I had taken my friend Tembeka to see the collection exhibited at the Ann Bryant Art Gallery, East London, South Africa. It was a warm sunny afternoon; East London is blessed with such lovely days. The gallery boasts one of the best collections in Arts in South Africa. This has been possible due to the avid interest in collecting the best of arts from early eighteenth century to the modern times by its late owner Ann Bryant.
Tembeka went around looking at each exhibit giving her comments. She came upon a oil on canvas depicting a Xhosa Woman in traditional dress. 'This is a beautiful painting, come and see this work' she remarked. Instead I asked her to come and see a charcoal drawing which is displayed at the entrance of the gallery. Tembeka came and saw it and immediately her hand flew over her face. 'I can't see this work, my son Alungile would cry if he has to see this picture'. Dumile Feni has been once again successful in creating such passions in the ordinary person that can burst out at such unguarded moments.
This was Dumile Feni's work titled 'Going' done by charcoal on paper. This work by Feni remains the most prestigious item that this small gallery and its curators are proud off. It is a piece of South African history.
The common man in present day South Africa is largely unaware of Dumile Feni's work and the Contemporary South African Art movement touts him as a 'Goya of Townships'. Dumile Feni represented much more than that.
Catastrophes, accidents and awful events litter the works of the painter, draughtsman and sculptor Dumile Feni. One of his best-known drawings is from the year 1966 and entitled 'Railway Accident'. Folk are screaming and fleeing, bodies crushed, and limbs disjointed and tossed all over the place. Life has been torn asunder. Among this debris, the steely perpetrator ' the derailed locomotive ' lies diagonally across the design, itself burst. Pure horror leaps out at the observer through a dark veil of hopelessness.
Dumile Feni was born in Worcester in Western Cape in South Africa at a time not known exactly. It is thought to have been between 1939 and 1944. South Africa was still marked by apartheid imposed by a white-minority government and maintained in the face of opposition by force and violence. Dissidents were suppressed and jailed, and black townships on the fringe of cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg were often run-down and riddled with crime. These were the conditions which Dumile's works referred to. Since they recall Francisco Goya's etchings of war and violence in the late 18th and early 19th century, Dumile was dubbed the 'Goya of the Townships' ' an honor which he hardly enjoyed earning.
Dumile was first trained in the ceramics works in Jeppe in Johannesburg. While recovering from severe tuberculosis, he began drawing and finally decorated whole walls of the hospital. From 1965 on, he worked with the politically active Gallery 101 in Johannesburg and in 1967 exhibited at the celebrated S'o Paulo-Biennale. A year later he moved to Britain.
Stylistically Dumile inclined towards figurative realism, and his nervous but exact lines recall those of Egon Schiele. His artistic materials were often very simple, the drawings often done with a ballpoint pen, as much for economic as artistic reasons. He died in New York in 1991. The recognition which he deserved came to him posthumously, though he had exhibited during his lifetime in many galleries in South Africa and Britain. On the initiative of several members of the African National Congress, especially Dumile's friend Isaac Witkin and the conservator and bronze-caster John Phillips, funds were set up with which to bring Dumile's works back from the USA to South Africa, to be shown in the National Gallery in Cape Town. A grand retrospective of his works is planned for 2003 by the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
This itself is a poem in prose by Dumile Feni -
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!'
In his township phase, Feni's versions of expressionist township suffering and poverty went beyond depicting urchins and beggars; in the drawing The Stricken Household (1965) he does not stop short of littering the ground around the shack that he takes as his motive, with what look very much like corpses; when he does do a beggar, it is rendered as The Ogre (1965) all displaced limbs and frozen mask of accusation, more a product of anger than it is of suffering.
In short, Feni's art at this time tends to be more in your face, more driven in its expressionism than that of most of his contemporaries. His township work contains, though he never claimed this for himself, one of the more credible struggle oeuvres to come out of this country in the 1960s and 1970s, if only because of the white-hot intensity of his expressionism and the unmediated honesty of its conception.
It is probably significant in this regard that, uncommonly for prominent black artists of the time, Feni, though he often used the facilities provided by these, never really took instruction at the white run art institutions. Instead his first, and probably crucial, training was as part of an informal group around the artist Ephraim Ngatane, later honed during a period in a sanatorium where he was suffering from tuberculosis. Another significant observation here to come from Ainslie is one to the effect that, while Feni shared his studio for a time, and lived with the Ainslies, he was never part of the student body at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. So too, he at times used the facilities and interacted with students at the Polly Street Art Centre, but was never fully identified with that either.
The African National Congress Government made Dumile a hero, branded him the only township artist who exposed apartheid but Dumile was far beyond than being a township hero, his erotically charged work escaped a closer inspection, the mind of the greatest thinker who brought Africa on an international canvas.
Dumile Feni Trust and Foundation
Dumile, the untold story ' Mary Stuart
Dumile Feni ' Ivor Powell