Exclusive interview: 'People are now telling me I'm crazy to let go of it...'

South African artist Marlene Dumas is regarded as one of today's leading international female painters. She also happens to be one of the top-three highest paid female artists in the world, whose artworks regularly sell for millions.

At the same time, Dumas's works have received mixed reactions, to say the least. Take for instance the New Yorker, which described her paintings as: "insouciantly ugly pictures ... based on photographs of corpses, torture victims, terrorists ... pornographically posed nudes ... discontented faces ... [with] breezy feminism."

Clearly, Dumas is by no means a conformist - and one can only imagine how she got on as a teenager at the exclusive High School for Girls, situated in the beautiful village of Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands, South Africa, in the 1970s.

One person who knows the answer to this is Alida Snyman (née Louw). Alida not only attended the school with Marlene 40 years ago, but is now preparing to auction one of the artist's earliest-known works at Bonhams, tomorrow (March 23).

The piece in question is a charming picture drawn especially for Alida's 16th birthday, back in 1971.

Marlene Dumas' artwork for Alida's 16th birthday (£7,000-£10,000)

Both Bonhams and Ms Snyman admit that the work would be of little significance were it not for the then-budding schoolgirl artist's now international reputation. Nevertheless, the piece has attracted global interest and a £7,000-£10,000 pre-sale estimate.

In the run-up to Wednesday's sale, Alida kindly took time out to chat to Paul Fraser Collectibles about the painting, her childhood memories of one of South Africa's leading artists, and how she hopes the sale will further boost the growing SA art markets...

Marlene painted the work that is appearing for sale at Bonhams for your 16th birthday in 1971. Can you please tell us the story behind the painting?

In Boarding School, it was an old custom that all the girls would write a little personal message in a Birthday Booklet for you on your special day. Marlene was the dedicated artist, assigned with the task of creating all the front pages [and] the cover. And believe me, I never saw a duplication, ever!

What was the inspiration behind the work?

I believe Marlene was the inspiration behind each of her own creations. 

She had this totally amazing talent where she would just go and sit behind a sheet of white paper and within minutes, this psychedelic face would appear, mostly in colours of black, purple and orange though! Those in their teens then would remember that these were the "in" colours of the 70's...

A school friend sat with a wall of Marlene's artworks, photographed in 1970

Marlene herself at school, aged 16 (courtesy of Bloemhof Archives)

Marlene painted the work for you back in 1971. Is there any particular reason why you have chosen to sell it now?

People are now telling me I am crazy to let go of it... I have nurtured this little picture for four decades.

When it was painted it seemed like a light-hearted work of moments. But 40 years later, the student artist, Marlerne Dumas, is a major figure in the art world. And I am still greatly flattered that she took the trouble to capture this image for me.

When I recently discovered it between antique doilies in a drawer, I realised that I would like to see this picture find a loving place between other Marlene Dumas [works] in the home of a passionate collector, rather than remaining in obscurity.

Why did you choose Bonhams to sell your painting, and how have you found the experience of consigning your artwork to Bonhams' South African Art sale?

By happy coincidence, Bonhams' Director of Press and Marketing, Julian Roup, is a long-lost Capetonian (who incidentally grew up with me in Bloubergstrand) with his own South African artistic and literary credentials. 

I have quickly realised that Bonhams is not some faceless British company. Its South African Department is led by people who really appreciate and value SA art. Penny Culverwell [local Bonhams specialist] flew out to Cape Town, did a valuation of the work and the rest is history! 

Hasn't she grown... Dumas's Die Baba (The Baby) sold for $1,920,000 over estimate at Christie's in 2006

Has the internet made things easier from your point of view as a seller?

The story surrounding this 40-year-old little painting of a girl with purple hair, has gone viral thanks to Bonhams' marketing muscle and understanding.

I am still totally amazed by the global interest. This global interest from the international press is portrayed by approximately 27 pages on Google now! Totally overwhelming.

Marlene's works have been described as "insouciantly ugly", featuring corpses and other shocking themes. Are you surprised by the content of Marlene's works?

No, I am not shocked. Can you see Marlene painting landscapes...?! As some art critic wrote before: "Marlene Dumas' work is like Marmite... You either love it or you hate it!"

Marlene was beautiful, inside and out [and] loved by every single girl. Quite an achievement in an all-girls school where one always has a degree of pettiness! Our very stern head-mistress, Miss Liza, even adored her. (I cannot say whether Marlene adored her back though!)

Alida Snyman found the old Dumas
artwork from her schooldays in
a drawer

[She] was a free spirit, painting light-hearted and very modern works. I never experienced her as dark, depressed or warped.  No, she was just a very normal, sweet, good-mannered, religious and very talented schoolgirl. And she never got punished for being late - I think the teachers just realised she's a free spirit, just let her be!

I think she just captures people's suffering all over the world  -  raw and painful emotion caused by incidents, moments, bad people doing bad things to good people. [This work is] juvenile and not in her later more developed style. It is definitely intriguing and shows a most interesting insight into her early style.  

Finally, what are your hopes for the sale?

Although Marlene is one of the three highest-paid female artists in the world, in South Africa, up to now, it was more the cognoscenti and art-intelligentsia who knew and appreciated her work. 

I believe that this fresh and juvenile work by the young Marlene will give her local profile a positive boost, and make South Africans proud of one of our own!


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