Marlene Dumas is an artist whose work is widely acknowledged and highly respected for focusing the painterly practice on the bare necessities of accommodating the things to be painted refraining from temptations to create aesthetic surplus value. At the same time she aims at some of the most crucial issues of contemporary life, namely the way human beings are identified and bound by categories such as race, gender, religion, family ties and their affiliation with a particular nation. Her work is personal and autobiographical, and at the same time comprehensive in its scope. Grown up in South Africa and living in Holland since 1976, the thinking of Marlene Dumas is deeply informed by her experience of apartheid. Many of her works take as their starting point political and social conditions of segregation, oppression and domination to explore the fragilities of existence, the difficulties of living together, feelings of fear and anxiety, desire and expectation, and the conditions of love and war.
Usually her paintings are based on photographs: Polaroids made by herself of people close to her, or press photos and imagery taken from the internet. From these photos individual figures, bodies or body parts are isolated and painted in a physical and sensuous manner designed not only to represent her subjects but to re-invest the photographs with a sense of the living body a sort of reincarnation of the depicted bodies through the painterly touch. Dumas has written: 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.
The core of the exhibition Contra o Muro consists of a body of work that has been shown for the first time in March 2010 at the David Zwirner gallery, New York, under the title Against the Wall. This title refers to the wall that epitomizes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the so-called Security Wall, but also the roadblocks in the occupied territories and the Wailing Wall. A set of seven large paintings shows people framed by walls, in one painting a Lebanese mother squatting next to an open grave with a photograph of her son in front of her, while the paintings Mind Blocks and Under Construction just show the bare constructions used to secure the Israeli domination of Palestine. Some paintings relate to each other in a grotesque way: Wall Wailing and Wall Weeping show Palestinians pushed against a wall, hands up, to be searched by the Israeli military in a raid in Jerusalem in 1967. Constructed from large stone blocks this wall resembles the Wailing Wall. The painting The Wall, on the other hand, shows orthodox Jews preparing for prayer at Rachels Tomb in Bethlehem before the Security Wall. Here, however, a first glance may assume the faithful to be standing next to the Wailing Wall. These paintings intimate an exchange between Palestinians and Israelis that points to their tragic interrelation and implements at the same time the power of painting to upset the reality of the obvious.
Those are the first paintings of Marlene Dumas that feature the architectural environment determining peoples lives constructions that promote the most painful separation and they are the paintings that refer in the most unambiguous way to a specific political situation. Dumas expresses her protest against the wall between Israel and Palestine in the shape of works that not only depict walls but that are turned through painting into walls that confront the spectator. To emphasize the fact however that taking a political position is grounded in her struggle with the boundaries and possibilities of her chosen medium, Dumas has noted years ago, As a couple needs a space to warm up to, / an image needs an edge to relate to, / and a painting needs a wall to object to. In her recent works Dumas seems to come upon ways to take her older statement literally.
Already in the New York show the paintings of walls were juxtaposed with more works of different sizes relating in a more or less straightforward way to a life under domination, e.g. the painting of a member of the military depicted as a huge silhouette watching over people crouching in front of him. As if in defiance to oppression another work depicts a boy waving in a gesture of desperation and expectation leaving undecided if he is to be considered a friend or foe. Through the title Living on your Knees, the culturally specific body language of a praying Moslem that signifies humility is self-consciously interpreted from the vantage point of the European culture as an expression of humiliation. Also there is a self-portrait of Marlene Dumas titled The Sleep of Reason. Referring to Goyas renowned cycle of etchings titled Disasters of War, this work acknowledges the artists rootedness in European culture her remoteness from the conflict she approaches through her imagination and at the same time indicates her involvement in what she is painting to a degree where she assumes the position of the guilty part in something she cannot prevent or change. Also included are some of the rare still lives by Marlene Dumas, e.g. a bouquet of roses painted in dark colours as if to contradict the joyful connotation of flowers. The title of this work, Charity, points to concepts of sharing and caring the reference to religious notions is obvious and at the same time implies a reflection on the shortcomings of art itself that risks to be confined to a non-consequential if non-patronizing position. As much as the work of Marlene Dumas aims to be unequivocal in its protest against the specific construction of domination, it also includes the expression of suspicion of its own endeavour.
the scope of the body of work that was exhibited in New York is broadened by carefully chosen paintings from the past decade that may be re-appreciated in the light of the works that form the exhibition Against the Wall. While in many cases the source material for these works relates to the Middle Eastern conflict, it has been painterly transformed into works expressing more general concerns of death, loss and sacrifice the condition of the human being confronted with an adverse world. In the context of the present exhibition these works open up to a more specific reading: the political is revealed as a condition pervading the existential. A particular set of works is made up of the pictures of crying women, painted after the images of film stars in tears. When Dumas first painted these works she was grieving the loss of her mother: So I made the (film)stars and the gods weep for her. In the show Contra o Muro, however, it can be felt that the stars are weeping also for all the people whose lives are destroyed in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.