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DUMILE FENI (article first published : 2006-02-2)

The death in exile of one of Africa greatest contemporary artists was a blow to South African art.

Dumile Feni left South Africa to go into exile in 1968 after the powerful statements made in his work resulted in harassment by the apartheid security forces. He contributed hugely not only to the African 20th century art world but also to the struggle against apartheid. His works show anguished figures, often contorted as if in immense pain. The figures are clearly African because, according to the artist: “My subjects are Africans because they are my people, but my message, the idea I am bringing to put across has nothing to do with racialism”.

Born May 21 1942, Dumile Feni moved from the Cape to Welcome as a child and then to Queenstown where he began his artistic career. Encouraged to draw by his family, Dumile’s artistic ability blossomed. His capability was further nurtured in 1963 when he was a patient at the Charles Hurwitz SANTA Tuberculosis Hospital in Johannesburg. He was encouraged to draw by the artist Ephraim Ngatane with whom he subsequently painted murals in the hospital.

Several persons can claim to have helped Dumile to accomplish his career as an artist. Ephraim Ngatane gave him instructions and took him to the Jubilee Art Centre. There he met Cecil Skotnes who helped him develop his drawing techniques. He also worked with Madame Haenggi of Gallery 101 in Johannesburg, also working and spending a lot of time with Bill Ainslie, a friendship which spanned over 20 years.

It was only a few years later that Dumile’s work and opposition to apartheid took him to countries as diverse as Nigeria, England, China and the USA. He believed that the cultures of the people of South Africa and their struggle for liberation were inextricably linked. It was such belief that saw him using his artworks as a medium to voice his opposition to the inequality taking place in his native land.

His drawings are derived from the subconscious mind, communicating to the viewer messages about human life. He held several group and solo exhibitions. In 1966 he won a Merit Award on the SA Breweries Art Prize Exhibition. In 1971 he was awarded first prize for a bronze sculpture in the art competition of the African Studio Centre in Los Angeles. In 1967 he represented South Africa at the Sao Paulo Biennale.

Dumile Feni created sculptures of the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner and ANC president, Albert Luthuli. In addition, he exhibited in numerous countries and worked with the United Nations Exhibition to commemorate Namibia Freedom Day in 1983.In 1986-7, he exhibited in the Voices from Exile exhibition that toured the United States.

His work has been acquired by major South African art museums. Amongst individual collectors are senior government officials including President Thabo Mbeki. His work is also found in collections in the USA, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Israel.

Dumile Feni died in New York in 1991 just before he was due to return home to the country he had struggled so long for. He died in abject poverty and didn’t live to see the dawning of the New South Africa.

An exhibition of his work will run at the Durban Art Gallery from February 15 to March 26.




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