Marlene Dumas

Give the People what they want

In this world there are only two tragedies: one is getting what one wants, the other is not getting what one wants. Oscar Wilde

What is the work about?
Is it about eroticism?
No it’s not tender enough, he said.
Is it about cruelty?
Is it that nasty? I asked.
He said – it’s sardonic.
Well, I said – isn’t that the spirit of Africa? No, he said – that’s not Africa, it’s you.

Bad Girls
People always want to know what my real hair colour is, as if that would reveal something essential.

Rosemarie Trockel is not whorish, neither is Cindy Sherman, nor Jenny Holzer (‘Protect me from what I want’) and certainly not Barbara Kruger; neither in their capacity as artists nor in their outward appearances. (And they’re not painters either.) Currently there’s a new generation of female artists who cultivate a kind of ‘bad girl’ reputation. (They’re mostly not painters either.) Barbara Bloom and I – the city girl and the country girl – once asked ourselves whether, in terms of art, we should be primarily the good bad girl or the bad good girl? I’m too detached to be really bad.

A Cheap girl
The Fine Arts are not sexy. They’re too smart (arsed) and too extravagant(lasting)ly tasteful.

I’d love to make paintings that have the same kind of sex appeal as soul music. Aretha Franklin with R.E.S.P.E.C.T., Otis Redding with The Midnight Hour – my favourite LP ever –  …  Janis Joplin – Cheap Thrills!

It was a compliment when someone once described my work as Cheap Thrills. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

The popular imbues each era with it’s own morbid symptoms and front-page photos. I like popular things. My chief sources are public images (intermingled with private snapshots and statements by others). What could be more inspiring and irritating than the images of dead, or almost unrecognizably mutilated concepts (once so dearly cherished) on the battle field of Art? Only the Babel in one’s own head. You never make it in the media that way (Andy Warhol excepted). Whatever, I’m not a real Pop artist. Maybe there was too much pathos in ‘Action Painting’, but in ‘Pop Art’ there wasn’t enough Blues (Warhol excepted).

Yes, I’m half-hearted and cowardly. A split heart rather than a split personality! Art is heartrendingly hard and unnaturally soft. I wasn’t brought up with it and doubt its power. I want you to love me. I’ll give you everything, you can take my name, only you can’t have my heart. Art is an inscrutable, many-handed monster. I know it doesn’t care about me.

I might just as well eat my words.

Sex and violence
It has been said that addressing or depicting subjects like sex and violence is the easiest way to attract attention. This is hard to deny but, as far as painting is concerned, it’s not entirely true. For a long time, trend-setting painters thought that the most respectful and intelligent way of dealing with this, was simply to ignore it. When I was young I thought that only an elderly Englishman still did it. The few socio-politically conscious visual artists that still did it were not painters. But pain- ting didn’t renounce its relationship with the erotic entirely, by defining itself as a primarily physical, sensual surface. But sex and violence hit it off much better in the photographic field (and film in particular). Prolonging the suspense fuels the excitement. I wrote in 1988: ‘The painter kills the living and eats up the heart in salt water’, but I don’t know what happens afterwards when the breath dissolves in paint. The longer I’m involved in painting, the stupider I become.

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity
Chris Dercon wrote in Am I now getting sentimental: ‘True images serve to remind us that we are not alone in the world’1; a wonderful sentiment, but not one that I can endorse because that’s not how I experience it. Talking about the appreciation of artworks, Pasolini once said that it’s when one feels free enough to enjoy the freedom of others; quite a statement. For me, this emphasis on freedom doesn’t represent our communality but our aloneness. This aloneness is not necessarily sickly. Nor does it have to be tragic. The most attractive thing about others, for me, is their otherness. And then I’m not talking about exotica but erotica. The intimacy necessary to make that experience possible inevitably excludes me from group events. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity don’t really like one another at all.

With voodoo or other religious rituals, the body is instinctively afraid to surrender to the Great Forces, because one experiences symptoms similar to those felt at the onset of death. Your brothers and sisters in faith may dance together, but YOU have to learn to let go of the body yourself. A process, which holds out no sympathy from or for others. It’s not that I want to elevate the creation, or evaluation, of art to these heights. On the subject of art Duchamp rightly said: ‘As a religion it’s not as good as God.’

1994 will see the first ever introduction of the democratic vote for all people in South Africa. I wouldn’t mount this show with this title there now. And as Spike Lee would say: if you don’t understand why not, you’re probably white.

Playing for time
I was asked to write something about this exhibition, but actually I’m still tongue- tied. One of the good things about art is that people can state something themselves, without having been asked or the feeling that someone’s expecting it. A childish, neurotic feeling steals over me as soon as someone asks or invites me to do some- thing. Everything that is false or contrary in me rises up. As the interest in the work increases, so do the questions. The less that is asked of me, the haughtier my silence. But once given the right to speak, I begin to blush.

It has been said: men make history, women autobiographies.
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 been in therapy.
No, I’ve never slept with museum directors.
Yes, I find compassion the most difficult thing there is and not compatible with creativity.
Yes, I find myself the best example of evil.

[1] Parkett, no.33, 1992

Give the People what they want. Originally published in De Witte Raaf, no. 42 (March/April 1993), p.10; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, first edition Galerie Paul Andriesse and De Balie Publishers Amsterdam, 1998; and second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.