Political Affect and Becoming-Child: The Case of Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas is a prominent artist of our times whose work, consisting largely of figures and portraits of minority subjects, such as people of colour, women, and children, has been characterised as both emotional and political. In this paper I would like to examine Dumas’s work through the lenses of Deleuzian theory, by making use of the latter’s affective dimension.

Specifically I would like to analyse two paintings produced during the period around Dumas’s own pregnancy, Helena and The Baby, as materialising processes of becoming- child, and examine the latter under the light of contemporary theories on the political significance of affect. Combining Deleuze’s non-human, machinic agency and becoming as affective imperceptible process with the idea of “ugly feelings” as indicators of obstructed agency, I would like to explore how the above artworks contribute in new ways of sensing, perceiving, and intervening in the world.

Abstracting the world from elements of signification and meaning, Deleuze and Guattari reveal the latter as an interplay between affective functions and relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness. Children, according to them, can act as mediums carrying us away towards worlds of affects and intensities, leading us to liberating minoritarian processes, namely becomings, potentially guiding us from child-becomings to becomings that are molecular and ultimately imperceptible.

Following Deleuze’s view on aesthetics as creation of experience rather than representation and perceiving the children depicted in Dumas not as subjects or molar entities, but as powerful affective sites where vulnerability and defiance become assembled, I would like to consider her works as providing us with new ambivalent models and ways of sensing and encountering states of dependency, weakness, and need. By shedding light on the emotional weight of dependency, Dumas permits us to perceive the unavoidable state of relationality, that we are already immersed into, and therefore creates an affective political base for the deconstruction of subjective models built around the concept of personal sovereignty and of social models centrally relying upon the value of individualism. On the other hand, creating a space of child-becomings opens up a potential for a politics of care.

Moreover, Dumas’s works offer a new perspective on the importance of minor negative emotions as potential liberating forces revealing cases where the power to act is obstructed or taken away altogether.  The  immersive  figures  of  the  above  paintings, by expressing emotions of irritation, hostility, mistrust, and subtle anger as possible reactions to power subordination, affirm the effectiveness of radical passivity and create states of in-betweenness where the meaning of what is considered socially productive emotion becomes transformed.

Ultimately by bringing to the fore the child’s subtle and complex affective power, Dumas puts the viewer in a process sweeping away the poles of  the adult–child distinction in a zone of indiscernibility that transforms both, liberating them from the tyranny of measuring themselves in relation to the universal, majoritarian ideal of subjectivity. Ultimately by destabilising our conceptions about the passivity–action polarization and producing new ways of affective interaction, Dumas is potentially altering dominant conceptions of what constitutes socio-political agency.