Prisoners are told that torture will stop if they talk. But the rule rather than the exception is that after they’ve talked, they are killed anyway.
Names are a means of distinguishing people, you from others, serving different purposes in different fields. A name is an identifying device. You can’t get the papers you might need if you don’t have a passport and you can’t get a passport if you don’t have a name (but you don’t want your name if your name ain’t no good).
Relatives Names link you to others with similar names. I thought I was related to Alexandre Dumas with his three musketeers, Camelia and the iron mask. I was wrong. It’s unclear if my ancestors who came to the Cape (of Good Hope) somewhere in the 1600’s were French Huguenots (religious refugees that is) or just plain criminals.
Naming A child beginning to speak starts by naming things. The God of the Bible makes a big point of naming others but ‘He’ cannot be named. ‘I am’ is enough for the Divine. When a person becomes well-known the status of their name changes and people ask if they can ‘use your name’. But you can’t give it to everyone, otherwise the magic wears off.
Renaming One of the first acts of conquerors is to rename. When people are sold as slaves, they are given new names by their owners and during the Vietnam War (to name just one) names of places were changed and numbered. The instances in history where names turned into numbers are too numerous to recount. I seldom throw drawings away. They may wait for years to be reworked, integrated into other works, or just to be re-named.
Last names Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. It was a positive act, religious and political. When married, most women take their husband’s surname to emphasise the fact that she is now supposed to be one with him. Many entertainers and criminals have double names, reflecting their double lives. Lovers have nicknames for each other. Untitled artworks end up having nicknames too.
Strangers have to introduce themselves. Animals start sniffing at one another; people ask for credentials. I once saw a movie about Samson and Delilah. As she stepped out of the water, he asked, ‘Who are you?’ She replied, ‘Who do you want me to be?’ They both made a mistake.
Forget Love and art used to be the places where all of this could be forgotten, disappear, break down. As Paul Valéry said, ‘seeing is when you forget the name of the thing at which you are looking’. That can be a frightening and alienating experience if you’re an anxious existentialist. But it could it also be a wonderful ego-vanishing sensation – a liberation from prejudice and retrospection. Why do I draw? Is it to remember or to forget?
First names A child can draw before he can write. The child’s doubt about what it is he’s doing is not there from the start, the critical moment for the child and his drawing arises, when he writes his name for the first time and the letters still struggle to represent themselves as autonomous shapes, instead of referring to something else. After that moment, drawing and writing each go their own way. I don’t long for childhood or innocence lost, even though some of the most touching drawings have been made by children, mental patients and prisoners.
Ashes to Ashes The first time I was invited to send drawings to an international drawing exhibition was in 1981. Almost all the drawings and the whole Galeria Nacional de Arte Moderna in Lisbon were completely destroyed by fire, after which the catalogue listed works that didn’t exist anymore. In his essay Donald Kuspit wrote about the return of the child’s drawing and more importantly, he described how most of the works had a “double dealing” look about them. For whatever it’s worth, one of my drawings was called, It’s not My Fault.
Like a Chinese Whatever else my drawings speak of, they are about the vitality of gesture, speed and action. I would like to make the one-stroke, ink brush paintings to which the ancient Chinese aspired. They called it painting and we call it drawing.
Name no Names. Selected fragments from Marlene Dumas, Nom de Personne/Name no Names, (cat.), Cabinet D’Art Graphique | Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2001, p.34-37; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.