tensed up enough about my subject matter, to not beat around the bush, and to use less and less paint.
And what is your ambition with your future work?
I want to paint my own “Guernica.”