Woman of Algiers

November 30, 2006
Woman of Algiers, 2001 by Marlene Dumas.

Woman of Algiers, 2001 by Marlene Dumas. Oil on Canvas, 78 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. Partial and promised gift of E. Blake Byrne '57

Woman of Algiers is based on a black-and-white photograph taken in 1960 recording the atrocities of the civil war in Algeria. The artist, Marlene Dumas, came across the photo in 2001, when it was published for the first time in a Dutch newspaper. Dumas, one of the most sought-after artists in the current art market, was born in South Africa and lives and works in Amsterdam.

The National Liberation Front launched the Algerian War of Independence to end French colonial rule and return control to native Islamic Algerians. The civil war lasted from 1954 to 1962 and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths (mostly of Algerians).

In this painting a young, unidentified nude woman is forcibly held by two soldiers. The black censorship bars, added by the Dutch newspaper when it published the photograph, are reproduced by Dumas. However, she crops out most of the figures of soldiers to prevent the viewer from identifying them as either French or Algerian. Similarly, the cultural identity of the woman is unknown, and we cannot be certain whether she is a member of the National Liberation Front or a French loyalist of European descent.

With the identities of the figures depicted obscured, the viewer focuses on the expressive brushwork and non-naturalistic colors that are prevalent in Dumas' work. The colors, especially, seem to have a logic all their own, almost separate from the description of the main figure, but their energy and vibrancy help to convey the artist's intent.

"I hope," Dumas says, "that the painting is different from and much more positive than its original source," thus perhaps restoring the dignity of a victim of war. The artist transformed the documentary photograph into a bold work, beautifully painted and embodying the issues she is most interested in: colonialism, racism, sexism, social injustice, and what she calls "the geography of politics."

By giving the painting the same title as works by Eugène Delacroix and Pablo Picasso of exotic, languid women in Oriental dress, Dumas encourages us to think about "what has happened to our notions of Orientalism and history painting in this new century."

"One cannot paint the Woman of Algiers like Delacroix or Picasso anymore. We cannot ‘use' the ‘Orient' for our own purposes anymore without acknowledging all the things we did not know," she says. "We struggle to expose and to hide the mistakes/horrors we keep on repeating."