Marlene Dumas at MOCA: Humanism meets Expressionism on Canvas


By Laura Gatewood

Marlene Dumas self-portrait Het Kwaad is Banaal (Evil is Banal), 1984, oil on canvas, 49 3/16" x 41 5/16.

Born in 1953 in South Africa, Marlene Dumas has resided in Amsterdam for almost all of her career, yet the social imprint of being raised a white woman in the midst of apartheid has been a consistent force behind her art. An exploration of how this and other existential questions have resonated throughout her career is the subject of a mesmerizing exhibition currently on view at MOCA’s Grand Avenue until September 22nd.

Titled Measuring Your Own Grave, the exhibition showcases around 60 paintings and 100 drawings spanning several genres. Though the show is in essence a retrospective, the paintings have been arranged thematically instead of chronologically. Each room contains a selection of works examining issues surrounding birth, childhood, race, sexuality, and death. The unusual installation choice enhances the intensity with which Dumas’ art is ultimately a revolving exploration of the psychological complexities and contradictions within individual, political, and cultural identity issues.
Walking through the exhibition, the general palette appears to be darkly monochromatic, and, in combination with the empty stares of her portraits or deformed bodies of her babies, can at first evoke a psychological tension not altogether benevolent. But upon further investigation a broader spectrum of color is discovered across the majority of painted skintones, a prime example being Evil is Banal, and her figuration, for instance in Ad Rheinhardt’s Daughter, is ultimately a tour de force manipulation of abstract expressionism to better portray her humanist intent. It is important to note that for Dumas each title is as integral to the work as canvas and paint, a fact which generates a hint of conceptualism into the art.

Measuring Your Own Grave reveals Dumas trying to determine not only what it meant to be a white woman raised in a racist culture but what it means to be a woman, a mother, an artist, and most importantly a human, living in today’s world. The multiple subtexts in her work make it difficult to isolate defined meanings, but instead the contextual layers might be interpreted as the generous method Dumas uses to offer her viewers whatever aspect of the human condition they seek to find.

12 Responses to “Marlene Dumas at MOCA: Humanism meets Expressionism on Canvas”

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