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Tales from ‘the Goya of the townships’

Moji Mokone reflects on the work of Dumile Feni, one of a group of artists from the Sixties whose work eloquently ‘hollered from the mountain tops’

Njabulo Ndebele, writing in [email protected], observed how Desmond Tutu at the close of the first day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings referred to the testimonies of victims of state-sponsored violence as stories waiting to be told.

The stories told at subsequent hearings revealed a picture of how repressive life under apartheid was. Too many intrusive peri-urban petty laws and the constant surveillance by heavy-handed law enforcement agencies caused untold misery. Their penchant for devious and often criminal policing antics turned daily living into a relentless, nightmarish experience so constant that township life became surreal enough to resemble art.

Journalists, writers, musicians and artists Todd Matshikiza, GR Naidoo, Nat Nakasa, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, Peter Magubane, Dennis Brutus, Cosmos Pieterse, James Matthews, Wally Serote, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Don Mattera and others, too many to list did their best to holler their stories from the mountain tops.

Like musicians, poets, writers around the world, visual artists crave creative expression. In the 1960s a group of visual artists including Sydney Khumalo, Ezrom Legae, Louis Maqhubela, Ephraim Ngatane, Dumile Feni, Abdul Sadim (Ben Arnold) working in the main from Cecil Skotnes’s Polly Street studios and the Jubilee Centre in Johannesburg opted to confront the horrors of racism with its own images.

Preoccupied as they clearly were with the world of the township, whatever it was they painted, drew or sculpted defined the vast canvas of peri-urban Witwatersrand. And as conscious citizens “telling” their side of the “story”, they depicted an eloquent visual narrative of political repression and the unmitigated social deprivation it gave rise to.

Thus, when in 1966 Louis Maqhubela a Polly Street studios artist now working and living in London took first prize in a “mixed” national competition called Artists of Fame and Promise, as far as these black artists were concerned the accolade represented a long-overdue recognition of their dedicated introspection and honest intellectual effort.

But above all the prize was graciously received as reward for work attempting to come to terms with the complexities of a particularly traumatic human condition. Though they grudgingly conceded that artists based in urban townships had technical ability, members of the art establishment (university professors, art critics and historians, gallery owners and curators all white) had no compunction then about relegating the work of black artists to a “window into township life” kind of artefact so-called “township art”.

So unrelenting was their paternalism a relationship not unlike that between adult and child, indicative of the relationship between two races, one considered superior and the other inferior it allowed black artists’ work neither reflection nor intellect. And, in tandem with this “self-sufficient sense of [his] undiscussed superiority towards the people” was an affectation for “stylistic hedonism” a kind of preoccupation with bourgeois esoteric aesthetics for which Antonio Gramsci, in another context, castigates Italian intellectuals that effectively imposed an artificial (aesthetic) wedge between “black” and “white” artistic expression.

It took Dumile Feni’s work with its signature ethereal beings ancestral spirit beings out of the world of the subconscious to challenge the residual prejudices of establishment art. He inhabited his canvases with compelling emotion underlined by a spiritual presence of ethereal, dreamlike, uninhibited images, with furtive evasive gazes seemingly anxious to conceal a secret hurt. By thus eschewing their detached suburban aesthetic in favour of this disturbing visual narrative, Dumile signalled his intention to engage with an acutely disturbing human condition putting paid to the detached complacency of the world of art galleries and suburbia.

Nevertheless, in due course, Dumile would be dubbed “the Goya of the townships”. There is no doubting that the sentiment behind this sobriquet was a noble one. Far from it being an attempt to elevate the status of a lowly township artist’s work to a recognisable indignant quality reminiscent of the Spaniard’s paintings meaning to say, westernise Dumile it was intended to draw attention to his uniquely riveting visual narrative.

Nowhere are these attributes more evident than in the African Guernica. Indeed it is tempting to call this intuitive and reflective display of a besieged urban community his seminal work.

The African Guernica is an indictment of the terrorism of political repression; it is about a human experience of a hapless urban community under a state of siege; it depicts a traumatised community in the throes of an insidious “cold war” of apartheid’s inhumanity. Like Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of the siege of San Sebastian, the African Guernica resonates with harrowing images, uncomprehending bewilderment of both humans and animals.

Notwithstanding the comparison implicit in the purloined (grandiose) title a choice probably made in tribute to a fellow and greatly admired and respected conviction artist or, heaven forbid, a curator’s imposition the African Guernica speaks with eloquent passion to a native human experience of the urban township.

Between them the two paintings are a condemnation of inhuman cruelty addressing political repression in one instance and warmongering in the other. They contemplate (male) power the lethal confluence of tradition, territory (claim) and testosterone and the trail of destruction and death as well as the impoverishment of the human spirit that it leaves behind.

Whereas the African Guernica’s images of bemused and hapless spirit beings evoke compassion and pity, Guernica lays bare the futility of war, its wanton cruelty and senseless destructiveness. It deals with the horror of the aftermath of a hot war, of the devastated images of pain of sinews shredded by shrapnel, of fear-inspired helplessness of bulging eyes, of nostrils flaring in terror, of teeth grinning in agony, of the demise of the horse the almost tangible image of man’s peacetime companion and workmate in the throes of death.

The African Guernica tells the story of a protracted, soul-destroying cold war of intolerant racist domination that engulfed, sucked and then spun every one of its victims and perpetrators alike into a bewildering black hole of chaotic disorder. Despite the Christian values it espoused, apartheid Calvinist society was characterised by a diabolical state bereft of empathy and compassion for its citizens.

Measuring an imposing 330cm by 270cm, the African Guernica currently housed in a museum at the University of Fort Hare is populated by human and animal figures in varying states of agitated animation or numbed inertia swirling about or receding into a fathomless blackened pit: a motherless urchin, childlike spirit being is trampled under hoof by a disdainful cow yet, seemingly desperate with hunger, a spirit child clutches on to a teat sucking away regardless; a decorous clergyman apparently oblivious to the mayhem that surrounds him, sits at table, fork and knife in hand, feeding nonchalantly; another celestial being (with three legs, perhaps to suggest agility of a forager) rides atop two cows simultaneously in this bewildering, beguiling, hellish panorama.

The African Guernica also abounds with comic relief. Cartoon-like apparitions float in a void, creating an incongruous composition of images juxtaposed in an unfamiliar setting that is as unsettling as it is funny in the way that it undermines one’s sense of order and propriety.

The painting, first exhibited in 1967 before Dumile left for London, then on to the University of California at Los Angeles, and finally New York where he died in 1991 is clearly an indictment of repression. Yet it is without rancour, self-pity or self-righteous moral outrage.

Like the stories told at the truth commission, Dumile tells his story here via symbolic linear forms and shapes surreal figures furtively groping at fleeting moments and transient daily encounters of township living. His preference was for an intuitive and introspective visual narrative, inspired by a compelling if surreal human condition; and his work is a self-search project seeking to come to terms with as well as to be released from imprisonment by a particularly repressive urban experience.

If artistic expression conjuring up mystique, intrigue and mythology is the metaphor for life, by this criterion alone Dumile’s work speaks to our spiritual needs. The late Bill Ainslie fellow artist, friend and sometime mentor observes that Dumile “took the raw materials of life [in Soweto] … and translated it into work in a manner that revealed a capacity to face unflinchingly the most frightening extremities of banal desperation and cruelty, without spilling over into sentimentally or overblown expressionism”.

Moreover, Dumile’s originality led to a new style of drawing in South Africa that became a benchmark for a progeny of young black artists including the talented Julian Motau, whose youthful life came to a tragic end in 1968.

The passion, conviction and spontaneity of Dumile’s sculptures and drawings, like a metaphysical revelation of the subconscious, seem to be inspired by a profound understanding of the pervasiveness of human suffering. In his desperate attempt to capture transient, fleeting moments of the world of the township, his visual narratives reflect a universality of the human experience that transcends his own immediate environment. Not unlike the stories told at the truth commission hearings, artistic expression, precisely because it coincides, as it were, with our own reflections, desires, enjoyment and fears, becomes great art, uplifting art, enlightening art that’s to say, it is a metaphor for life.

So much so that, more than a clamour to claim one’s space under the sun, it to paraphrase Ndebele not only validates lived experiences, it is also an expression of consciousness that lends legitimacy and authority to silenced voices.

However, in spite of apartheid, not all life is about humiliation, torture, hunger, anger or despair. There’s also love, laughter, joy, dancing, friendship, faith and a myriad other experiences in Dumile’s life. Indeed, far from being reticent and taciturn, as London art critics mistakenly 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.

One would listen riveted as he waxed lyrical with homespun philosophical insights. Nuggets such as: “Reading the Bible makes me scared. It’s always like this; if I meet a man who is honest or something that is written and is the truth, then I get frightened”; “A bully takes away one’s girl does horrible things to her. What do you paint? Girl screaming? Knifing? Man crying? No! What happened is part of what the girl means to me. I would paint what the girl means to me”; “Men in handcuffs taking off their hats to baby’s funeral cortege passing by that’s what I want to paint” (Barney Simon, Dumile and Photographs, in The Classic, 1968 ). In all likelihood, these viva voce renditions of the ruminations of the mind issuing from deep recesses of his subconscious also inform his paintings.

In this way he was the quintessential man of Sixties’ Soweto joie de vivre jazz music, the conviviality of shebeen banter, and all that caper.

It is no accident that part of his inspiration was jazz musicians. He spent a great deal of time at concerts and enjoyed their company wherever he chanced to meet them and drawing them too. There is for one the sparse graphic drawing of a placid-looking levitating bass player sporting a peak cap and nothing else besides hugging lovingly on to his equally legless instrument held suspended off the floor; or the comical looking of multi-limbed Musicianaire clutching a book while a saxophone hangs, unsupported, off the corner of a round cavernous mouth in a surreal embouchure piss-taking-off depiction of the blind jazzman Roland Kirk, who was in the habit of playing a variety of wind instruments simultaneously a feat which caused him to dribble copious amounts of saliva.

There’s also the painting depicting the bullfrog-mimicking antics of pint-sized trumpet player Mongezi Feza who blew so hard, and so fast, his neck and cheeks would puff up to double the size of his head. (The Blue Notes including Feza along with Chris McGregor, Dudu Phukwana, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo had left South Africa in the middle-Sixties for Europe and the United Kingdom, where they soon established themselves as the forerunners of free-form jazz, playing native homegrown music.)

For a prodigiously talented artist Dumile was a remarkably modest person. Besides five works already exhibited at the prestigious Sao Paolo Biennial in 1967, his paintings in a 1969 group show at the Grosvenor Gallery received critical acclaim in the London press. He was hailed by London critics as a “new talent of sustained power”.

Yet, despite this potentially head-swelling adulation, some believed he had “little to say” except to make a perceptive observation about the “beautiful City [sic] of London which has everything you need if you care to look”.

But, not wishing to lose sight of the complementary yin and yang totality of the human experience, he’d continued, as he put it, to “work hard … draw … sculpt” and to “do my best”.

Everywhere and anywhere on paper napkins, backs of envelopes, on canvas, on paper, and of course murals on New York’s famous walls at Pathfinders, the African-American cultural and economic self-improvement headquarters on the Lower East Side; and at the United Nations, in celebration of Namibia’s liberation. Dumile’s quest to create was unstoppable, his drawings like supplicants solemnly inviting the viewer to assess and ponder the expression of emotions being painted.

The last time I saw Dumile was in 1987 in his Bleeker Street digs in the Village, New York City. Every available space on the whitewashed walls of his dishevelled disused garage-cum-apartment was daubed with exquisitely drawn graphic figures of milking cows, donkey carts, acrobatic cats striking all sorts of contortions; a hissing head of a cobra peering out of a man’s nostril, stray dogs, monkeys, snakes, chickens, birds, mating frogs, holy cows and hallowed donkeys, etcetera.

The high-cheekboned, boa-constrictor waist, sticky arms and spindle-legged nude figure of his Japanese lady friend with her mikado hairdo thrusts her sexually provocative pubic mound at the viewer and stares unfocused through shut eyelids. Other spirit images Eddie lookalikes cling to the wall and shy away from the prying eyes of the viewer. (Eddie Tatane Dumile’s bosom friend recently dead often made discreet cameo appearances in his paintings.)

I recall being led to one corner where he gingerly unwrapped a plastic covering to reveal a mildew-infested terracotta sculpture. It was a naked torso of a man sliced off just above the knees and measuring about 90cm high: he called it Silence. He turned away from the offending object mumbling a rhetorical: “Sien wat doen hulle aan my [See what they’re doing to me]?” as he went.

I was left alone to ponder this man with a blotchy face, wearing a forlorn expression, and dangling an eight-inch-long deflowered lingam. This man Dumile? was clearly a victim of recent torture yet striking a defiant demeanour that seemed, ironically, to be held intact by a resigned calmness. He reminded me of Panic, the lead character in the film Mapantsula. This otherwise pathetic figure of a man was not about to give in neither to the bigotry of a misguided apartheid ideology nor to its apologists, the law-enforcement agencies and, least of all, not to the terror machinations of the security police, his immediate captives.

Dumile died in 1991 of a heart seizure while he browsed for a jazz album in a New York music shop. He’d been due to return to South Africa after an absence of 20-odd years living a nomadic peripatetic lifestyle.

The circumstances of his leaving South Africa (in 1969) would be familiar to all the Sixties “‘kasie ouens” (township guys) who found common cause with the “struggle”. That’s to say, they were no different from the reasons that drove the many talented young men and women musicians, artists, thinkers, starry-eyed politicos, and others including your everyday run-of-the-mill “ek-is-gatvol-van-die-toun, ek klerie” (“I’ve just about had enough, I’m leaving town”) brigade in need of some respite to seek better fortunes abroad, venturing initially into newly decolonising Africa and eventually settling in the UK, Europe or the United States.

Despite a checkered artistic life compounded by the travails of exile insecurity, there is no gainsaying, as one authoritative Professor EJ de Jager earlier pronounced about Dumile, that he “must surely be regarded as one of the artistic geniuses to be produced by Africa”.

Indeed if, as the reggae lyric intones, “there are three sides to a story, my side, your side and then the truth”, Dumile told his story elegantly as befits one of South Africa’s best master draughtsmen. He on the other hand would only concede that: “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.”

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