REVIEW BY KATIE EELMAN
While South African visual artist Marlene Dumas has spent decades creating arresting drawings, collages, and paintings, her new book Sweet Nothings is a synthesis of poems and notes on the subject of language present in her art. Sweet Nothings elaborates on a quality that distinguishes her work in general. She says of her use of language: “I want to name our pains. / I want to keep on changing our names.” She writes that she often uses language as a “foreign or aggressive element” in her works, and to the reader it rings true: a viewer can engage with most art while maintaining the freedom of interpretation, but when words are included in the style of Dumas’s works, the viewer is left with no other option but to stare straight on into the artist’s consciousness.
Dumas’s hand-written notes, scribbles, and doodles are treasures—a glimpse into the mind of such a bold, honest, and brave woman. She writes, “Art means never having to say you’re sorry,” and Sweet Nothings never does. It holds nothing back and does not apologize, daring the reader to delve deeper into Dumas’s extraordinary talent and vision.
Reading a poem by Marlene Dumas is not unlike viewing one of her paintings. Like her canvases, her texts are gripping. Often dark, and always mysterious, Dumas’s works, in words and in paint, are beautiful, even while sometimes being so raw it feels intrusive to gaze upon them for too long. While the subject of her writing is often Dumas herself, the speaker of the poems is “revealed” and not “displayed”; the contrast between these two is a theme that Dumas explores at length. The reader gains some understanding of the artist’s background, process, and demeanor, but never enough to feel as though Dumas is a cliché or a caricature.
Sweet Nothings is a learning experience that maintains Dumas’s secrets. “Human beings can’t live without secrets,” she says. “That which is most important to one’s well-being is not public relations.” One is left to wonder, then: if these musings on art, love, personhood, and place, all now in the public, are not most important to Dumas’s well-being, what is? Marlene Dumas’s secrets intrigue, but Sweet Nothings is likely the closest she will come to transparency.
$27.50 PB 256 pages/35 BW ISBN: 9781938922831 Pub date: March 24, 2015