Marcel Dzama



In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Marcel Dzama born 1974
Ink and watercolour on paper
350 × 280 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee 2005, accessioned 2008


This untitled drawing shows two sets of costumed figures interacting. Two male figures in the centre of the page appear each to be addressing a group of three women to either side. The six women are depicted in virtually identical brown dresses that extend up their necks and fit closely over their heads, opening only in a triangular aperture over the nose, mouth and chin, and in oval-shaped holes around the eyes. Their hands are gloved, either by extensions of their dresses, or by elbow-length gloves in a darker shade of brown. By contrast, their lower legs and feet are bare. Clad in green trousers and shirts with matching bow-ties, the male figures have heads composed of shortened trunk-like forms that extend above their cartoon facial features with forked leafless branches. The hands of the figure on the left, who is also wearing a green waistcoat, appear human; those of the figure on the right are twig-like, evoking a more tree-like hybrid. Outlined in black ink and coloured in Dzama’s most commonly used shades of dull brown and green watercolour paint, the figures float in the neutral ground provided by the creamy Manila paper on which they are depicted, with no further clues as to the fragment of narrative evoked.

T12583 is typical of Dzama’s drawings which are usually done on the same small scale pieces of paper, initiated as a result of being forced to work in a hotel room after his house burned down (, accessed 19 November 2009). To make larger images, he joins many small pages. At first they were made using pencil, over which he would draw with ink, before filling in the forms with watercolour and root beer syrup – a substance he discovered creates a shade of brown he particularly likes and cannot get from any other medium. Around 2000, Dzama stopped using pencil to create the outlines and began using pen directly. In 2006 he returned to using pencil and dispensed with the ink.

As in T12583, the figures portrayed in Dzama’s drawings are almost always set in empty space without any form of ground. He has related this to the landscape around Winnipeg, in the state of Manitoba, Canada where he grew up, remaining there until he moved to New York in 2004. He explained:

the isolation of the place really influenced the background of the drawings and paintings, in that there’s this empty vastness that’s behind them, like the white snow. It was really strange to walk just outside of the city, because it’s such a flat, prairie area – it just goes on and on and on – and it’s just white sky, white ground, so it disappears, especially if you go to a lake or something where it just keeps going.

(Quoted in Tree with Roots, p.11.)

Similarly, he has connected the many tree and animal characters that appear in his drawings, paintings, films and installations to the Canadian wilderness. Tree trunk costumes feature frequently in Dzama’s iconography, both in the form of actual costumes worn by actors or mannequins (reproduced in Tree with Roots, pp.81–2) and as enigmatic characters in his drawings, as here. The leafless trunks and branches are familiar to the artist from his home environment, as he has explained: ‘there are parts of Winnipeg where you see these trees and they look rotten. Ants have moved in, they look deformed, and they have these weird faces – they’re like spooky characters I would draw.’ (Quoted in Tree with Roots, p.15.) A tree-man wearing a similar outfit to the characters in T12583 strums a mini-guitar and sings in T12581. Other tree-man variants include a row of characters wearing more extended tree-costumes which cover their bodies from the knee up in T12589; and a wide-eyed tree being sexually penetrated by a naked boy while the corpse of a clothed boy hangs from one of its branches in T12586. On his larger, composite drawings, such as Vagabonds and Blood from the Earth 2005 (reproduced Tree with Roots, p.62), tower-like tree costumes with several sets of eyes recall the conglomerations of animal and bird heads stacked one above the other in Inuit totems. Dzama juxtaposes these tall tree costumes with depictions of actual native Canadian totems as similar towering costumes in the drawing entitled Shelley’s Historic Morning 2005 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.55). The artist has cited native Canadian art as a significant early influence, its mythology of hybridised human and animal creatures common both to surrealism and children’s fairy tales.

By contrast, the costumes of the female characters in this drawing recall imagery in cartoons from the 1940s, like those featured in Jack Kirby’s Captain America Comics. Such costumes are common in Dzama’s works on paper, canvas and in video which are set in an imaginary world inspired through dreams, literature, the radio and television. Dzama’s drawings offer narratives that are never overtly spoken but remain ambiguous, allowing for many possible readings. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their muted colours and stylised characters have a reassuringly familiar old-fashioned aesthetic at odds with a disturbed psychological dimension that results a sense of the uncanny.

Further reading:
Marcel Dzama, The Last Winter, London 2004.
The Course of Human History Personified: Marcel Dzama, exhibition catalogue, David Zwirner, New York 2005.
Marcel Dzama: Tree with Roots, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 2006.

Elizabeth Manchester
November 2009

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