The Life and Work of Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas (1953) grew up with her two older brothers in Jacobsdal, her father’s winery in Kuilsrivier, South Africa. With Afrikaans as her mother tongue she went to the English-language University of Cape Town in1972. There she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts in 1975. With a two-year scholarship, she opted to come to Europe and more specifically to the Netherlands because of the language kinship. As well as visual art, language is an important means of expression for Dumas. She gives her exhibitions and individual works striking titles, writes texts about her paintings and makes commentaries on her own pieces. These texts are collected in the publication, Sweet Nothings (1998).

In the Netherlands she worked at Ateliers ‘63 in Haarlem from 1976 to 1978. Twenty years later, in 1998, she returned to art school De Ateliers, now based in Amsterdam, as a permanent staff member. In addition, Marlene Dumas has taught at several other Dutch art institutes.

In 1978, she exhibited her work for the first time, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Work by René Daniels and Ansuya Blom also featured in this exhibition, called Atelier 15 (10 Young Artists). In 1982, her work was shown in Basel, in the exhibition Junge kunst aus die Niederlanden. In the same year, Rudi Fuchs asked her to take part in Documenta 7. In 1983, she got her first solo show, Unsatisfied Desire, at Gallery Helen van der Meij / Paul Th. Andriesse in Amsterdam. In 1984, the Centraal Museum Utrecht became the first museum to invite her to do a solo exhibition. Dumas responded with a collection of collages, texts and works on paper under the title Ons Land Licht Lager dan de Zee. In 1985, The Eyes of the Night Creatures was her first exhibition devoted solely to painting.

Since the late eighties, her work has been featured in European group exhibitions in museums such as the Tate Gallery in London, under the title Art from Europe (1987) and in Bilderstreit in Cologne (1989). Her first major solo exhibition opened abroad three months after the birth of her daughter in the Kunsthalle in Berne: The Question of Human Pink (1989). In 1992, all the halls of the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven were dedicated to her exhibition Miss Interpreted. This solo show was followed by a tour of Europe and then America. In 1992 her work was also shown at Documenta IX, at the invitation of Jan Hoet. Her first solo gallery show in New York at Jack Tilton received the appropriate title Not from Here. That was in 1994, the year of the first free democratic elections in South Africa. It was also the year in which she exhibited at the Frith Street Gallery in London, along with her contemporaries Juan Muñoz and Thomas Schütte. In 1995, Chris Dercon made the selection for the Dutch contribution to the Venice Biennale, choosing three women: Marlene Dumas, Marijke van Warmerdam and Mary Roossen.

From the mid-nineties, Dumas’ work featured in exhibitions of art from the Netherlands, such as Du concept à l'image (Paris, 1994). She also participated in international, interdisciplinary projects including The 21st Century (Basel, 1993), with Damien Hirst, Roni Horn and others, and the Carnegie International (Pittsburgh, 1995). In 1996, her sparring partners at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC included Mike Kelley, Thomas Schütte, Robert Gober and Rachel Whiteread. The exhibition was entitled, Distemper: Dissonant Themes in the Art of the 1990s. In 1993, Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, staged Dumas’ show, Give the People What They Want. The works in this exhibition then went on to become part of the ‘Der Spiegel zerbrochene’, Positionen zur Malerei (1993), curated by Kaspar König and H.U. Obrist. Other participating artists included Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Richter. Other important exhibitions devoted to painting in which Dumas was represented included Trouble Spot: Painting (1999), Painting at the Edge of the World (2001) and The Painting of Modern Life (2007). Her work has also featured in exhibitions with a focus on Africa, such as the Africus Biennale in Johannesburg (1995) and in Africa Remix (2004-2006).

Although Marlene Dumas has had Dutch nationality since 1989, she has said:

Someone once remarked that I could not be a South African artist and a Dutch artist,
that I could not have it both ways.
I don’t want it both ways.
I want it more ways.

Dumas’ work spans over thirty years. In 2001, Jonas Storsve of the Centre Pompidou staged the first retrospective of her works on paper under the title Nom de Personne. This exhibition was subsequently featured in the New Museum, New York, and in the De Pont Museum in Tilburg, under the title, Name no Names. Between 2007 and 2009 a retrospective of her entire oeuvre, in varying combinations, toured three continents. Starting in Japan under the name Broken White, the overview travelled to South Africa with the title, Intimate Relations. It was the first time that so much of Dumas’ work could be seen on her native soil. The retrospective concluded its tour at the Museum for Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and The Menil in Houston, where it was called, Measuring Your Own Grave.

Awards and honours

Marlene Dumas has received several awards and honours. In 1989, she received the Sandberg Prize and in 1998, specifically for her drawings, the David Roell Prize/Prince Bernhard Cultural Prize for Visual Arts. In 1998 she received the Coutts Contemporary Art Award. In 2010, she received an Honorary Doctorate from the Faculty of Humanities, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. In 2011 in Stockholm, she was awarded the Rolf Shock Prize in the Visual Arts, the stepsibling of the Nobel Prize. Her entire oeuvre is this year awarded the Dutch State Prize for the Arts, the Johannes Vermeer Award 2012.

Marlene Dumas foto © Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas, Mamma Roma, 2012, o/c, 30 x 24 cm