The liquid body: Marlene Dumas on the Politics of Pornography

The retrospective of SouthAfrican/Dutch artist Marlene Dumas at Tate Modern is provocative and political. Her work deals with central issues in post-modern times: gender, identity and pornography. At the same time, her work is visceral and it provokes a physical reaction: the combination of her focus on the body and the face, as well as her use of oils in an almost liquid manner, the contrast between dark and light, and the luminescence of her palette, makes that those faces look through us, they go under one’s skin.

The exhibition is organised loosely around some of her most important works and it tries to be chronological. However, each of the rooms are self-contained, so well-curated in order to ensure a comprehensive feeling for the audience.

I must confess I approached the exhibition without so much thinking,. I knew a bit about Marlene Dumas work, her seductive images drawing upon pornography have been very intriguing, but this exhibition reveals the political implications of her choice of themes. In this post I will try to share some of the ideas that resonate with my own tale, without attempting at an expert review of her complex oeuvre. So, this will include: identity, pornography, and the role of painting. I will use her prolific writing, her poetry and essays. She is aware of the many interpretations and actors/institutions involved in making a “work of art”, and she aims at participating in the writing of her own story.

In doing so, not only she adds but she creates a new poetry of art, that can be (or not) linked to her paintings, but for me, it is a brilliant reflection what does it mean to be an artist/female/person in these “post-modern times”. Moreover, her taking on “reproduced” images instead of real-life models, respond to the ubiquity of the image (in dialogue to Walter Benjamin’s quest for the work of art in the era of reproduction); our celebrity dominated societies, anticipate the current social media “iconocracy”. Her work talks about identity, about being a woman, about the body, about pornography and politics, about originality, text and images… I will try here to weave her texts with my own images (drawing and sketches made in situ reacting/responding to the exhibition).


My MD Sketchbook. Ink on paper and text. 2015

First of all, her very own situation talks about the difficulties of defining identity, beyond nationalisms or heritage. Here we have a south african painter, living in the Netherlands, talking about global issues. This, again, is related with what Zigmunt Bauman has referred as “liquid identities”, fluid and not clearly bounded.  This is specially meaningful for me, and I relate with that wholeheartedly!

Home is where the Heart is
“My fatherland is South Africa,
my mother tongue is Afrikaans,
my surname is French, I don’t speak French.
My mother always wanted me to go to Paris.
She thought art was French because of Picasso.
I thought art was American because of ArtForum
I live in Amsterdam and have a Dutch passport.
Sometimes I think I’m not a real artist
because I’m too half-hearted
and I never quite know where I am.”


The question of identity and post-colonialism is addressed in her work of Rejects (1994-2014) an on going drawing/painting of portrait-heads directly pinned to the wall. These are confrontations to what is to be the Other, what is our relation to those Others, how we relate/reject them. The same type of questions are addressed in a similar format of her work Black Drawing (1991-1992), comprising 111 portraits of black people in black ink. There is a double intention here: the tonalities of liquid black ink and the identity of being black. Indeed, this question for identity resonates with the political context of apartheid in the 1980s: the ban on any Mandela images (and its subsequent explosion in the “shade” of anti apartheid context). It also deals with the politics of representations, as she also draws upon the XIX century postcards of white explorers in Africa, showing the black natives as curiosities, rather than humans. Of course, we can always say that it is all in the past, that Africa is free to do whatever they want (do they?) and that the colonial debt is a thing of history…

The Exotic vs the Neurotic

The Dutch, among others, pay
hommage they say
by buying African art, by trying to paint
like them.
I cannot do that
I pay in other ways.

All the white artists want to be black.
I can’t pretend I’m not
stuck with snowwhite
as my name.

IMG_0733My MD Sketchbook. Ink on paper and text. 2015

Similar questions about the representations of the female body are central to Marlene Dumas. During the 1990s Dumas represented the Netherlands in the Venice Biennial, where she revealed a series of “tall and narrow canvases, hung in sequence and christened ‘Magdalenas’ (or the Megamodel meets the Holy whore)”. Amongst them there was Princess Diana, a naked Naomi Campbell and an emaciated Madonna, alongside fashion models and a self-portrait. Her reference to the religious figure of Magdalena, the fallen woman, is almost premonitory, specially when addressing the two British princesses: Naomi Campbell, African goddess and Diana, Princess of Wales (abandoned by a not charming Prince, looking for that holy love, the people’s princess).

IMG_0732My MD Sketchbook. Ink on paper and text. 2015

A Queen of Spades

Where does the Black Model
come from?
Some dark
blue place
where the sun always shines?
From an old African
postcard and Naomi Campbell’s
legs in Vogue.
From the city
from her liking
and hating

What is striking is how the artist actually foresees  the contradictions of celebrity status: for instance, alongside these portraits there is a blue Amy Winehouse, parted lips, teary liquid eyes… What does contemporary western societies do with these “Magdalenas”? is the celebrity status one of public possession, with women (images) made/casted for the role?

These continual questioning of the politics of representation of the female body is developed through Marlene Dumas subsequent works. Her interest in pornography and the pin-up reveal the links between desire and consumption, fantasy and possession. For example, she argues that the pin-up is of American/English origin, as well as the word “sexy”. However she clarifies that “a classic pin-up is primarily fantasy and never actually intended to be touched or possessed.” Further she wonders:

“Can pin-ups still survive a pornographic age?
Somehow just like marriage and prisons they still do

Her most publicized paintings (ironically or precisely?) are those about pornographic images, her take on iconic images of classic pornographic films of the 1970s like Deep Throat and Hiroshima Mon Amour (indeed in the Tate Modern magazine she speaks about her experience of arriving from conservative South Africa into a liberated Netherlands and watching these films in the cinema). The resulting images exhibited under the title For Whom the Bells Tolls (2008) are not seductive, instead, they talk about loss, death, fear, violence… Throughout these paintings the artist makes us questions about the use of pornographic images, the operations of power, the politics of representing the female body, the ethics of masturbation and pleasure. She brilliantly observes:

“The public display of nudity has been one of my main interests, as well as the reasons given to justify it or banish it.
The traditional (male) painter uses it to promote higher aesthetic values.
The fashion model to promote clothes.
The porn industry to promote masturbation,
while film stars only do it if it part of the story.
Most people don;t do it at all
and the teaser makes you beg for it.”

So what is the role of the artist, of art, of the female painter?

10171275_1005674729461557_3875915071650090208_nMy MD Sketchbook. Ink on paper and text. 2015


Much of her writing is about the compulsion for painting and creating art. It does not give “art” the saviour role, it is not a heroic act, it is life and pulsion, it is addiction and solitude. It is mess and pleasure and it does not need any justification. But she stresses that in that power configuration, women’s role have changed: from models (or muses) to artists themselves:

“The model becomes the artist. She creates herself.
She is not here to please you.
She pleases herself.
The question is “who is she” but
“Who are you”

I find her texts so provocative, insightful, inspiring. They are nicely collected in a book published for this exhibition titled: Sweet Nothings (2014), and I cannot recommend it enough… as this is becoming such a long text, and indeed it does not seek to answer or to explaining her work. I just want to finish with some extracts of her text, something I like for myself:

Women and Painting

I paint because I am a woman
(It is a logical necessity).
If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then
all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.


I paint because I am a religious woman
(I believe in eternity). Painting does not freeze time.
It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns.
Those who were first might well be last.

Painting is a very slow art.
It does not travel with the speed of light.
That’s why dead painters shine so bright.
It is okay to be second sex.
It’s okay to be second best.
Painting is not a progressive activity.
I paint because I am a dirty woman
(Painting is a messy business)
It cannot ever be a pure conceptual medium.
The more ‘conceptual: or cleaner the art,

the more the head can be
separated from the body, and the more the labour can be done by others.
Painting is the only manual labour I do.

Long life for Marlene Dumas! thanks for existing, living and breathing in my own liquid times!


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