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 a couple relaxing on a green settee, apparently in conversation with a giant head that sits on a wooden chair beside them. Two bottles, with sinister skull-like faces on their labels, and three glasses standing around on the invisible ground beside the feet of the sofa and the couple testify to the social nature of the scene. Two small hands clutch the sofa back; they belong to a character with a fish head that appears to be directing its gaze upwards and away from the adults’ interaction. The style of the couple’s clothing and hair, as well as that of the sofa and chair, belongs to a period somewhere between the 1930s and the 1960s. Wearing a brown suit, a white shirt and a black bow-tie, the man holds up a full glass as though he is about to drink from it and looks attentively in the direction of the head on the chair. His female companion lounges casually back on the sofa smiling up at him. Her shapeless red dress has ridden up on her left thigh to reveal to the top of a grey stocking, while a column of smoke rising from her right hand indicates that she is smoking a cigarette. Mouth open as though in mid-speech, the head looks at the couple with an expression of intense concentration.

The giant disembodied head with black hair and male features is a common motif in Dzama’s iconography, appearing frequently in his works on paper, and also in three dimensions in a floor-based sculpture entitled Poison with Self Confidence 2005 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.92). Appearing singly or in groups, sometimes lying on the ground like boulders providing props for other characters to sit on or to lean against in such composite works as World Gone Wrong 2005 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, pp.58–9), in other instances floating through the air as in After the Flood, Before the Fire 2005 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.65) where they mingle with flowers and squid, the heads have the multiple status of being passive objects, emblems embodying some kind of symbolism and the living subject of T12588. A group of four stacked one on top of each other in the manner of an Inuit totem, in a composite drawing entitled Guerolito 2006 (reproduced in Tree with Roots, p.68), suggests that the heads relate to ancestral figures, a theme traditional to Native Canadian art. Based in Winnipeg, in the state of Manitoba, Canada, until 2004, Dzama has acknowledged the impact of Inuit art on his work, saying that it ‘was almost like surrealism in a way, with creatures and mythologies, but you really didn’t know what they meant to each other ... At the beginning this was a really big influence.’ (Quoted in Tree with Roots, p.11.)

Drawing is central to Dzama’s practice, 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. Dzama uses a uniform palette dominated by shades of dull browns, greens and greys, enlivened occasionally by splashes of vermilion. Influenced by the comics that he read prolifically as a child, his figures are highly stylised, containing the minimum of detail necessary to convey character and a fragment of narrative. Like the giant head in T12588, fictional species – mainly anthropomorphised and hybridised animals and plants, such as the tree-men in T12581, T12583 and T12589 and the bear character in T12589 – recur in his works in all media, recalling the archetypes of fairy tales and ‘primitive’ mythologies. The empty space they usually float in, which the artist has related to the vast emptiness of the prairie landscape around Winnipeg, heightens the mystery of their interpretation. Like the text and image works of the British artist David Shrigley (born 1968), Dzama’s drawings have a faux-naïve style, belied by their more sophisticated and often hidden content. Frequently erotic, often fetishistic, their old-fashioned aesthetic reminiscent of children’s cartoons and book illustrations from the 1930s is reassuringly familiar, while their disturbed psychological dimension recalls the imagery of surrealism, reconfigured in Dzama’s iconography with twentieth-century popular culture.

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
December 2009

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