There’s a disturbing back story to how a well-known Dumile Feni sculpture came to be. It’s the story of what inspired the artist’s famed sculpture History, which is mounted at the entrance to his latest exhibition. Just like its back story, the charcoal-coloured statuette is as perturbing, as a naked figure, down on all fours and with a horse bit in its mouth, draws a cart containing two people.
“Apparently, Hendrik Verwoerd was addressing his lieutenants regarding oppressing black people and keeping them in servitude,” reads a WhatsApp message. I get the text from Feni’s daughter Marriam Diale via Monna Mokoena – the owner of the Momo Gallery, where the Feni show is taking place.
“Verwoerd climbed on the table in the room … and told the soldiers: ‘Ons staan op die rug van die swart man – moet dit nooit vergeet nie [We stand on the back of the black man – don’t ever forget it].’”
I’ve long been aware of the large version of the History sculpture, which holds court at Constitution Hill. But the WhatsApp text drives the context of the donkey-cart effigy home.
A week after the opening of the exhibition of works by her grandfather Feni, who died in New York in 1991 after going into forced exile, Safeiya Morris says about the WhatsApp from her mother: “I believe that the quote itself served more as a tangible illustration of the social climate of South Africa at the time; [it was] just one of many examples highlighting the plight of black South Africans and the views held by many white South Africans towards black people during the height of apartheid.”
It’s decades after the death of both Feni and apartheid architect Verwoerd, yet here in this bronze structure lies a piece of both of their legacies. But as we move away from those Verwoerdian years – despite apartheid’s lingering effects – Feni’s works tend to bring viewers back to South Africa’s oppressive past.
ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan once wrote about Feni, born Zwelidumile Feni in 1942, in the foreword to a book edited by Prince Mbusi Dube, that the artist’s “personal life and experience as a ‘pass-bearing Bantu’ in the South Africa of the Verwoerd years … were a persistent reminder that the humanity of Africans was under unremitting attack”.
So at a time like this – when issues facing black bodies are once again highlighted by the recent Ferguson riots and Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, which has drawn accusations of racism in the United Kingdom – an exhibition of this nature might have come home at just the right time.
From well-known to previously unseen drawings and rough sketches, as well as sculptures and photos of the artist by seminal South African photographer George Hallett, Works on Paper and Sculpture is an intimate show that gives viewers insight into Feni’s range as an artist and a posthumous peek into just a portion of his large oeuvre.
“Dumile was such a prolific artist,” says Mokoena, who helped Feni’s daughter to source and repatriate the artworks mainly from the Tallix foundry in the United States, where many of the sculptures were stored. “But this is the first time such a large body of his sculptural work is being presented.”
As much as the Worcester-born artist’s works elicit painful memories, they also evoke a slight hint of eroticism, evidenced in the phallus-heavy sculptures and drawings. The binaries of pain and pleasure are present in his art: long, erect faces mounted on thick, tree-like bodies, and drawings of naked bodies and entangled limbs create a degree of tension in his frames.
Addressing this in The Beauty of the Line, his 2012 book on the artist, Chabani Manganyi says Feni’s aesthetic theme is struggle. “The theme of struggle is, to me, something that runs through a lot of his work; what is interesting is the sexuality of it all, the overt sexuality.”
But as Heritage Day steamrolls by again, questions about what is being done to sustain the legacy of our art masters such as Feni, Gerard Sekoto and John Mohl, to name a few, are usually asked – hopefully with the intent of receiving long-lasting answers and solutions. This time,
art historian and curator Thembinkosi Goniwe rhetorically poses a question to a roomful of people at the recent Jo’burg Art Fair: what is the government doing to highlight our art masters?
“To what extent is Dumile’s legacy being considered?” Goniwe asks me over the phone after the Sandton fair. “What Monna and others are doing is actually making an effort to carry on the legacy of Feni’s work, but why is his work shown in a commercial gallery instead of a national one? Why can’t funds be put into these types of exhibitions?”
When I ask why most of the works at the show from the Dumile Feni Family Trust are up for sale at the Momo exhibition, Dialle chooses not to respond. But Mokoena – who brings up the fact that Feni died a pauper while in exile – says the Feni foundation and the family need to sustain themselves and, “besides assisting with the repatriation of Feni’s artworks to South Africa … the government hasn’t done that much lately in funding these projects; there’s still space to do more”, hence the sale of his work.
But he assures me: “Marriam isn’t selling all of Feni’s pieces. The important pieces are still with the trust; she is merely refining the collection.”
Dumile Feni: Works on Paper and Sculpture is on at Momo Gallery, 52 Seventh Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg, until September 22