Marlene Dumas

Against the Wall. Letter to David

I’ve been trying to write to you about ‘the why’ of my paintings: write it clearly so that it is not only my sentimental story, but something that is similar to a public statement. But the more I try, the more I get tangled up in places I don’t want to go.

Is it because the rhetoric of South African apartheid feeds my distrust of definitions and at the same time my longing for them? The naming of things and people. The spirit of the Law against the letter of the Law. The artist as some stuttering Moses having heard the commanding voice from the bramble bush. Here I go back to the Bible for my metaphors again. The first book in my life, teaching me that love and fear goes hand in hand. Everything that is important enough to move me, stirs these simultaneous emotions.

I often open books at random to see if there’s a message for me. Still do. Now too.

I read the Bible therefore I paint Against the Wall.
I read therefore I paint?
It’s been said that Protestants read the Bible and Catholics look at the pictures.

At this stage of my life, I paint the pictures and then I read the books.
The images come first, then the thoughts.
I ‘fall’ from the one wall to the other,from one type of arms into another.
First out of context and then into context.
From belief into disbelief.
But the more I understand, the less I can speak.

Thinking about religion, I always saw Christianity as a Jewish sect.
Only in recent years did I hear that some Christians blamed the Jews for killing Christ. Always understood that the Romans killed him (crucifixion didn’t exist in Jewish Law or executions on Fridays). Never understood why it was important who killed him, as he was supposed to die for everyone’s sins, and also didn’t stay dead but was resurrected.

Dead or alive you have to go through the Bible to get to Palestine.

The works on the wall

How are these paintings different from my previous works and how are they still the same? Always was interested in how things that look the same can be very different and vice versa. In a sense they are my first landscape paintings, or should I say ‘territory paintings’. That is why they are so big.

For once it is not zoomed- in vertical frontal heads and naked figures that take the main stage – but a man-made architectural structure in a more perspectival narrative space.

It leads us not into a holy land, but rather to a barren no-man’s land.

Never liked architecture. Never thought I would bother to ever paint concrete slabs! Never wanted or could draw mechanical straight lines. As a person, but also as the type of painter I am, I was often very unhappy working on them.

It seems I have taken my own sentence – a painting needs a wall to object to – literally.

Against the Wall. Letter to David. Extract, original text published in Against the Wall, (cat.), David Zwirner with Radio Books, New York, 2010, p.49-55and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.