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DUMILE FENI RETROSPECTIVE CATALOGUE (article first published : 2007-04-28)

The Dumile Feni Retrospective was staged at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and the exhibition and the catalogue were compiled by Prince Mbusi Dube.

“My subjects are Africans because they are my people but my message, the idea I am trying to put across, has nothing to do with racialism. I am not interested in politics. My situations are human ones, that is all.”

That quote by Dumile Feni introduces the book dedicated to celebrate his life. Dumeli Feni was born in South Africa in May 1942. In many ways the art presented in the book is a mirror of Dumile’s life.

Dumeli Feni started drawing at an early age, waking up early in the morning and portraying his dreams. He was lucky that his parents respected his talent and somehow managed to give him paper and pencil. His drawings were dreamlike and filled with spirits. He used mostly pencil, and sometimes pen and ink to sketch whatever was in front of him. Sometimes, when times were hard, he used a stick to draw in the sand or soil.

During the period 1964 to1968, we are introduced to his African Guernica, where life is harsh and tragic during South Africa’s apartheid years. His work symbolises the pain of living under an apartheid regime and the suffering experienced by his people. In his work he expresses complete awareness of the human suffering taking place in his country.

In 1963, he was admitted for tuberculoses and came to Durban where he was given his first art lessons. Later, in another hospital, he met Ephraim Ngatane and a firm friendship was established. The two artists often worked together. His artistic career was also nurtured by Cecil Skotnes, Bill Ainslie and Madame Haenggi of the famous Gallery 101 in Johannesburg, where he held his first solo show.

At the Jubilee Centre in Johannesburg Dumile Feni met other influential artists such as Sydney Khumalo and Ezrom Legae. Occupied as they were with the township experiences of those days, it gave Dumile an opportunity to depict his political repression. But in his attempts to capture the township world he also drew some frivolous and happy pictures of people singing , dancing, being friends, pictures of joy and laughter, but also drawings of cows, donkeys, monkeys, snakes and chickens..

He was always a modest man despite being selected for the Sao Paulo Biennial and having his work exhibited in well-known London galleries. Music filled an important role in his life and there are several drawings of jazz musicians in this book. His work has always remained expressive, some images can move one to tears. He also portrayed political figures from Mandela to Ruth First.

In 1964 he travelled to London. One of the most important chapters in this book is written by Dr Windsor Leroke, who writes: “Dumile’s art refuses to be contextual and thus resists a dangerous reductionism that would forbid transcendence to the pure level of art. Many interpretations of Dumile’s art have reduced it to township art, political context and cultural relativism. Once a work of art is refused its true identity and is placed in a cultural and political corner, we find it difficult to relate to it in terms of its inherent qualities, which make it art. Context does not make art meaningful for these reasons, it makes sense to conceptualise Dumile’s art which confronts the viewer with tragedy and new aesthetic that is not based on conventional notion of beauty”.

In 1978, Dumile went to the United States after a decade of exile in London. An interesting chapter in the book is dedicated to his erotic works. As an artist Dumeli Feni rises above oversimplification in his erotic oevre and at times one compares his sexually suggestive output with that of creative giants like Pablo Picasso. Dumile died in New York in 1991.

The catalogue of the Dumile Feni Retrospective is now available in book stores in the form of a ‘coffee table’ book. It is divided in chapters according to date with a detailed biography. It also lists solo exhibitions, group exhibitions and commissions. There are contributions from many important people among them Sherene Timol Seedat of Durban and Khwezi Gule a former lecturer at DUT, now Curator of the Contemporary Collection of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. There’s also a list of the catalogue works which were reproduced with permission of the Dumeli Feni Family Trust.

The Dumile Feni catalogue is a beautifully produced and well written book that should grace every art library and every municipal library in South Africa. – Marianne Meijer




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