Dumile (Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba) Feni (1942 – 1991)
DUMILE: ARTIST IN EXILE
This text has been extracted from the catalogue: Dumile: Artist in exile, written and published by Bruce Campbell-Smith in association with Art on Paper in 2004.
One day I was in the Township with this driver and we went past a line of men who were all handcuffed. I don’t know what for, maybe for having no pass or something. Anyway the driver said, ‘Why don’t you ever draw things like that?’ I didn’t know what to say. Then just when I was still thinking, a funeral for a child came past. A funeral on a Monday morning. You know, all the people in black on a lorry. And as the funeral went past those men in handcuffs, those men watched it go past, and those with hats took off their hats. I said to the guy I was with, ‘That’s what I want to draw!’ (Simon, 1968: 43).
Dumile Feni: The artist and the work
I work hard. I draw, I sculpt, I do my best. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. Other people can worry about that. I must work (Simon, 1968: 41).
Dumile Feni remains an enigma in South African art: an artist held in high regard premised on a mere fraction of his oeuvre and a man about whom so little is known. The limited knowledge of his art derives primarily from the few major works that were acquired by South African Museums in the mid 1960s before he left South Africa in 1968. Most of this work is located at the University of Fort Hare and has as a consequence been relatively inaccessible. African Guernica, regarded by many as his ‘seminal work’, is among the works at Fort Hare and has only recently been made more readily accessible to the broader public in the Decade of Democracy Exhibition at the Cape Town Castle.
The four drawings acquired by the South African National Gallery (SANG) have had only limited national exposure. The best known of these drawings is Railway Accident.
Ironically perhaps, Railway Accident, which was one of five of Dumile’s drawings exhibited on the 1967 Sao Paulo Biennale, was prominently featured in The Short Century, a major international exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor. The exhibition, which featured artwork of African origin, traveled to important art venues in Germany (Berlin and Munich) and the United States (Chicago and New York), but, significantly, nowhere in Africa.
The last time an artwork of Dumile’s from the SANG Collection was shown in South Africa was in 1988 when the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) hosted the groundbreaking exhibition, ‘The Neglected Tradition’, curated by Steven Sack under the apt and challenging sub-title ‘Towards a New History of South African Art (1930-1988)’. The exhibition, regrettably, never traveled to any other art venue in the country.
The Pretoria Art Museum (PAM), the Durban Art Gallery (DAG) and the Anne Bryant Art Gallery in East London acquired a few further examples of his primary work. Of these works the best known is undoubtedly Fear in the PAM Collection. It also featured on the The Neglected Tradition and was reproduced in Berman’s Art and Artists of South Africa.
In the circumstances it seems that most people are familiar with only a narrow range of Dumile’s work as a consequence of the few reproductions in art books dedicated to profiling the significance of work produced by black artists: Contemporary Art in Africa and Images of Man by E.J. De Jager, Echoes of African Art by Matsemela Manaka and The Neglected Tradition by Steven Sack.
Yet, despite the limited frame of visual reference available, Dumile’s work is viewed with something approaching reverence, if not awe, by South African artists and the art public. It is expressly acknowledged that he played a vital role in foregrounding a unique form of expressionism that drew upon and articulated the repressive social, economic and political conditions of his time. Bill Ainslie articulated the artist’s significant contribution in this regard:
Dumile took the raw material of his life in Soweto… and translated it into work in a manner, which revealed a capacity to face unflinchingly the most frightening extremities of human desperation and cruelty without spilling over into sentimentality or overblown expressionism. His originality led to a new style of drawing in South Africa, but I have not found anybody equal the ferocity and compassion of his work (1967).
Steven Sack, in addressing the merits of South African art of the sixties and seventies articulates his assessment of Dumile’s role in the following terms:
The master of turbulent imagery was undoubtedly Dumile Feni, who was known as the Goya of the townships. His apocalyptic vision talks directly of personal experience, indicating the extent to which the political and the personal had become inextricably intertwined (1988: 17).
Dumile commanded the respect of his peers, inspiring many of them and arguably influencing others, notably Julian Motau and Enoch Tshabalala. He was the catalyst of an emergent stylistic idiom that found expression and flourished for a significant period before losing its expressive power.
Dumile and some of his contemporaries rapidly achieved prominence and a concomitant measure of commercial success. Unfortunately a plethora of less talented artists, endeavouring to exploit prevailing market sentiment and capitilise on the success of the original stylistic protagonists, succeeded them. These artists produced a large volume of work, but little of any artistic merit, resulting in it later being identified under the inappropriate generic rubric of ‘Township art’.
Anitra Nettleton reviewing Dumile Feni: Drawings from the 1960s exhibited at the 1991 Grahamstown Festival commented as follows:
It is notable that Dumile, having been called the first “township” artist, never seems to have softened his approach in order to pander to the sentimentalist demands of the white-dominated market in South Africa as did so many contemporary and subsequent artists from the “townships”.
Dumile continues to be held in high esteem by succeeding generations of young artists. William Kentridge distinctly recalls having been profoundly moved by the large-scale charcoal drawings that Dumile was working on when he visited Bill Ainslie’s home as a young boy, and he openly acknowledges the impact that Dumile’s work had on him. In a discussion with Joyce Ozynski in 1981 on the ‘art of the clenched fist’ Kentridge, amid many reservations about the genre, remarked of Dumile:
Now someone like Dumile when he worked here, did drawings, which at first sight looked like down and out scare-crows. But when you came within a few feet of them they would give you a good kick in the guts.
It is misleading however to claim, as Dan Cameron has, ‘…his (Kentridge’s) brand of expressionism can be directly tied to the intense large charcoal drawings and small ink drawings of the artist Dumile… with whom he studied’ (1999: 41). Cameron refers to a period at the Art Foundation ‘in the early seventies’.
Dumile left South Africa early in 1968, when Kentridge was hardly thirteen years old and ‘his brand of expressionism’ unquestionably derives from alternative sources that have been documented. Neal Benezra in the Abrahams publication concedes that as a teenager Kentridge took evening classes at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. At the time Dumile was living and working at the Ainslie house.
Billy Mandindi, in his large-scale pastel drawing Portrait Amongst Men, also indirectly acknowledges his admiration for Dumile by eclectically introducing characterized figurative elements that derive directly from Dumile’s intensely evocative drawing Fear. Mandindi’s drawing was included in the Art from South Africa Exhibition, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and traveled to several other prominent art venues in the United Kingdom. Then there is also Thami Mnyele, who specifically mentioned Dumile whenever the occasion arose for his exceptional expressive art.
Dumile’s stature as an artist has its genesis in a body of drawings and, to a lesser extent, sculptures, produced between 1965 and early 1968 before he left South Africa and went into self-imposed exile. His first solo exhibition was at Gallery 101 in Johannesburg in 1966. In August the same year he was invited to exhibit at the Durban Art Gallery. In Durban he resided with fellow artist Omar Badsha whose art he admired immensely. A relationship had developed from their initial meeting at the Jubilee Centre, in Johannesburg, that was to endure for many years.
In October 1966, Dumile and Omar jointly organized an exhibition, entitled Trans Natal Group, at the Natal Society of Artists gallery. Bill Ainslie, Abdul Kader Motala, Durant Sihlali and Shireen Timol participated. This exhibition elicited a great deal of interest from the security police who questioned some of the young artists participating concerning the activities of the Trans Natal Group. Dumile visited Durban on more than one occasion spending several months there overall. It was a productive time for Dumile in which he produced several drawings and sculptures. He also produced a mural on the back wall of the courtyard in Douglas Lane, which was situated in the Casbah area of Durban, where he was living and working with the Badsha family. The mural was illustrated in a Durban newspaper. The Casbah area was later threatened by Group Areas Legislation and by 1970 most of the families resident there, including the Badshas had been evicted. Dumile later reciprocated Badsha’s hospitality by sending an invitation to him to visit him in Johannesburg, enclosing a train ticket. Omar subsequently visited him in Johannesburg on several occasions until his departure from South Africa.
In the same period (1966-7) he exhibited at the Transvaal Academy twice, at the Republican Arts Festival and in the South African Breweries National Art Competition where he received a merit award for the work submitted. Five works were accepted for the subsequent exhibition, which travelled to several prominent venues in South Africa. A further show at Gallery 101 was held in 1967.
In 1967 he was invited to represent South Africa at the Sao Paulo Biennale. Five of his drawings were exhibited. Artwork of Dumile’s also formed part of the South African representation at EXPO 67 in Montreal. Dumile however insisted that his work did not ‘represent’ South Africa: ‘They might have been sending it as that, but I was not sending it like that’ (Cockcroft, 1983: 7).
Dumile was subjected to a great deal of criticism by his Durban colleagues for participating in some of afore-mentioned shows and breaking the cultural boycott. After discussions with them he became considerably more circumspect about where his work was shown. Dumile is also represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
The limited range of work acquired by Art Institutions and which established Dumile’s profile as an artist was acquired from these shows. However a considerable amount of work, exhibited over this same period has only recently become available for reference. This new reference material enables South Africans to deduce that a paltry thirty four percent, (nineteen drawings out of a body of fifty-five works), were collected by institutions and it is these works, subsequently reproduced in various art publications that have informed the art community. The additional information can be attributed to the singular endeavour of Fernand Haenggi who has collated data relevant to the body of artwork produced by Dumile between 1965 and his second show at Gallery 101 in 1967. This information has been posted on the Haenggi Foundation website and though still incomplete, will enable scholars to more accurately assess the prodigious talent of the artist.
The location of the balance of the work, not acquired by recognized institutions, has not yet been determined. With the imminent prospect of a Dumile retrospective exhibition to be hosted by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, it is hoped that this unaccounted for work, presumably held in diverse collections, locally and abroad, will be located and included in the retrospective exhibition.
With the exception of An Age, reproduced in The Classic, the retrospective will include several additional large-scale charcoal drawings, executed before Dumile left the country, but not previously exhibited. These drawings were no doubt executed after Dumile’s last show at Gallery 101 in 1967, while he was staying with and working in close association with Bill Ainslie, as well as during periods spent in Durban. The majority of these drawings were taken by Dumile to London when he left South Africa and are now held in private collections in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. It is hoped that many of these works will however be shown on the forthcoming retrospective exhibition which is being curated by Prince Dube. In addition, three large works, (including a triptych), recently acquired by the Johannesburg Art Gallery from this body of work, will also be exhibited for the first time.
The retrospective exhibition and the recent establishment of the Dumile Foundation will surely provide the opportunity for a far greater understanding of his life and work and provide a platform from which to celebrate the legacy and immense contribution this exceptionally talented artist has made to our cultural heritage.
Dumile Feni: A biographical sketch
A paucity of written archival information compounds the enigma of Dumile. Much of the material is contradictory, is subject to circumspection and extremely difficult to verify. Dumile himself contributed to this dilemma and a lot of information provided by Dumile to writers does not stand up to scrutiny. Biographical information gathered from diverse sources offers only a cursory outline of his life, the generalized details of which are as follows:
Dumile was born in Worcester, in the Cape Province, to devout Christian parents who have been documented as being ’of Xhosa ancestry’. He appeared to have been initiated in traditional Xhosa custom and several of his drawings, which the writer has viewed, unquestionably depict Xhosa initiation subject matter. Moreover, on the SA Academy exhibition of 1966 he exhibited a drawing: Circumcision. An interview, which Moji Mokone conducted with Dumile in his Bleeker Street studio in 1987, confirms his ‘…deflowered lingam’.
However, interviewed by Eva Cockcroft for Art and Artists, Dumile states quite unequivocally that he is of Bushman descent. Dumile claimed that the most important influences in his artistic development were his visits to the Bushman caves with his mother as a child, where he saw the paintings and carvings of his ancestors. In his designs and drawings he claimed that he persisted in using the ochres and earth colours of the rock paintings. On another occasion in this regard he said, ‘I am amazed by one thing that I’m glad never left me - that is the beauty of the lines, the fine lines’ (Feni, 1985: 434).
The dates of Dumile’s birth provided in various published biographies also differ considerably and range from 21 May 1939 to 1942. In the 1967 Sao Paulo catalogue his age is given as ‘about 26 years old’ and he is described as being Tembu. Berman states that Dumile himself ‘was uncertain as to the date of his birth’. The uncertainty about his birth-date also appears in Dumile’s admission to Eachus King who wrote that ‘He does not know how old he is’ in an interview with the artist published in Artlook in November 1966. A theory has subsequently been put forward by contemporaries of Dumile that he would inevitably have been reticent about stating his age in order to safeguard himself from provisions of apartheid legislation, which governed the residential and employment status of ‘Non-Whites’.
His father, who had been a policeman, became a trader and an evangelist. His mother, devout in her Christian beliefs, insisted on morning and evening prayers. Of this perfunctory religious observance and notwithstanding his high regard for his mother, he later remarked:
You can’t pray every day. Sometimes the words don’t come. It’s no use forcing it. If God is there, He doesn’t want you to pray every day. It would drive Him crazy, He would slap you out of the house. Why does the church pray every day? (Simon, 1968: 42).
At the age of 6, after his mother’s death, the family moved to Athlone in Cape Town. Life was hard as the artist recollected:
One day when I was very small, I was walking in the street and I found a guitar. A real, new guitar just lying there! I picked it up and took it home. Hey, I was so happy! But my Father was evangelist and he wouldn’t let me play it. So it just sat there. And then one day I pulled off one string and another day I pulled off another string. It wasn’t being used. Then I began to pull it apart and one day we used it for firewood (Simon, 1968: 41).
From an early age he loved drawing and carving. He was known to draw on every conceivable surface, leading inevitably to trouble at school, where he would be punished for defacing schoolbooks. Drawing was a compulsion and he began to skip lessons to avoid punishment and hang around with his friends; but even while playing truant he would continue to sit and draw while his friends amused themselves in more boyish ways.
His father remarried in 1949, but later, when his health began to deteriorate, he sent Dumile to live with a relative in Johannesburg. Once there, he decided to leave school, although he had only achieved his Standard One pass. Six years later, in 1959, his father died. Dumile had, shortly before this, begun working in various pottery businesses in Johannesburg. Johannes Maphiri is credited with introducing him to clay pot decoration. He later became acquainted with the painter Ephraim Ngatane who was also employed decorating pots. While employed at the Block and Leo Wald Sculpture, Pottery and Plastics Foundry in Jeppe, painting ‘native scenes’ (aloes, huts, hillsides, blanketed figures), he was taught by Wald to model clay and introduced to bronze casting.
During this period, Dumile, Maphiri and Ngatane, together with some other young artists, formed an informal art group, sharing skills and advice and displaying their artwork at the Open Art Fair in Joubert Park. An article in Zonk, July 1964, suggests that this was at the initiative of Ngatane. Isaac Magashule records under the subtitle to the article, Promising Protégés: ‘Twenty five year old Ephraim is looking forward to forming a syndicate of African artists. He has assembled a small number of young, budding artists at the Chiawelo Recreation Centre, where he does his painting and acts as a tutor. Dumile Mgxaji and Welcome Koboka are two of his promising protégés’. This same article carries a photograph of Ngatane, the portrait oil (now held by the MTN Art Collection, Johannesburg) and the young Dumile posing for the portrait. The caption below the photograph reads ‘Ephraim putting the finishing touches to a portrait in oils of his protégé, Dumile Mgxaji, posing next to the painting’.
It was in Joubert Park sometime in 1960 that Dumile first met Madame Haenggi. At the time she had a financial interest in the Queens Gallery and she invited him to bring his drawings to the gallery. It is not documented that there were any commercial dealings between them at this time, but he remained in contact with her nevertheless. In 1961 she opened Gallery 101(Miles, 1999).
Dumile continued working in the pottery until late 1963 when he contracted tuberculosis and was isolated in the Charles Hurwitz South African National Tuberculosis Association (SANTA) Hospital. Fortuitously his artist acquaintance, Ephraim Ngatane, was also a patient at the Tuberculosis Clinic at the time. Nursing staff drew the attention of the matron of the Clinic, Mrs. Foster, wife of the superintendent, to the artistic enterprise of her young patient and his acquaintances and as a consequence Dumile and his colleagues were asked to paint murals for the sanatorium. She provided them with art materials. Dumile, Ngatane and Sathekge (also a patient at the time) painted several murals in the wards and chapel. Of these only one, dated 1964 and signed by Dumile, is still intact, the others having been covered by paint during renovations (Miles, 1999).
Encouraged by the enthusiastic response to the group’s artistic endeavours, Dumile began to develop his interest in Fine Art. He viewed an exhibition of sculpture by Bobereki, one of the first exhibitions he had ever seen. He wished to meet the artist and went to Gallery 101, hoping for an introduction. There he once again met Madame Haenggi, now the owner of the gallery. She once more indicated her willingness to view the young artist’s work in order to assess the progress he had made. He showed her some of his small sculptures and drawings. Obviously impressed, she extended an invitation to him to exhibit at her gallery, which afforded him his first real commercial opportunity. The resulting exhibition received encouraging reviews and effectively launched Dumile as an ‘up and coming artist to be reckoned with’. At this time he also received support from a key group of Johannesburg intellectuals including Lionel Abrams, Bill Ainslie, Barney Simon and Cecil Skotnes. The achievements of the 1965-67 period followed.
Yet inevitably, despite the exhilaration of the positive response to the exhibitions and perceived success, Dumile found himself in an ambiguous position. On the one hand he was flying the flag for South Africa, while on the other his works were keenly critical of the political regime. It was a situation that could not, for obvious reasons endure; the critical acclaim his works had received made him a target of officialdom:
I would not have had the harassment that I had if not for my ideas and also the titles – always the titles – that I give my work. They couldn’t take that, you know. Also some of the compositions that I did. There was a composition of a prisoner, of a victim - a group of figures where they are all tied up and you can see the strings. Also I did a couple of pieces of Luthuli (who) … won the Nobel Prize. He was the leader of the African National Congress (Cockcroft 1983).
According to Lionel Ngakane the portrait sculpture of Luthuli by Dumile was the highlight of the exhibition when exhibited in Pretoria in 1968.
The irony of this situation was that it was the high regard for his work in the art community that brought him to the attention of the political authorities.
In South Africa at the time, it was illegal for a black person to move to a city without official authority and proof of full time employment. The authorities questioned Dumile’s artistic merit, asking him to prove that being an artist was a proper job, since he only had a Standard One certificate. Despite having a contract with Gallery 101 he was refused a pass and threatened with relocation to a tribal homeland, a fate that would effectively have ended his artistic career. A possible solution to this dilemma was for Dumile to leave the country.
The Government has given me six months to stay in Johannesburg. Then they say I must go back to where I was born. To the reserve in the Cape. I want to stay in Johannesburg because here is where my friends are and art. I am trying to get a passport for overseas. I want to see America and Europe. Then I want to live in Swaziland. Why do I want to live in Swaziland? Well, because it isn’t my home. So when bad things happen to me there, it won’t hurt me so much (Simon, 1968: 43).
Lionel Ngakane records that:
Dumile failed to convince the authorities that being an artist was a profession and he was eventually expelled from Johannesburg and sent back to Cape Town. In Cape Town he was given fourteen days to leave and was endorsed to his town of birth, Worcester. Worcester also refused him a resident’s permit and in turn gave him fourteen days to leave, or be arrested and sent to a tribal reservation. Dumile in desperation returned to Johannesburg and applied for a passport to leave the country. He had to wait for a year before he was granted the passport (1970: 10).
Dumile had been staying with Bill and Fieke Ainslie in Jubilee Road for some considerable time, but in the period before his departure he was not receiving tuition from Ainslie; the two artists were merely working together. Dumile was attending the Academy in Craighall, which was established by the sculptor, Peter Hayden. In 1967 Bill Ainslie wrote a letter to Eric Estorick of the Grosvenor Gallery asking him to invite Dumile to London for an exhibition. Estorick had seen and admired Dumile’s art on show at Gallery 101 and had purchased some works. It was agreed between them that the letter of invitation would not be binding. The letter was written to afford Dumile an opportunity to apply for and eventually obtain his passport and visa.
It would hardly be presenting a balanced view of Dumile to exclude observations and recollections that could provide further insight into the commanding persona of the artist. In this regard Eachus King states the following:
…in his short life of about 23 years – he does not know how old he is – he has lived the knockabout, often hazardous, life of an orphan in the townships of Johannesburg. He was for the most of his life without identification papers, he bears the scars of many beatings up and stabbings by tsotsis, and once lay for a day on a mortuary slab, officially taken for dead (1966: 5).
The archival record also contains further insightful information, often merely in brief notes or comments, which further illuminate his character and life.
Bill Ainslie, interviewed by Steven Sack in March 1988, provided some candid notes –
Hit it off with Dumile and Dumile came to visit us regularly… Pass raid on station – He had to run – Persuaded us to invite him to stay with us – two years – produced best work… Tried to get pass for Dumile – phoned Cobie Marais. Came to meet Dumile (impressed me). Got him a pass. Cobie often helped - although he was a member of the Broederbond. Dumile fed up and very upset when Motau died. Dumile and Bill had bust up. After funeral - (Dumile) behaved badly at Motau’s opening in Pretoria. Dumile was endorsed out of Johannesburg. Had been selling to many international buyers… He earned a lot of money and spent it fast. Made spectacle of himself at Motau. Kissing white women; very provocative. Trying to get passport for him, wishing he’d behave better. Next day police looking for him. Marais covered for him…
Winnie Mandela, Peter Magubane used to drop in… Dumile spoke of Ngatane – major mentor. Dumile started drawing: lived precarious existence in Soweto – ate rats, stabbed with spoke – had hallucinatory imagination – provoked people charging situations through provocative comment… 60’s very tough – special branch people around a lot… Wally… disciple of Dumile. 1968 Wally detained with John Slaberbersky… Weird time. Dumile did a lot to focus energy amongst artists – intangible manner – he was committed to work… people fascinated by him. Dumile came along and filled a gap (I had had reservations about a lot of the art) called the Goya of the townships, which summed it up. He gave an extra stature to art – not working for a white audience… Skotnes advised Linda Goodman not to show a Dumile drawing of a servant waiting at a table, serving male genitals. Surreal dimension to Dumile. May have been an authentic surrealist although the term diminishes him because of the context… Dumile said I shouldn’t teach life drawing, because you take peoples’ madness away. Binged outside of his work… 60’s were for me the most fraught time - because political situation was frightening – bannings – house arrest – underground existence… 60’s – bleak and frightening. Relationships were risky – visits from S.B.
Moji Mokone provides a different perspective. It must be taken into account that Dumile’s demeanour would no doubt have been transformed once he had left South Africa and that Makone’s observations would have been based on meetings with the artist a considerable time after the turbulent ‘60s in S.A.
…Indeed, far from being reticent and taciturn, as London art critics tacitly assumed, Dumile was in fact an affable, gregarious cosmopolitan man who was fond of his friends, to a fault, and whom he dined and wined as often as he could lay his hands on some money, then regale them with the fantastic tales of his fertile imagination (Mail and Gaurdian, March 2002).
Dumile arrived in London in 1968. He stayed for some time in the apartment of the exiled writer Bloke Modisane, to whom he dedicated a pen and ink drawing. The sketch is of a woman and represents Dumile’s respect for Bloke, ‘because women are always respected and as mothers they always worry about their children’s safety’ (Ngakane, 1970: 13). It has been claimed that Dumile travelled to Algeria and China en route to London (Verstraete, 1988). Due to the restrictions placed on travel to certain destinations prohibited by the Nationalist Government and the severe penalties that could accrue as a result of minor transgressions, records of any such ‘illegal’ activities would not ‘in the normal course of events’ be readily accessible. Dumile is reported as having participated in a cultural festival in Nigeria in 1968 (Jansen: 2003).
Once in London the Grosvenor Gallery turned out to be genuinely interested in his work and had a very high regard for his drawings in particular. In the summer of 1969 the Gallery, then at Davies Street, exhibited 37 drawings by Dumile. The show was well reviewed. Richard Walker of the Arts Review wrote:
Dumile, the African Negro artist, with delicate ink-line drawings of tribal life, achieves a balance between a detached, remarkable European formal expressionism and quiet depth, a product of intimate identification with his subject.
A large drawing by Dumile Four Figures was illustrated in the review.
Terence Mulally also reviewed this show:
A discovery at once heart-warming and sobering is to be made in the exhibition just opened at the Grosvenor Gallery, 30 Davies Street, Mayfair. In this exhibition, drawings by a young African artist, Dumile, whose work has not previously been exhibited in London, strike through conventions. They remain on view until September 8.
It comes as a surprise, when most London galleries are showing nothing more exciting than mixed exhibitions of what is left in stock, to come upon a new talent of sustained power. Dumile’s work, like all art that matters, is firmly rooted in his time, yet speaks for all time. What the Grosvenor Gallery is showing is a set of ink drawings.
The pen moves in a thin line outlining or shading. This pen line stands out against the startling white paper, yet in every case, and all these drawings are figure studies, bodies are defined, belief established. Dumile is an accomplished draughtsman. Yet to say no more is hardly to hint at the qualities that make his work so moving. In drawing after drawing he touches the nerve ends of our consciences. This young artist’s theme is the universal agony of man, rendered specific through his own experience in South Africa. His figures are frozen in a kind of agonized despair. In some cases the twist of an arm, the sprawl of a leg, is as eloquent as a mask of pain for a face. At other times it is as though the music of some wild ritual dance has suddenly stopped. Its dying note lingers in the heart.
Dumile also exhibited at the Contemporary African Arts Exhibition at the Camden Centre, London 1969 and at Gallery 21, London 1975.
Yet despite these and other shows, Dumile had a grim time in London. He had little income and if it hadn’t been for jazz music, for which he had a passion, life would have been unbearable:
When I listen to jazz, I get ideas. Even in London my mind is taken back home (Ngakane, 1970: 13).
Dumile later travelled to the United States. In 1971 he was awarded 1st prize for sculpture in a competition organized by the African Studies Centre in Los Angeles. He was Artist in Residence at the Institute of African Humanities, University of California, Los Angeles for a period from 1979 – 1980 and subsequently taught at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Thereafter he completed the graduate programme in film and television at New York University, where he eventually settled. His principal income was derived from designing record covers, book illustrations, posters, calendars and murals. In 1983 Dumile submitted twenty sculptures and drawings for a benefit exhibition for the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. He explained to Eva Cockcroft that the intention of exhibiting was ‘to keep the conscience of the world alive to the issues at stake’. It is dedicated to ‘the achievement of free democratic, non racial societies throughout Southern Africa’.
In 1987 Dumile executed a triptych of major drawings for the American Committee on Africa’s Unlock Apartheid’s Jails campaign and in 1988 he held a show entitled Statements at La Galleria in New York. A catalogue printed for this show featured Theme for someone I know on the cover, as well as a reproduction of a bronze titled Silence. A quotation from Breyten Breytenbach was prominently featured on the inner cover:
Almal het Gedog dat Apartheit on the way out is, en hier het ons hom weer in so ‘n nuwe gedaante, met ‘n splinternuwe army-jas aan.
He also exhibited with six other South African artists in a travelling show Voices from Exile, which toured American cities through the autumn of 1988. In 1989 he facilitated the mural project for the Pathfinder Building in New York, the African-American cultural and economic self-improvement headquarters on the Lower East Side, to which he contributed a portrait of Nelson Mandela (Cockcroft, 1983).
In a recent issue of Beeld, Herman Jansen reports on comments by Albie Sachs regarding the repatriation to South Africa of a bronze sculpture, executed in 1987 by Dumile entitled History. The bronze had been unveiled the previous week by President Thabo Mbeki at the Schomberg Centre in New York. The comments are translated from Afrikaans. According to Sacks:
Dumile had a difficult life. I visited him in the basement where he lived. He slept on a mattress in a half-dark room with breathtaking black and white sketches of naked musicians against the bleak walls. He made beautiful clay models but could not scrape together the money to cast them in bronze.
The last twelve years of Feni’s life, which he spent in America, principally in New York, were especially difficult. For a year he slept in underground tube stations and ‘lived in his own imaginary world,’ says Sachs. Hugh Masekela later invited him to stay at his apartment in New Jersey. Dumile converted to Islam and took the name Othman Utletaan Feni. In 1991 he suffered a heart attack and died while shopping for jazz records in New York. He died shortly before he was due to fly to Johannesburg. Dumile was buried at the cemetery in Lenasia.
This introduction can merely attempt to focus on the complex semiotic content articulated in the range of artwork produced by the artist in his lifetime, his inherent ability to convey a diverse spectrum of emotion and suggest the loneliness and travail that Dumile, often impoverished and unjustifiably humiliated, suffered throughout his life. His legacy, to date, is a limited number of drawings and sculptures in major South African museums.
© Johans Borman Fine Art