Marlene Dumas, ‘The Image as Burden’ at Tate Modern

By Sunday, March 1, 2015 0 1

5th February – 10th May 2014
Tickets: £16 Adult, £14 Concession

The Image as Burden is an intriguing title for Marlene Dumas’ retrospective at the Tate Modern, and its significance becomes apparent as we enter the first room of the exhibition, with her series Rejects (1994-2014). A stunning collection of disembodied faces greets us as we enter, brought to life in graphite and ink with an overtly painterly hand. The accompanying text informs us that the subjects of Rejects were, in fact, rejected by Dumas herself from an earlier series, Models (1994). The subjects’ status as Rejects is consolidated by the damaged quality they take on through Dumas’ distortion of line and form through liberal use of watered-down ink, manifesting itself as blotches. This opening room is undoubtedly one of the strongest in the show, both in terms of aesthetics and conception.

As we move through the rooms, curated in the thematic manner that has come to be typical of Tate Modern, we are informed of Dumas’ relationship with her homeland, South Africa. Her origins have no doubt influenced her practise to a great extent. The relevance of the concept of The Image as Burden can be linked to the power that the image bore under the apartheid system; all images of Nelson Mandela were banned following his imprisonment in 1964. This act of censorship is indicative of the strength of the relationship between an idea and the image that represents it.

Assessing what constitutes identity is a process Dumas illustrates for us visually and in her use of language, particularly with works such as We Don’t Need Names Here (1973). The title of the work is lifted from a line spoken by Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972). The film portrays a sexual relationship between characters who decide to remain completely anonymous to one another, until one of them shatters the illusion with catastrophic consequences. Dumas’ piece combines a still from the film with a photograph from an ethnographic study; together these images question which personal markers constitute an identity. We Don’t Need Names Here is one of many examples throughout the show of Dumas’ tendency to pastiche and reference the canon of visual culture, appropriating ideas, language and images in a way that marks them indelibly with her authorship.

The question of the author’s relationship with their audience is posed by the title of her painting The Death of the Author (2003). Here Dumas references Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay of the same name, in which Barthes promotes the importance of the audience’s interpretation of works over any premeditated intention by the author. When we apply Barthes’ theory to Dumas’ work, it is evident that throughout The Image as Burden the author is very much alive and present. Across the whole show, the single unifying element that is evident in the aesthetic of every drawing, painting and collage is the personal touch of Marlene Dumas.

Characteristic of the exhibition’s other highlights is a willingness to engage with political issues. One of these stand-out works is Black Drawings (1991-2), conceived at the time that the apartheid system was starting to unravel. Featuring an array of faces placed alongside one another, Black Drawings intends to question how the audience’s perception of individuals might be altered when they are situated as part of a group. The portraits are, as ever, reproductions of an existing image; taking this process in context, Black Drawings also serves to challenge how black faces are pictured in the media. Another key engagement with the political can be seen with the series Great Men (2014), portraits of sixteen gay men of great accomplishments including Oscar Wilde, Nikolai Gogol and Tennessee Williams. First exhibited at Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg, Great Men was conceived as a protest against Russia’s anti-gay laws, which prohibit “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors”. While the aesthetic of the portraits bears similarities to the anonymous faces we saw in Rejects and Black Drawings, with Great Men Dumas adds a statement of identification to each famous face. Here, identity is a crucial component, homosexuality is what unites but does not define the individuals that form this collection of Great Men.

In its entirety, The Image as Burden presents a broad spectrum of technical and critical approaches, demonstrating Dumas’ versatility as an artist. Her delicate ink and water drawings stand juxtaposed against the bold and expressive use of colour we see in works such as Genetic Longing (1984). The former are, on the whole, more successful, but the latter are nonetheless interesting and exhibit a more daring visual approach. The works have been curated in a dynamic way, often placed at unexpected heights in relation to one another. While this is largely successful, at certain points it borders on distracting. The exhibition is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and should not be missed by anyone with a keen interest in visual culture.

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