Marlene Dumas

Do the right Thing

Skeletons in the Closet
To write about South African art and its politics (with the emphasis on politics) I find very difficult. I distrust myself and all others involved with all our multi-motivational defences and references. Every time I try, I shift my perspective and doubt my own sincerity. I want to say that the best art there is, is often of an amoral (not immoral) nature and that what’s wrong with South African art in general, is it’s moralistic attitude. And yet… what am I but a closet moralist myself. I can’t stand all this tedious art theoretical terminology used in the artworld. We use it as a clever lawyer, to prove ourselves not guilty, while we know that words are useless when one happens to be at the wrong (or right) place at the wrong time. Okwui Enwezor stirred the emotions of many by his essay, but it was not so much his articulated criticism that held the attention, but his use of the ‘R’ word that did it. Not response, not representation, but racist.

White People
don’t move too quickly to grey areas. Racism is (still) present tense history (all continents included). White people share a collective guilt that will not be forgiven in our lifetime. No matter how often we say we’re sorry, how long we study the past, read and quote the right books, what our individual deeds are. This is our fate. This is the black and white of it.

I only use that word when forced to. This is where that horrible apartheid concept ‘identity’ got us. Now everyone is using and abusing it. And how the artworld of the 90’s love that term! After discovering the body (as if it was ever gone) they then immediately started to look for its ID card.

Good People
In the artworld there are no hard-core racists left. The majority are conscious, clever and caring artists that make art that is described as being a critique of, or an investigation, or an analysis of something or other. That’s not such a bad thing. Artists who are only interested in themselves are terrible bores; although those only interested in others are too good to be true. But then goodness as a personality trait has nothing to do with good art anyway.

Bad Deals
It is often very difficult for artists to distinguish between their intentions, their methods and the actual work that moves from their private world into the public world. We (most artist) use cliché’s and appropriate images to some degree or another. There’s nothing like an old cheap trick that works. Yet it’s hard to be against a cliché by using a cliché (it’s healthier to embrace that which you use). But one should not be surprised that at least some viewers will find it offensive and/or regressive or that those indifferent to racial references, will find it visually boring and thus bad art.
It’s hard to be against degrading images and yet use it, and not get some perverse pleasure out of it. But if one wants everyone to join in the fun – then don’t use images of those (long) dead or the anonymous, rather use images of those who have the power to sue you (as they should) if they don’t agree with what you’ve done with their images.

Catch 22
Acknowledging and embracing ambiguity does not place one above suspicion. (That even stereotypes aren’t one-dimensional doesn’t simplify issues.) Trapping your viewers to expose their own prejudices reflects in many directions. As an artist, I don’t display the explicit suffering of others and I believe I treat all colours as equally strange. Yet I’ve been accused (in reviews) of ‘trafficking in misery’ (in America) of being a ‘rehashing of a Benneton ad’ (in England) and even as ‘a white person specialising in painting Black people’; because I often make dark works of figures of undetermined or non-specific origin; the ordinary white critic seems to perceive and thus describe everything that’s not very white as Black.

The final Solution
Very evil people often make very sweet un-confrontational artworks. Look at Hitler’s pictures. One could not deduce the ideology of that man from looking at his watercolors (the Nazi’s collectively did love kitsch, tragedy and the sentimental). After the holocaust most European painters did not want to portray human beings anymore. Especially healthy ones, or the dead. The first out of disgust for the Nazi’s pure race ideology, and the other out of respect for the dead and shame that you survived, while they died. More recently (the American artist) Rober Gober exhibited his ‘sleeping white man and hanging black man’ wallpaper in Philadelphia. But even though the black guard could accept that the artist didn’t ‘mean it’ badly and that Gober wasn’t a racist, the work was still unacceptable to him because in that whole museum this was the only representation of a black person, and once again, it was a degrading one.

This brings us at last to Okwui Enwezor’s real complaint. He never said that artist could only represent those very much like themselves. He objected to certain types of representation e.g. representing the black subject repeatedly at the ‘liminal point of his defeat’, or as a source of reassuring harmless entertainment or in a too nostalgic fashion.
But then I don’t like to represent anybody anyway (artistically speaking). I prefer to refer and to suggest rather than to capture and to re-create.
The moral of the story is not that artists shouldn’t do what they feel they have to do but, as God says, do what you wanna do and pay for it.

p.s. No woman no cry
A last word to the artists among us, who happen to be women. Come on girls, let’s face it, we can’t look good all the time!

Do the right Thing. Originally published in Grey Areas: Representation, Identity, and Politics in Contemporary South African Art (cat.), Chalkham Hill Press, Rivonia-Johannesburg, 1999, p.129-131; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts | Politics (of Art), first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.