Summer 07, WM #4: MARLENE DUMAS - "BROKEN WHITE", Tokyo, Japan

Canvases dripping of soiled lives, loss and destitution, blurred lines
bleeding out, fogging any chance for perfection. Low-lit mixtures of
incandescent colors glowing blue, overexposing their afflictions, rendering
spooky, honest images. The faces of broken spirits, broken dreams, and
broken hearts impressing you and oozing heavily into your thoughts,
clinging, screaming silently and beating you with their anguish. Lonesome
line-ups  lacking and void of hope, flushed and watered down, yet strong and
surrounded, drawing strength from each other, is what I see as I make my way
through the exhibit.

"Broken White", the first full selection of about 250 works by South African
born painter, Marlene Dumas, to be exhibited in Japan at The Museum of
Contemporary Art, Tokyo, is a haunting display of people and the way they
live their lives.  Dumas grew up in a hostile South Africa and became
interested in the hardships, misery and misfortunes plaguing people of a
certain gender, race, and class at an early age.  Dumas works with oil and
ink, drawing from self shot polaroid pictures or other images and clips
gathered from the media. Dumas never works with live models. She prefers to
work alone with the image in her studio in hopes of creating a unique
relationship with each study and capturing their struggle.

"Love breaks your heart and takes you to that place where pain becomes
beauty", says Dumas. That place that only racism, death, unease, fear can
unveil. That which Dumas so tenderly admires thus gracefully, and with
seemingly little effort, exposes with paint and ink, sharing hints of
different worlds and forcing us to acknowledge their existence for at least
one vivid moment.

Dumas recently chose to work from a photograph taken by a very established
Japanese photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki. The photograph by Araki, entiltled,
Japanes Girl Naked on Bed, inspired Dumas and this spark became the title
piece for her exhibit in Japan, "Broken White". The original photograph is a
stunning shot of a Japanese girl on a bed, head turned to the side and an
impressive, exposed chest.  By a stroke of simple genius Dumas zooms in and
isolates the expression on her face, which with unnecessary guilt, might go
unnoticed in the photograph.  At first glance, one might assume amorous
expressions of ecstasy and pleasure, but Dumas saw something different. The
appropriately named painting,"Broken White", Dumas's somber interpretation
of Araki's photograph, magnifies sadness, disappointment, misery, regret and
an unmistakable loss of "white", or innocence. "White", universally, can be
used to portray innocence without a word.  I think this very idea set the
tone for the rest of the exhibit - A selection of soul staining works
focused on loss of innocence, inadequacies, vulnerability and the broken
people left behind.

The exhibit unleashes with Dumas's famous, early nineties series of pen and
ink drawings, FEMALE.  Ninety six drawings in all, Dumas explores the many
faces of South African women living in a broken and unforgiving world.
Working together as a group, the women draw their strength from each other,
begging for acceptance, and unintentionally dragging you to that place where
their pain and vulnerability does become beautiful.  Their collective hopes
seem to reside in the vague strokes of ink, the blotted paper and in the
obscure face of one woman near the top middle. The groups generally forlorn,
down-turned glances become uplifting when you notice the hopeful,
up-turned,soft expression of this one woman, almost as if she is keeping a
secret, this same lingering secret that is hidden beneath the illuminating
layers of Dumas's body of work.

Mirroring this exquisite series, demanding my attention, and almost tapping
on my shoulder was yet another powerful series entitled, SERIES OF BOYS.  As
if lined-up for witnesses, or sinners arriving at their judgement, these
boys look exposed, vulnerable, uncomfortably awaiting a result. These boys
seemed just as bound by the paper, just as stained and undecided as the they
are in society.  Striking insecure poses of agony, Dumas captures their
curiosities by applying cadaverous colors and exaggerated,limp lines to draw
you in, challenging you to move on to the next room or to stay and judge.
With suggestive titles like MILK WHITE, WET SUIT, COME ON, and GENDER
BENDER, and after careful judgement, this particular series of knee-up
studies seems to take on an attitude, one of a punk rock nature. Dumas
believes that insanity is a painters melody, therefore, all female painters
are mad. The insubordinate lines and disobedient colors sing out in a
rebellious chorus of disregard and revolt. Dumas erects an army of
insurgents, feminine and unarmed, yet unstoppable. Marching miles, stripped
of their shields and bearing all their imperfect desires. Together they
become an opus, lyrical lines of ink bound by nothing, blowing speakers and
resonating bulletproof freedom. Turning up the volume in a forsaken, dead
room and awakening every other work with blushing scores. Forcing an
exorcism of their overbearing secrets, hidden behind dried media, and
conducting the creation of a platform on which the exhibit could finally

Marlene Dumas has spent her career composing insane, melodic documentations
with paint and ink, stripping her subjects down and rawly exposing their
sorrows and secrets. Surrounded by dejection, imprisonment, abandonment,
loss and gloom, Dumas revives her abused people in her acclaimed exhibit at
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and within these walls, leads you to
a beautiful place. A place as colorless, genderless, and without status as
the truest form of white light. A place where they all regain their
innocence, modeled into celebrated masterpieces and admired, adored for
their pain.

Leigh Harris

Leigh Harris lives and works in Japan.
She is a freelance photographer and enjoys writing.
She graduated with a BA in GRAPHIC DESIGN from
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

view all articles from this author