Throughout her career Dumas has explored a range of formal artistic concerns as a means to push conceptual ideas of representation. In 1991 she began a series of ‘Portrait Heads’, of which 111 were brought together, along with a piece of slate, to form Black Drawings 1991–2. It was an attempt to explore black as a colour and ink as a medium. While making reference to the racist political system of apartheid in South Africa, which at the time was beginning to unravel, her main concern was about what happens to our conception of an individual when they are seen as part of a group.
The portraits were initially based upon a book of early twentieth-century printed postcards of Africa, and later on models in magazines aimed at African-American readers, alongside other found portraits. By focusing on the faces of the figures in these photographs, Dumas was interested in the play of light and the variety of ways in which the colour black could be utilised in drawing, as well as the distinction between the subject of the photograph (the person in front of the camera) and the image itself.
It was the first work for which I used enormous quantities of
black India ink and water, layer on layer, and thick, heavy paper,
which could absorb great amounts of the ink. As well as being
about the politics of representation and the tension between
seeing and being seen, it’s also about blackness as a positive
state, and the work is a tribute to black as a beautiful colour.
I based my drawings on existing images of black people. There’s
a big difference between those two. As a person I’m interested
in people, as an artist I am interested in images.
When Black and White are colours
and not races, people will still fall in
love and discriminate between
partners and feel sad and bad
and need art that breaks your heart
and takes you to those places
where pain becomes beauty.
Marlene Dumas, The Next Generation 1995