Skin and deeper

2007-12-22 00:00

How do you read a face? This is a question that preoccupies the best-selling female artist in the world, Marlene Dumas.

“When you only have certain information, what do you, as an artist, project on to that face when drawing it?” asks Dumas when we meet for an interview in Cape Town.

It is a question that the former Capetonian, who now lives in Holland, asks herself constantly in her work.

“Look at Bin Laden,” says Dumas. “He looks a little like Jesus Christ, don’t you think? Look at George Bush. How would an artist draw him? How would you capture him in art?”

Dumas is in South Africa for her major exhibition at Cape Town’s National Art Gallery, entitled Intimate Relations. Among others, it features portraits of icons Barbie and Naomi Campbell, which serve as a reminder that notions of beauty are not universal and are open to change.

Another series on exhibition, entitled Young Men shows the faces of 12 men, apparently Muslim, who, on closer inspection, are not all Muslim, requiring the viewer to look more thoughtfully at the faces to avoid the stereotyping which is so common in today’s terror-obsessed world.

Dumas’s work reflects her conviction that “to see you have to get intimate”, and that you have to “get close to something, before you can be touched”. She is intrigued by the relationship between things that are different but look the same.

“Look at how a dead person lies and compare it with a child who is stretched backwards in a relaxed, deep sleep. So similar, yet so different,” she muses.

Prejudice, and its many subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations, is a theme close to her heart. It also feeds into how people interpret the faces of the people they encounter.

We are sitting in the courtyard of the gallery, where Dumas has been in back-to-back interviews all day. She is exhausted because she sat up late last night, drinking and smoking, with friends.

She has just come from the opening of another exhibition of her work in Tokyo. On her return to Holland she will go straight into preparations for perhaps her most important exhibition yet at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art.

Preparations at the New York gallery include commissioning a book on her work by one of America’s most eminent art writers.

With a mop of wild blonde hair and deep-set, intense blue eyes, Dumas has a somewhat wanton look. She comes across as Dutch, but her South African-ness shines through strongly and often. Her communication style, too, is delightfully wanton. She embarks on sentences which promise fascinating revelations, but she seldom completes them, making her all the more intriguing, yet frustrating to interview.

Dumas grew up in Kuils River on the outskirts of Cape Town. Her art has featured in just about every major art gallery in the world, but her current exhibition, which moves to Johannesburg in February, is her first solo exhibition in the country of her birth.

In 2005, her work The Teacher fetched $3,34 million, the highest price for a piece by a living female artist at auction, but Dumas appears unfazed by this fact, saying in a recent interview that she sees the auction world as something of a power game.

Dumas went to Bloemhof High School in Stellenbosch before enrolling at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. She left South Africa in 1976 to do a post-graduate degree in visual art at Atelier ’63 in Haarlem. She always intended to return home, but, apart from regular visits, never came back to live here.

“South Africa will always be my home, but I also believe that one can have more than one home. Maybe my studio is my only home,” says Dumas.

One has the feeling Dumas is highly intelligent and deeply concerned about global and current affairs, both out of personal interest and because the current themes play into her work.

But the artist, who lives with her partner, the artist Jan Andriesse, and their teenage daughter, Helena, also speaks freely about motherhood and family life.

She remains close to her two brothers, one of whom is a dominee and the other a farmer in the Cape. She misses the days when she would return home and go largely unnoticed. “I came for my family and friends, but specifically to see my mother. I actually liked it that nobody made a fuss.”

When she was a child, Dumas’s family used to joke that “it was no use taking Marlene anywhere”. “I was always looking down, drawing,” she says.

People often ask Dumas what she would still like to paint before she dies. “I always say that I want to paint the sea. But I still don’t know how to paint the sea without making it come across as kitsch, nonsense. I would not know how to do it meaningfully.

“Look at Pierneef,” she continues. “Now he can paint a sea. His women, all his work, has weight. That is the kind of sea I am looking for. The Dutch don’t have a sea that moves you and they don’t have the sky we have here. But, at the moment I don’t know how to paint it.

“Nature here is so strong,” she continues. “Where are the people who should be painting it?

“You miss the landscape. You know, the crackling of that dry, dry grass. Because Holland is so wet. I sometimes think of that dryness of the grass. You get tears when you think about it. Even though I don’t paint the landscape, it sits in me, it affects me.”

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