Marlene Dumas, The Believer, 2005. 20th Century & Contemporary Art.
Written by Dominic van den Boogerd
The present work shows a portrait of a bearded man in close‐up. Who he is, we do not know. The title of the painting identifies him as the ‘believer’. We look at him; he does not look at us. With a somewhat tiresome gaze he stares right over our heads into an unknown distance. It is hard to make out what’s on his mind. All we know is that he believes. His faith lends his appearance a spark of dignity.
The Believer (2005), was included in Marlene Dumas’ solo exhibition Man Kind at the Paul Andriesse Gallery in Amsterdam in 2006. The show marks a key moment in the career of the celebrated South African artist who lives and works in the Netherlands. Although her work was never really about portraiture in the conventional sense of the word (she often refers to her painted portraits simply as ‘heads’), this small but coherent group of paintings and watercolors examines how portraiture in the wake of 9/11 lost its innocence. The works reflect the spirit of the dawn of the third millennium, when feelings of anxiety and insecurity, suspicion and islamophobia became widespread. Something changed in the way different ethnic communities looked at one another. As the President George W. Bush stated when he declared war on terror: you are either with us, or against us. The optimistic days of The Family of Man — Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern art celebrating global solidarity — were gone.
The paintings of young men in the Man Kind series are all based on photographs. Some are inspired by reproductions of Palestinian posters intended to honor the memory of suicide bombers and other martyrs in the Middle East. Others refer to Moroccan boys claiming the streets of Amsterdam, gaining a public visibility their fathers — the first generation of labor immigrants in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s — never had. Looking at these faces, it is hard to tell friend from foe. They add up to a confusing company of mistaken identities and misleading stereotypes — a look‐alike is included.
Dumas explores how the framing of such photographs in the media has led to certain interpretations, judgements and expectations. Almost overnight, the typical image of the bearded Muslim became the new face of the enemy, the next personification of evil. In The Believer and other paintings from the Man Kind series, Dumas counters the subliminal suspicion that every bearded man of North African descent is a potential terrorist, a notion widely spread at the time.
In this respect, The Believer may well be likened to The Neighbor, 2005, a painting of similar format and from the same year that is now a highlight in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. The portrait shows an ordinary looking young man with a short flaxen beard ‐ he could well be the guy next door. This neighbor however has been identified as Mohammed Bouyeri, known in the press as ‘Mohammed B.’, the man arrested and convicted for the murder of Dutch filmmaker and journalist Theo van Gogh, whom he had stabbed to death with a knife on November 2, 2004. The brutal assassination was inspired by fundamentalist religious beliefs. It caused great social turmoil within the Netherlands — heightening feelings of fear and anti‐immigrant sentiments. Considering the person depicted by Dumas in The Neighbor, nothing in his gentle and calm expression indicates that we are standing face to face with a terrorist.
Like all men in the Man Kind series, the person depicted in The Believer is based on a photograph, though the exact source remains unknown. Reincarnated on canvas, the bearded man is ripped from his original context, bereft of his name, his nationality and other indicators that constitute his identity. He is now identified by his belief only — as were many prisoners during the war on terror. The rudimentary composition of the portrait resembles the granular mug shots typical of the time. What to make of him? His face seems to light up in the dark. Subtle tones of pink, blue, yellow, and green shimmer through his pale skin. Some features are marked in thin sketchy lines and short brushstrokes applied with great sensitivity, whereas the unspecified background is rendered in bold and semi‐transparent swipes of dark green and warm brown. The effect is an extraordinary equilibrium between fragility and monumentality. No matter how vulnerable and harmless he may look (note the dark rings around his eyes, the white of the eyeballs), he nonetheless seems to be unreachable, untouchable, as if shielded and protected by his beliefs.
Respect! Forms of Community: Contemporary Art from The Netherlands, Musée Dar Si Saïd, Palais el-Badi, Marrakesh, Morocco, 2005. Photo: Gertjan Kocken
The exhibition history of the painting shines a light on the many possible readings of this extraordinary portrait. The first group show in which The Believer was included was held in Marrakech, to celebrate 400 years of relationships between the Netherlands and Morocco. The exhibition reflected upon the heated debate on the failures and accomplishments of Dutch multicultural society via the work of Dutch artists like Erik van Lieshout, Rachid Ben Ali, Fiona Tan and others. A series of fifteen watercolors by Marlene Dumas was presented (Young Men, 2002‐2005) next to The Believer. With this room, the organizers aimed to underline the potential of painting to subvert presumptuous perceptions, adding a sociological twist to the meaning of the work.
Two years later, The Believer was included in a group exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum, where its presence amid contemporary works by Mike Kelley, Wilhem Sasnal, and others highlighted the topicality of the work and its critical stance towards political controversies surrounding its subject. In 2008, the artist selected the painting for her acclaimed retrospective exhibition Measuring Your Own Grave, organized by two prestigious museums in the United States, placing it firmly in the ranks of her most striking works. In more recent years, the picture was included in a small but beautiful thematic exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, dedicated to artistic takes on religious belief and superstition, including paintings by modern masters such as Odilon Redon, Piet Mondrian, and James Ensor. Within this context, The Believer found himself embedded in a pictorial tradition that seeks to give visual expression to spiritual powers that make earthly existence more profound.
Of course, there is no right or wrong in this multitude of sociological, political, and religious interpretations. Nowadays, Dumas has stated, an image can mean "whatever." As Richard Shiff astutely observed in his catalog essay for the retrospective exhibition in America, "She [Dumas] knows that the viewer of an image brings his or her cultural indoctrination and personal history to bear on the reception of meaning, that differing cultures and histories generate a conflict of interpretations, that competing ideological structures lead individuals deep into moral confusion." In Shiff’s analysis, the words of the artist herself resonate: "When I paint ‘a terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’ (the description depends on your point of view), my painting does not clarify politics or explain a cause. I paint my anxiety."
It might be the uncompromising power of belief that makes this portrait so strong — as if we are standing face to face with a holy man, a visionary capable of seeing things non‐believers cannot see. On the other hand, it might well be the sparse but superb handling of paint that lends this austere composition such a powerful presence. Whatever our doubts about representation, interpretation and identity may be, The Believer makes faith in painting credible.
Dominic van den Boogerd is an art critic and former Director of De Ateliers in Amsterdam. Among many publications, he co‐authored the Phaidon monograph on Marlene Dumas. His collected essays on painting ‘Great Temptations’ was published by ROMA in 2018.