I experience human beings as very untrustworthy creatures, because even if not consciously or deliberately, they do much harm to one another. The psychological harm, more than the physical violence, interests me. The tension between two subjects or the tension between an individual and a group fascinates me. The point where attraction and distrust meet, for example in movies like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers you see how loved ones and friends still look the same, but are actually aliens with bad intentions. The title of my self-portrait Evil is banal (1984) relates to these issues too. Everyone is potentially capable of extreme cruelty, if the circumstances feed it enough. The dark-haired stepmother can be a wonderful person, while the soft-spoken blonde mother could be the witch. We don’t (can’t) know what is going to happen, at the first glance. But the question is not so much: Is the other person good or bad? (or this or that), but: Who are we? For Oscar Wilde the final mystery is one-self. When I’m attracted to someone and especially when it’s an erotic attraction, I’m struck by the complexity of my emotions. It’s a mixture of beauty, vulnerability, love, fear and disgust, almost simultaneously.
But how to paint or draw that?
Firstly, I have to be sensually attracted to my subject matter. There is no need for a real person. Naomi Campbell’s image fascinates me, especially how she uses those lips! (I don’t particularly want to meet her at all.)
Because I use photographs as source material for my compositions, the choice of the right (appropriate) image is very important. The image has to carry the possibility of being able to be transformed into my medium (water and ink or oil on canvas). I’m not trying to imitate the photograph. I use the photograph. The photo- graphic illusionism that the drawings or paintings display makes strong references to the real world outside of the artwork.
At the same time, the medium (the colors, textures and the brush strokes and gestures) has to have a lot of freedom too, so it can run into its own paths of chance and surprise. I take pure joy in the making and the material qualities of the work. Even if the work uses ‘sad’ images (the ‘what’ may be painful, but the ‘how’ is always joyful). The work is not manic, nor depressive. The ‘how’ smiles at the ‘what’. There is nothing as funny as unhappiness says Samuel Beckett. This is my sense of humor.
The balance between control and letting go is very important. Deliberation meets arbitrariness. There is not a set message to decipher, there is ambiguousness to come to terms with, an existential awareness that the interpretation of my work operates like a movie with an open ending. We do not know if Scarlett got Rett Butler back in Gone with the Wind. There is no way of knowing this. We have to live in a state of tension. And with single images (even if the drawings have more parts) we have even less information to help us form our opinions about what it could mean. Or worse – ‘should’ mean.
The audience is part of the meaning-making process. Its prejudices are part of its enjoying or rejecting of the images. Therefore the audience is an accomplice in completing ‘the story’. The audience can’t get away by saying ‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like’. It might be true, but it’s not an excuse, because the work is also about the interaction of art (rules of a specialized game) and that what one really likes or believes in regardless. The images confront the viewer mostly by looking at them, thus showing an awareness of being looked at. In a way ‘asking’ for a reaction. One can only look one person in the eyes at a particular moment. Therefore this feeling of intimacy. This is between the two of you. You can do with each other what you like, and yet the image also has a judging ability. A distance; like something to protect you from the evil eye, but that could also deliver you to the wrong party, if you make the wrong move. I put myself on equal footing with the subjects. You (the viewer) or I do not have to feel sorry for my subjects, as if you are ‘better off’ than they are. The relationship is between equals.
I use all the cheap tricks of attracting attention: eyes looking at you, sexual parts exposed or deliberately covered. The primitive pull of recognition. The image as prostitute. You are forced to say yes or no.
My works mostly reveal their roots in their titles, which give an idea where these people are coming from. But in the groups of portrait heads I do treat the faces with a certain equality. The sane look a bit crazy, and the crazy look sane, and everybody is trying to seduce you in some way or another. And everyone has got a bit of high and low in them, and don’t really care too much about pleasing you.
Most of the famous paintings we know are done by white males and made ‘of’ white female models. When one acknowledges the beauty of black women (and men) it becomes unnatural to exclude them. The fact that it gets extra attention just shows one how white the art world still is around here.
My South African background will always remain present. But the word-image relation in my work not only has to do with that and is not only from there. The whole artworld relies on words to defend, explain or authorize artworks. Look at the many catalogues, art magazines and artbooks making works ‘accessible’ or giving them a context for being important. I never believed that an artwork could only be ‘optical’. One ‘learns’ to see as you learn to read. I don’t however, mean that it’s the same activity or that artworks have only literal meanings. What you read makes you ‘see’ differently and vice versa. Cinema uses text and images together, or disturbs them like Godard, as part of its natural history. Why shouldn’t painting?
The groups of portrait heads are very addictive. One can’t stop once started. It’s as if one wants everyone you have ever met or seen, to be touched by your hand, the dead and the living. Sometimes I get scared that it can become too obsessive and that one can’t get out of this trance. Everyone is different and yet quite similar. All dis- crimination becomes senseless and useless. The notion of good and bad drawings also disappears.
Chlorosis (1994) has been described as portraits of only women. That is not true. A picture of Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols) has been used as a model; and some other male artists too. I made this group after my group Jesus Serene (1994), in which I deliberately tried not to use strong black and white contrasts. I wanted to see if I could still make compelling images without using the dramatic effects of dark and light juxtapositions. Also the expressions of Jesus had to be very absent, as if he looked through you. A don’t-touch-me feeling, because ‘I am not from here anymore and I am not interested in physical sensuality, only in spiritual sensuality’. Yet one still had to feel attracted to this ‘man’, even though he did not want you as ‘a woman’ or as a material presence. I used very light or pale colours of pink, yellow, blue, green etc. At times I thought it was just too soft and kitsch, to be still called a ‘strong’ work.
Chlorosis then continued with this paleness. Now, mostly greenish, longing, without the extreme ecstasy of St.Theresa, but with a fever inside. I wanted it to vibrate like a sad love song. Singing like a type of Ophelia slowly losing her mind from sadness. It was so close and yet in a way the opposite of the Jesus drawings. They longed for him, the perfect lover. Because of his absence, perfection was not betrayed. Yet neither was satisfaction obtained.
From Chlorosis to Mary Magdalena (1996) was easy, even logical. I called them only Magdalena, to make it less historically religious. I also liked the fact that this woman wants the man and he says ‘no’. My men are often supposedly feminine, while my women are more masculine (if you still want to use this distinction). I believe in love- stories. The gender of the lovers does not matter in the end. The religious connotations are like my use of fairy tale figures: to give the public an easy starting point; a popular reference that relates to all times and that’s familiar to most people. For non-Christian people it’s easy to look at too, because they are looking at a strong, yet vulnerable female image (she’s naked), that looks back at them, even if they don’t know her name. The Magdalena’s were constructed by using parts of supermodels’ bodies and parts (and poses) of old paintings of women. It’s like Madonna choosing this name for her singing career. She’s not trying to be the real Madonna from the bible, but it helps.
Helena decorated, improved and worked on my black and white drawings with col- our when she was six years old. She found them a bit too boring. I was her underground. Unlike Arnulf Rainer working on photographs, she worked ‘against’ me rather. I allowed her to play with my drawings so I could do other work. This wasn’t set up as an art project in the first place. She ‘re-casted’ my models into her own stories. One was kidnapped, she said, and walked into a horse.
Helena said: ‘It’s easier to draw sick people.
You give them a wound,
you make them cry,
and then you give them a band-aid’.
 Underground 1994–95, Marlene Dumas and Helena
The perfect Lover, The absent Lover and the Daughter. Originally published in Marlene Dumas (cat.), Tate Gallery London, 1996; 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.