You Could Almost Call It Grace: MARLENE DUMAS in Conversation with HANS ULRICH OBRIST and VIRGIL ABLOH
MARLENE DUMAS made history in 2005 when a Christie’s auction result made her the most expensive female artist alive. In spring 2018, Dumas made a rare appearance in New York City with “Marlene Dumas: Myths & Mortals” at David Zwirner gallery. Her first solo presentation in the city since 2010, the show featured works inspired by Hafid Bouazza’s Dutch translation of “Venus and Adonis” (1593), a poem by William Shakespeare, through which she distilled the signature eroticism of a career known for the intimacy and quiet power of its photo-based portraiture.
Dumas lives and works in Amsterdam but was born in South Africa, and her paintings and figures are often perceived through the lens of that country’s history. Seldom discussed, however, are her public artworks and, similarly, the social element of her process, which is widely seen as solitary, the product of a figurative studio practice with no live models, and with found imagery as its only source materials. It is perhaps for this reason that when Hans Ulrich Obrist and Virgil Abloh – both multi-hyphenate culture makers with artistic directorships, Obrist at London’s Serpentine Galleries and Abloh at Louis Vuitton menswear – sat down with Dumas for 032c Issue #35, it was the artist’s public works, and their relationship to their audience, subjects, and environment, that compelled the conversation.
VIRGIL ABLOH: I saw your series of portraits Great Men [exhibited in “The Absent Museum” group show in 2017] at Wiels in Brussels. It’s beautiful.
MARLENE DUMAS: You were there? You see more than I do! I didn’t go myself.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When did you do these portraits? Were they done especially for that show?
No, I started this work for Manifesta 10  in Saint Petersburg, but because of Russia’s homophobic laws, there was a whole thing: should you participate, or shouldn’t you?
VA: Yes, you want to make sure that it’s a safe haven for your ideas and your talent.
But then I had the idea to celebrate men I like. A lot of the men that I really admire happen to be gay. I’m a big fan of Jean Genet, of Pasolini, of Tennessee Williams.
HUO: James Baldwin.
And James Baldwin. So then I had to find the right format, and I thought, “I don’t have to think of a totally new form, or make something I’ve never seen before.” I started to do these portraits: intimate-sized ink drawings of gay men. I didn’t go [to Russia], but I sent the works! So that is special.
HUO: And it’s an ongoing series?
Yes. The work is traveling. The Russian show only had, I think, about 16 men. And now the group has started to get bigger and bigger.
HUO: Who was the first one you did?
At the start of the Great Men series, I thought, “The Russians have their own famous guys, but I want to show them that it’s not just ballet dancers and pianists who are gay heroes.” I had my scientists, like Alan Turing and others, but I also looked for Russians. I had guys like Leonard Matlovich, the American who fought in Vietnam and was discharged for being gay, and whose gravestone said, “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
VA: That’s deep!
That’s right. But then I got, “Why don’t you do women?” But you see, I never do something just for the politics.
HUO: So the series will continue to grow, and when you exhibit it in different countries, there might be additional people?
Yes. I included Derek Jarman, for example, when I showed in London. I can play with it and I can add to it. It’s also nice to hear about other people’s favorite men. For example, [curator] Jonas Storsve at the Pompidou mentioned a Danish author named Herman Bang. I’d never heard of him. So it’s nice to discover these people.
HUO: You’ve also recently done illustrations for Venus & Adonis (2016). This is a beautiful book.
VA: It’s super beautiful.
I was asked to do it by Hafid Bouazza, a Moroccan–Dutch writer who really loves the Middle Ages. And he translates Arabic pornography into Dutch. From the time before they were so strict. Beautiful poetry. But he also likes Shakespeare. I’d never illustrated a story or a book, and he said, “Come on, this is one of the most important erotic love stories.” I thought, “I don’t know – there are all these sad stories. How will I get back into eroticism?” But it was actually so nice. I read Shakespeare for the first time, and it was difficult, but then I read it again. The goddess Venus is in love with Adonis, but he wants to go hunting – he prefers that! [Laughs.]
VA: A classic story!
A classic story. She not only wants to keep him there the whole night, but she’s also scared that he’ll die. She says, “If you do have to go hunting, why can’t you hunt rabbits and the small stuff?” But he wants to hunt wild boar, and he gets killed. And this has really inspired me to think about how to approach a subject like that. Adonis’ expression will sometimes change: he’s attracted, then he’s not. Sometimes Venus is sad, and sometimes she’s excited. I had trouble with her. She changes throughout the book: sometimes she’s darker, sometimes lighter.
“I never do something just for the politics.”
HUO: Can you tell us more about Bouazza?
He’s of Moroccan origin, but grew up in Holland. He often translates Arabic into Dutch, not into English, which is why he’s not so well known abroad. But, as I say, a lot of his interest is in older literature, like the very old Arabic love poems.
HUO: So he invents the future with the past, in a way.
He also writes novels. When he asked me, he thought I wouldn’t do it. So at first he said, “You can just give me three or so illustrations.” And then when I got into it, I wanted to make more and more.
VA: It comes up so emotionally off the page.
First I made the swan, because in a lot of the old paintings, Venus goes off in a swan-drawn chariot. Shakespeare got his story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but his chariot is drawn by doves. So using Bouazza’s notes on all the different variations, I put in my swan, as well as the doves that Shakespeare writes about. Then, a bit like the Christian martyr thing, Adonis’ wound becomes a flower. It was so nice to do.
HUO: And what’s next?
So now, after I don’t know how many years, I’ll show in New York again next year.
HUO: At David Zwirner?
Yes. And then I’ll see whether I can develop all the things that I struggled with in these drawings: how does the woman show pleasure, and this interlocking that she’s trying to achieve, where he sort of says “no,” and she tries to persuade him? [Laughs.]
HUO: So you mean that the drawings will transform into paintings?
Yes, but not directly.
VA: So your work process is like a domino effect?
Yes. That’s how all my associations play out.
HUO: Like a chain reaction.
VA: One question for both of you: in the art world, have you found that saying “no” has led to more great work, or that saying “yes” has led to more great work?
I think Hans Ulrich is very much “for” doing things!
HUO: I’m for “yes”!
VA: You’re for doing.
I should say “no” more!
VA: Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a diagram on a poster that read, “Artists: check ‘yes’ or check ‘no’ to further your career”?
HUO: Jeanne Moreau – did you ever paint her?
I did, in one of the model series.
HUO: She was my friend, and I did a long interview with her. I said, “Jeanne, what are your unrealized projects?” And she said, “For me, as an actress, the most important thing is the list of movies I refused to do.” She had a whole list.
VA: She held it close to her: “The Refused”!
HUO: I often ask artists about their unrealized projects.
Yes, that’s true! But I rarely want to do something and then someone says “no.” I just try to make a painting that works. I’m not like many project artists who have an idea but need all these production things, and no one wants to give them the money to do it. I don’t need much money to buy a canvas. The creating of the painting itself is the hard work.
VA: Because painting is your realm.
HUO: You can just do it.
Yes, but I fail a lot. It’s not that it’s all wonderful, but it’s not that I have a set problem. I might just have to think about it in a different way.
HUO: Last time I asked you, you had an unrealized project that then became realized, which was your altarpiece for St. Anne’s Church in Dresden.
Yes, that was a public project. I finished that, but I don’t know if it’s so good. With painting, people don’t have to look at it all the time.
VA: You can choose to gaze at it.
As an artist, you can take it away. But projects that are in the public space often stay there, and I find that very scary. But I said “yes,” and as always with the few things I have done for public spaces, I question my motives. I think, “It’s vanity!” Then I think, “All the men do it: Richter did it, Polke did it, then I should be able to do it.”
HUO: Pierre Soulages did it.
And that’s not always a good reason to do it.
VA: Can you say more about this work?
It’s on wooden panels, human scale. I worked with two artist friends of mine: Jan Andriesse did the rainbow and another friend, Bert Boogaard, did the tree. I did the black Jesus. When the congregation talked about it, one person said, “Well, you know, Jesus can be a little bit dark, but does he have to be that dark?”
VA: Yes, he’s as black as black. So another artist did the tree?
The tree I asked Bert Boogaard to do because he’s into decoration and architecture, and the work needed a structure to bind all these images together. The tree structure is painted directly onto the wall. The rest are circular and oval wooden panels. The tree is the linking factor for all these things.
VA: It’s beautiful. You’d think the rainbow was a mirror, the way it gives off different gradients of light.
That’s by Jan Andriesse, and he can really paint light. And then beneath are the refugees on the boat.
VA: It’s profound – in a church! This is quite provocative in that setting.
“I just try to make a painting that works. I’m not like many project artists who have an idea but need all these production things, and no one wants to give them the money to do it. I don’t need much money to buy a canvas. The creating of the painting itself is the hard work.”
I tried other biblical themes that I rejected, that I didn’t use, but I did include a sort of a Starry Night motif. And then this last blue one was a canvas of another friend of mine – Jan Andriesse’s cousin Erik – who died in 1993, when he was 35.
HUO: I remember, I met him. When we were doing research for “The Broken Mirror” [“Der zerbrochene Spiegel,” 1993], the painting show I co-curated with Kasper König, we had a studio visit in 1991 or 92.
When he died, he left a few canvasses that he hadn’t actually painted on yet – it was just the background. I always wanted to do something with them, but I never knew what. Then I looked at this canvas standing there after all these years, and I thought: “I know what I’ll do. I’ll make a cross on top of it, so he can also be in the church.”
HUO: So it’s actually a group show.
Yes. A church has a congregation – this is a public thing; it’s not just for me.
VA: You took on the public forum.
HUO: So that’s very different from what Richter and Polke did. Because you made it polyphonic.
VA: One congregation responds to another.
[It’s] very different. I put this pinkish cross on it, and then afterwards, the actual canvas – the cross with the blue background – was glued onto the wooden panel, and then I filled in the colors around it.
VA: It’s beautiful how the cross emerges from the exterior. It’s such a great story in this context.
Some of the parts have individual titles. [One] is called Free Jesus, because poor Jesus has to take on all the bad things that people have done in his name – the Ku Klux Klan, all these guys – so he’s got to be freed.
HUO: And he’s also freed from his cross.
He’s freed from his cross.
VA: Usually, when you see him in a church, he’s bound. But I guess he’s bound to the wall.
HUO: And what’s the overall title?
In the end, it was just called Tree of Life.
HUO: Wasn’t it originally called The Fugitives?
Yes, regarding the boat people, but this title was later changed. Sometimes I have a working title. In the end, the painting of the boat was called The Refugees, and this was Free Jesus, and that was from a painting of mine, The Image as Burden, that I reused to paint another looser version.
HUO: When did you paint The Image as Burden for the first time?
HUO: Which is the year we did “The Broken Mirror.” It was my first big show. We spent a lot of time together in 1993.
Yes, he was so young! I was also younger. It was a very nice show of paintings.
HUO: It included many wonderful small paintings by Marlene, and then your great piece called The Group Show .
It was all these naked women, seen from the back, looking at something that you couldn’t see.
HUO: What prompted that painting? Do you remember?
The image came from a nudist book where these women were standing, looking over a fence. I’ve used more images from this book for other things – Losing (Her Meaning) 1988 also came from it. The woman had a snorkel, but I took that away. Sometimes I just want the positions of the bodies as models, and I don’t want the context. That was the white version, or the blonde version, but I also had a version where the people were not white, and it was exhibited in Philadelphia.
HUO: We showed the first version in “The Broken Mirror”.
The blonde version was the first one, yes. I thought, “Group shows are like people exhibiting themselves – like beauty pageants.” You’re sort of naked, in a sense, when you do a show.
HUO: It dominated the entire show, because it’s a meta-painting: it’s a group show within a group show.
VA: For his first major show! So is the other version the same scale?
VA: Have they ever been exhibited together?
No, unfortunately. The later version was sold in America, and the blonde one stayed here, in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. So that one I can easily get access to, and the other one I cannot. But what’s also so interesting is how all these museum people often worry about black and white representation, but in the wrong way. When the naked woman painting was shown in Philadelphia – or it may have been Washington – in the captions, they always want to make it as though everything I do is because of apartheid. In America, they don’t see themselves as people with a race problem; they want to see it as an “other” problem. So this painting was hanging there, and the director had said that some people would have difficulties with it. But there was this black guard, and when the director had gone, the guard said to me, “What’s this about?” I said, “What do you think?” He said, “I think these women are looking at a man on the other side.” I said, “You know, you’re right!” In the original image, they were looking at a man.
VA: He got it directly. Well, this goes back to the idea of the purist and the tourist. I like to speak to them both at the same time so I break down every barrier. And I always say “yes,” because when I do, it unlocks things that would have been barriers if I’d said “no.” Race is a large part of my work. My parents are from Ghana in West Africa, but I was born in a suburb in America, so I was like an alien in reverse. And I just didn’t believe in race, which is a political thing to say, but that’s how I practice: I just practice by doing, and from this belief that anything can exist. So I have a clothing line called Off-White, and what I do is put the word “white” on the back of the clothing. But Off-White is the tag on the inside. I was asking, “Can we as humans imply meaning through a word?” The great thing is, it’s commercial, it’s a clothing line, so there are hundreds of thousands of garments that are just walking around in the world, and in people’s closets, which just say “white.” I’m doing a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019, as an artist – I haven’t even told you this yet!
HUO: In Chicago?
VA: Yes, and that show will include the final exclamation point to the clothing. I’m going to produce a collection, or edition, that will only exist just this one time, the only one ever made, that says “black” on the back. So it’s going to shift the context. The pieces are active – they talk to each other, having a dialogue with a word or a color. The value of this one edition is different to the commercial value of the clothing, because it’s only going to be exhibited in a museum. It’s the same, to me, as those two paintings of The Group Show, where the color of the pigment creates a different reaction. It’s the same as with this Jesus, which is super profound, in a church.
HUO: Was the church in Dresden the first time you did a work in a public space or are there others?
Very few. The three public spaces I’ve worked in: one is a psychiatric hospital, the other is a courthouse, the other is a church.
VA: They’re all civic, so they’re super public. Beyond public.
HUO: Three civic spaces. And what did you do in the psychiatric hospital?
I wouldn’t have gone there in any other context, but because I was asked, I said, “I’ll make portraits of the people in there, but only of the people who allow me to do a portrait.” And only those that I can speak to – so that I could ask them what they would like. Then we had these conversations, and everyone was very individual. One person would say, “Red is a color that makes me happy because it’s passionate.” And another person would say, “Red scares me because it’s blood.” Then one person would say, “I don’t want to see sad people. It makes me sad.” But another person would say, “If I have to look at only jolly people, that really makes me sad! That’s depressing!” So that was all so wonderful; it was a wonderful project.
VA: That’s at the core of what a civic project should be.
The people were so kind to me. Most of them are no longer alive.
VA: How many portraits did you do?
I did 20 or so of this group. I took Polaroids of them first.
HUO: You made Polaroids for the portraits – that’s a very Warholian thing.
Yes. And the Polaroid was so lovely because it’s so quick. You get it immediately. With one lady, I said: “Can I make a Polaroid picture of you? There’s one for you and one for me.” And the woman asked me, “How much does it cost?” I said: “It’s for free. I’ll give it to you,” and she said, “Alright, then you can take the picture.” It’s actually very good to speak about these projects.
HUO: Yes, because it’s never been discussed. This is why I wanted to talk about it, because I read all your interviews I could find, and there’s nothing about your public art projects.
And they were my most difficult, but sometimes also very touching.
HUO: So in the courthouse, what did you paint?
It was tapestry works, but it wasn’t only me. When the building was redone, you had different spaces and different artists in there too – like Jan Dibbets, Jeff Wall. In the beginning – and they shouldn’t have said this, because it doesn’t work like that – they said, “You can do what you want.” Well, obviously, but I don’t want to do just anything. There’s a person standing there, getting judged, who has to look at these things – so should you give him porno? [Laughs]
For the tapestry, I used an image from a group of works from 1993 – a young girl who was sort of an allegory or a metaphor for many things. You can’t really see what race she is, but she’s dark. And I was asked not to show her as totally naked. It was a pity to take all this trouble to make only one, since these tapestries were machine-made. So Chris Dercon, who coordinated the project, had two made, and the second one is now in the South African constitutional court in Johannesburg!
VA: That’s perfect.
“When the naked woman painting was shown in Philadelphia – or it may have been Washington – in the captions, they always want to make it as though everything I do is because of apartheid. In America, they don’t see themselves as people with a race problem; they want to see it as an “other” problem.”
I sometimes have lovely instances of things coming together. John McEnroe asked me, years ago –
HUO: The tennis player?
The tennis player. He asked me, “When did you discover you were Marlene Dumas with your work?” And I said, “Sometimes things just fall together, and I could maybe call it grace.” And he says, “Grace? If I win a match, I win it!” [Laughs]
VA: He’s not giving grace the credit! The difference between art and confidence.
HUO: It’s a beautiful definition of art to say that there are occasionally these moments of grace. Gerhard Richter says art is the highest form of hope.
Yeah. I tend to go more for Duchamp, who said, “If you want to see art as a religion, then I think God is better!”
HUO: There’s a fourth public art project you did, which is Reading Prison, where you showed your portraits of Oscar Wilde and Bosie for “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” . But that’s not permanent.
Not permanent, it’s true, but that’s also interesting, the public non-permanent space.
HUO: And was Oscar Wilde a trigger for your Great Men portraits? It was around the same time that you started the portraits of these men.
Great Men was before that, actually. So it’s the other way round. When I did this monograph with Phaidon in 1999, I had to look for literature that I wanted to include, and I chose Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet. The portraits of Pasolini and his mother – which were also shown in Reading Prison, the Oscar Wilde prison – I’d done before in another context, because I like Pasolini so much. You have the relationship of the man and the mother, and the man and the lover, and all the different love stories.
HUO: One thing I always ask in my interviews: Rainer Maria Rilke, another great poet, wrote a text giving advice to a young poet. So I wanted to ask you what would be your advice to a young artist?
Fall in love!
HUO: That’s so good.
With whomever or whatever.