Marlene Dumas’ psychologically charged painting practice is showcased in its entirety across fourteen rooms at Tate Modern. It’s a dizzying show for its emotive intensity and for its vastness, a now typical trait of a Tate Modern retrospective. However, Dumas, who has been working since the early 1970s, certainly succeeds in filling these galleries with pertinent and political contemporary painting.
South African born, she relocated to Amsterdam at twenty-three in 1976, her works are starkly uncompromising in their contemplation of vast themes. From the politics of representation and sexuality, to the horrors of contemporary warfare, these themes are tirelessly rendered through the lens of Dumas’ own fraught sense of identity, inextricably bound up with South Africa’s dark colonial past and turbulent present.
Room 1 acts as a fitting introduction to the retrospective. Four rows of faces gaze out dispassionately. Etched rapidly in ink from second hand photographs, there is a sense of melancholy about these nameless faces constructed by the application of ink to layered paper that has often been hastily cut into to create a collage- like effect. These faces are collectively titled ‘Rejects’, whether they reject us or we reject them is unclear, they are at once vulnerable and accusatory. That is their unsettling power.
In room 3 is ‘The White Disease’ (1985). This renowned Dumas work neatly encapsulates key themes within her practice, particularly the importance of a work’s title and how the act of painting can transform her source material, typically found photographs. In the work, a milky skinned South African woman stares out, her eyes a glassy shade of blue, her face in extreme close up. Clearly the source imagery here is medical and the subject is suffering from a skin condition, as the title would suggest. However, within the context of apartheid South Africa in the mid eighties, a time when mounting pressure was finally beginning to break down the system, the title has a double meaning. The work points to colonial white rule and its brand of ingrained, institutionalised racism as the true disease.
The act of painting here creates a sense of humanity initially lacking from the source material, material that sought merely to coolly document an individual identity at a particular moment in time. This humanity is political in itself; it is in stark opposition to a system like apartheid that sought to rob people of that most basic human right.
There’s a huge amount of work here and the majority of it is incredibly compelling. It is unashamedly political and when considering Dumas’ biography it would be impossible for it not to be. Her practice constantly questions painting and its ability to be political, to be pertinent, its ability to transform subject and viewer. Sometimes contemporary painting can fall short but not, thankfully, in the hands of this remarkable artist.