Born and educated in Cape Town, South Africa, Dumas has been living and working in Amsterdam since 1976. Her work - principally paintings in oil on canvas or ink and watercolour on paper - uses its medium to subvert male traditions of looking at and representing the female body. Exploiting the rich sensuality of paint in its sheer materiality, Dumas plays with notions of desire, the erotic, abjection, racism, nakedness, exposure and authenticity. She uses photographs from magazines and newspapers, or polaroids she has taken herself, as the basis for her images. Suggestive of portraiture, her figures and faces, which are shown singly or in groups, are titled with a name or phrase indicating the depiction of a mood or emotion. Originally Dumas used overtly autobiographical material as the subject of her work, and frequently addressed the issue of the female artist as simultaneously painter and female nude. Recently she has turned to contemporary icons of desire such as models and pornographic pin-ups. Series such as the Magdalenas 1996 (Tate T07201-6), explore the ambiguities inherent in the way that female sexuality is both eroticised and devalued through its representation in Western culture. 'A title determines the way one looks at the image. What is depicted is desire, what is central is deficiency.' (Dumas quoted in Casadio, p. 92)
Lead White and Ivory Black take their titles from the names of oil paints. As is common to Dumas' works, both women in the paintings stare out at the viewer, confronting their gaze. In Lead White, which was based on the artist's own unglamourised European body, the subject is mature and voluptuous, the antithesis of the skinny glamour girl, and depicted in a pose which is both seductive and crucified. While her arms are outstretched (since they disappear out of the painting we do not know whether this is voluntary or not) her knees are crossed, as though she is not quite confident about her pin-up role. The youthful face seems awkwardly grafted onto an older body, adding to the sense of disjunction already created by the title. Suggestive of weight, impermeability, poison and death, lead is not normally associated with the female body.
Ivory Black depicts a young black woman wearing a diaphanous white garment which simultaneously veils and reveals her. The focal point of the painting is the roughly painted gap at the top of her legs in which her genitals are suggested rather than depicted in shadowy outline. A central theme for Dumas is the relationship between pornography and the erotic; while the erotic is dependent on what can only partially be seen, the goal of pornography is to open everything to the viewer's gaze. Ivory Black plays on the tension between veiling and unveiling; the top half of the black girl's body is veiled according to the rules of eroticism, while her lower half is seemingly exposed for the pornographer. With her arms held tightly to her sides, the lines delineating them flowing out of the edges of the painting, the subject of Ivory Black has the same ambiguous status of empowered captive as her companion in Lead White.
'I don't know much about racism really,
My knowledge is skin deep.'
'What do you mean?' he said.
'Oh', she said, 'Didn't you know?
All scars have a pink that shows'.
(Dumas in Sweet Nothings, p.48)
Paint as a medium for depicting skin as well as covering skin is an important issue for Dumas. Here she uses it to explore another central issue, stemming from her South African experience: the paradoxes which operate in cultural hierarchies of skin colour and race.
Barbara Bloom, Dominic van den Boogerd, Mariuccia Casadio, Marlene Dumas, London 1999
Mariska van den Berg (ed.), Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings, Amsterdam 1998
Catherine Kinley, Marlene Dumas, exhibition broadsheet, Tate Gallery, London 1996