Dumile Feni’s animal kingdom

I first met Dumile Feni in the 1960s at a time when the apartheid government and its security police were stepping up their repressive tactics against all anti-apartheid organisations. When Feni came to Durban, he had already made his mark as an accomplished artist in the then Transvaal. He was intelligent, determined and absolutely committed to his art. He was competent at drawing and had a good sense of colour. I was completely taken with this man who shared the same ideas and who felt the same way as I did.

On his arrival in Durban, Feni was struggling with many issues. He was grappling with the notion of saying things without being seen as a propagandist. At the same time, he did not want to attract too much attention to himself, which was understandable as he had a brother on Robben Island. His work was going through major shifts in content and style. He started using colour and his work became bolder. He could not afford expensive materials. When he visited one of us, he would use our pastels or watercolours.

The Durban Art Museum was hosting Feni’s first exhibition. He needed to stay close to the city, as there were no facilities for African people in town. Omar Badsha, a fellow artist and friend, invited Feni to board with him. He occasionally stayed at my brother-in-law Bhai Kajee’s home at Genazzano Beach on the North Coast. It was here that he did a lot of watercolours of which only one that I know of survives, a tiny landscape in Bhai’s possession. He lived with us, ate with us, drew with us and became part of the extended family. He became familiar with our customs and religion so that it came as no surprise when he decided to become a Muslim while living in the United States. He lived in Durban for three years, drawing, sculpting and holding exhibitions.

In 1966, Feni persuaded me to exhibit with him, Bill Ainslie, Omar Badsha and others at the Natal Society of Art Gallery in Hermitage Street. The exhibition was named the Trans-Natal Group as the artists were from the then Transvaal and Natal. There was nothing sinister in the title, but the special branch paid each of us a visit. They were convinced that we were using the exhibition as a cover for subversive activities. I can still remember my dad and Feni teasing me that the state was so paranoid about the security of South Africa that they felt threatened by a 17-year-old schoolgirl.

At this time, Nelson Mandela and many leaders were jailed or on the run. Most anti-apartheid organisations were in disarray and without leadership. It was a time of despair for people of colour when places such as Sophiatown, District Six, Cato Manor and other townships were destroyed and people were displaced. These forced removals created a sense of dislocation and hopelessness. It is against this backdrop that Dumile the artist and man should be understood. As a conscious human being he was compelled through artistic expression to make art that portrayed all he saw and experienced. He started drawing people who were representative of the struggle. He drew with a passion that inspired many and he was always willing to help his fellow artists. He was never idle, constantly sketching as he talked and relaxed with friends. These discourses resulted in images of great power. The subject matter was profound. A highly spirited and serious artist, he drew his world as he saw it. He sketched in charcoal and ink and drew with pastels; his sculptures were made of clay or plaster of Paris. His limited palette resulted in finely executed images of great power. The few pastels were equally well executed, strong pieces.

Dumile’s sculptures and drawings are powerful and dominated by the figure. The strong use of line in his drawings creates an atmosphere of devastating intensity. It is impossible for the viewer not to absorb the message in the piece. Of his work, Feni said: “My meaning or message is universal, human suffering and the state of humanity is universal; only the locations are specific.”

His work tells of the misery caused to people living under the cruel and repressive laws of apartheid. The emotional content of the work is singularly Feni. Some of his work describes the loneliness of mother and child left behind in the rural areas while the father worked in the mines or the city. His deceptively simple portrayal of life draws the viewer into Dumile’s world. The works take on meaning through their titles. An example is I am not a donkey, a work in the Durban Art Museum’s collection, which portrays a human figure with the head of a donkey, a metaphor for a beast of burden as well as an image of stupidity. This was how black people were perceived during the repressive years. His work explodes with violent emotion.

Feni was no stranger to violence; he had two close encounters with death while he was in Johannesburg. Once he was stabbed in the back of the head and he could not get the knife out, so he walked all the way to Baragwanath Hospital to have it removed. The other was when he was stabbed with the spoke of a bicycle wheel in the spine, which paralysed him temporarily. Believed to be dead, he was taken to the mortuary. Fortunately, he made a gurgling sound and was immediately taken to hospital where he recovered with no permanent damage. This experience left him humbled and reaffirmed his belief in the system’s wilful disregard for black people’s lives.

Feni loved good clothes and expensive shoes and was always well dressed. He appreciated having a good time and took pleasure in being around women. His favourite drink was brandy and sterilised milk. A generous man by nature, he would spend lavishly when he had the money.

He was able to do this as his agent, Madame Haenggi of Gallery 101, promoted and sold much of his work. He had great affection for children and they featured in many of his works. Whenever he visited our homes, he would make a beeline for the children, talking, playing and drawing pictures for them. He liked good humour and was a man of few words. Music was another interest of his, especially jazz.

Feni wanted to travel and meet other artists. He intended leaving South Africa for only a short period, but sadly this did not happen. Thirty years later, Dumile Feni returned home from the US to be buried in his beloved country.

Dumile Feni Retrospective is a catalogue published by Wits University Press for an upcoming exhibition which will be curated by Prince Mbusi Dube at the Johannesburg Art Gallery

The dead, the living and the unborn

Dumile Feni was born at Withuis in Worcester on May 24 1942. The family left Withuis, running away from mobs who wanted to kill his mother after the collapse of a pyramid scheme, called Push-Push, which she was operating. Those who were owed payment resented her rude attitude, threatened to kill her and burn her house down. Feni’s father, a policeman, decided to move the entire family that same day. They moved to Welkom, where his father’s friend organised a site for them to build a new iron house. His mother died at Welcome giving birth to a child who also died. This was her fifth child to die at birth. The family suspected that she was bewitched and moved to Rylands, Cape Town.

In Rylands, Feni’s father — Geelbooi — became a devoted Christian. He established a mission for the Wesleyan Methodist Church. He gave up policing and ran a business transporting children to and from school. Geelbooi’s congregation grew fast. He married again; his second wife was Grace Nonqgi Ntisa from Queenstown.

As the deacon for the church, Geelbooi was the head of the disciplinary committee. A member of the congregation was charged with adultery and Geelbooi cut his membership of the church. The man was so angry that he vowed revenge. He struck one day while Geelbooi and some members were cleaning the church for a function. He planted umbhuielo (umeqo) behind the pulpit where Geelbooi normally stood. Umbhuielo (umeqo) is a witchcraft concoction that is smeared on the ground where a person you want to kill might walk. A young girl who walked past the pulpit was killed instantly and Geelbooi suffered slightly. He was taken to a traditional doctor, who diagnosed umbhuielo. Subsequently, Feni was infected with tuberculosis, which his sister Kuli insists was also the result of bewitching.

Somwabo Ntisa says that the tuberculosis infection was so serious that it affected Feni’s hearing. Hospitals in Cape Town failed to cure him. His stepmother sent him to Queenstown, where he was admitted to Isolation Hospital at KwaMlungisi. He was briefly transferred to a hospital in Durban, where he received his first art lessons. Images of mothers and unborn children figure prominently in Feni’s work. Two such works are distinct. In respect of the dead, the living and the unborn, in the collection of the Pretoria Art Museum, is a charcoal and white conte on paper, executed in 1967. The second work in Tony Seedat’s collection is a composition for a sculpture. The simple composition depicts a colourful human head in geometric form. The mask-like female face has a relaxed expression. This is different from his other drawings which depict a mother and child. In the composition in Seedat’s collection, Feni achieved representation of four figures in one. The composition represents two mothers and two sons … He achieved doubling figures in one head by the use of multiple colours and geometric shapes.

Feni’s traditional attitude changed as he grew up to become a successful artist concerned with human rights. He disliked apartheid, but maintained a positive attitude. He fought against it, yet he did not see any reason to hate its beneficiaries.

Feni’s behaviour towards apartheid as a system rather than a group that benefited from it might be clarified by analysis of his sexuality. Some psychoanalysts see sexuality as a foundation for social order. Some individuals embrace sex as a means to release stress. Feni had a string of love affairs with women of all races. For him, sex was second to making art. This is evident in a number of his erotic drawings.

Feni’s family were members of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which allows its members to practise African religious customs. Sex outside marriage was discouraged for Christians as well as in African culture. As Feni grew, both cultures became more liberal toward sexuality.

Feni’s childhood world was surrounded by racial divisiveness. But to soar above the earth on the wings of his dream, and to express his vision in art, endowed Feni with a sense of liberation and progressive thinking beyond his years. — Prince Mbusi Dube

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