At the turn of the century, Dumas moved towards representations of war. She used images of dead terrorists, martyrs, suspects and lookalikes, as well as the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East. Rather than focus only on contemporary source images, however, she often returned to earlier material to express a mixture of personal anxiety and universal tragedy.
The Woman of Algiers 2001, based upon a 1961 photograph of a woman held by French captors during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), reflects on contemporary events as well as looking back to this specific historical moment. In Dead Girl 2002 Dumas returned to a clipping from the 1970s of a young woman who had attempted to hijack a plane and was killed. Both works are a reminder of the broader political history of contemporary world events, and the charged representation of the female body during conflict and war.
In 2010 Dumas created her largest canvases yet for the exhibition Against the Wall. These focused on the West Bank Barrier that divides Israel from Palestine, which at times becomes a visual echo of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. After many years of close scrutiny of the figure, Dumas engaged with context by placing people within large architectural structures, or in some cases omitting the human body entirely, a shift the artist was very aware of:
The works on the wall. How are these paintings different from
my previous works and how are they still the same? Always was
interested in how things that look the same can be very different
and vice versa. In a sense they are my first landscape paintings,
or should I say ‘territory paintings’. That is why they are so big.
The canvases display a wide range of painterly gestures that at times transform walls and barriers into a series of almost abstract shapes. In Mindblocks 2009 the handling of the paint as material and the physical object of the canvas prompt associations with American abstract expressionism of the mid-twentieth century. But it does not invite the viewer into a sublime encounter divorced from consideration of its architectural/political subject matter.
The first mark is the worst.
The drawing of a line cuts the paper in two.
The drawing of maps and borders turns
neighbours into foreigners.
Within military cultures whole generations
of children have grown up,
thinking only in enemy-images.
Art is a way of sleeping with the enemy.
I have enormous respect for the photojournalists
who risk their lives to show us what is happening
in the here and now. I am not trying
to improve their work. I am not a direct witness.
I am a studio artist.
I travel in my imagination, or should it be
– I ‘live’ in my imagination.
Marlene Dumas Against the Wall 2010