Marlene Dumas is a figurative artist who presently paints on canvas with oil, ink, and watercolor. She is known for politically charged social art, often based on photographs taken by her or sourced from mass-media. Dumas, born in Cape Town, South Africa, lives and works in Amsterdam, where she moved in the late 1970s to study painting and psychology.
In 1975-1979, she used an abstract style in her paintings which dealt with apartheid in South Africa. In the mid-1980s her work continued the recurrent themes of racial and ethnic intolerance. One example is her chilling portrait “The White Disease” 1985, which shows an aging South African, blue-eyed white woman, taken from a medical photograph to which she added translucent white paint.
In the 1980s her portraits were done by wiping away thinned-down paint to create smudged figures. Her painting of her own mother, “My moeder voor sy my moeder was” (My mother before she became my mother), uses this same technique. Dumas writes about this painting, “My mother understood and loved nature. She taught me to trust in destiny. I never actually painted her while she was alive. Before her death in 2007 she once told me: ‘You never painted me when I was young, don’t paint me now that I am old’. I painted her after a photograph from her youth, as a young woman who did not know at that time that she would become a mother.”
In the 1990s Dumas used supermodel Naomi Campbell as her subject in iconic works which depicted the female nude in a style midway between idealization and gritty realism. Her diptych “Great Britain” contrasts a sweet portrait of Princess Diana with a nude Naomi Campbell. Campbell also was the inspiration for Dumas’ most important series of work, the “Magdalena” portraits, exhibited in 1995. This series references the Biblical figure Mary Magdalen – fallen woman and saint – who encapsulates the artist’s interest in polarities: “All things are in themselves contradictory.”
Earlier exhibitions of her work were held in South Africa, Tokyo, and Marugame Japan. She has been the subject of many solo exhibitions in New York, Portugal, and Munich. Her work was presented in a retrospective at Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008 and traveled to Museum of Modern Art and the Menil Collection in 2009. She had a critically acclaimed 2014-2015 retrospective, “The Image as Burden,” presented at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Tate Modern in London, and the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. Dumas has been awarded the Hans Theo Richter Prize for Drawing and Graphic Arts by the Saxon Academy of the Arts. She will donate the prize money to a scholarship program for young artists.
Her work is in the permanent collections of major museums, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA Tokyo, Museum of Modern Art, Tate Gallery, and Frankfurt’s Museum fur Moderne Kunst.