Dumile Feni: A biographical sketch - Bruce Smith, August 2004

A paucity of written archival information compounds the enigma of Dumile. Much of the material is contradictory, is subject to circumspection and extremely difficult to verify. Dumile himself contributed to this dilemma and a lot of information provided by Dumile to writers does not stand up to scrutiny. Biographical information gathered from diverse sources offers only a cursory outline of his life, the generalised details of which are as follows: Dumile was born in Worcester, in the Cape Province, to devout Christian parents who have been documented as being ‘of Xhosa ancestry’. He appeared to have been initiated in traditional Xhosa custom and several of his drawings, which the writer has viewed, unquestionably depict Xhosa initiation subject matter. Moreover, on the SA Academy exhibition of 1966 he exhibited a drawing: Circumcision. An interview, which Moji Mokone conducted with Dumile in his Bleeker Street studio in 1987, confirms his ‘… deflowered lingam’. However, interviewed by Eva Cockcroft for Art and Artists, Dumile states quite unequivocally that he is of Bushman descent. Dumile claimed that the most important influences in his artistic development were his visits to the Bushman caves with his mother as a child, where he saw the paintings and carvings of his ancestors. In his designs and drawings he claimed that he persisted in using the ochres and earth colours of the rock paintings. On another occasion in this regard he said, ‘I am amazed by one thing that I’m glad never left me – that is the beauty of the lines, the fine lines’ (Feni, 1985: 434).

The dates of Dumile’s birth provided in various published biographies also differ considerably and range from 21 May 1939 to 1942. In the 1967 Sao Paulo catalogue his age is given as ‘about 26 years old’ and he is described as being Tembu. Berman states that Dumile himself ‘was uncertain as to the date of his birth’. The uncertainty about his birth-date also appears in Dumile’s admission to Eachus King who wrote that ‘He does not know how old he is’ in an interview with the artist published in Artlook in November 1966. A theory has subsequently been put forward by contemporaries of Dumile that he would inevitably have been reticent about stating his age in order to safeguard himself from provisions of apartheid legislation, which governed the residential and employment status of ‘Non-Whites’.His father, who had been a policeman, became a trader and an evangelist. His mother, devout in her Christian beliefs, insisted on morning and evening prayers. Of this perfunctory religious observance and notwithstanding his high regard for his mother, he later remarked: You can’t pray every day. Sometimes the words don’t come. It’s no use forcing it. If God is there, He doesn’t want you to pray every day. It would drive Him crazy, He would slap you out of the house. Why does the church pray every day? (Simon, 1968: 42).At the age of six, after his mother’s death, the family moved to Athlone in Cape Town. Life was hard as the artist recollected:One day when I was very small, I was walking in the street and I found a guitar. A real, new guitar just lying there! I picked it up and took it home. Hey, I was so happy! But my Father was evangelist and he wouldn’t let me play it. So it just sat there. And then one day I pulled off one string and another day I pulled off another string. It wasn’t being used. Then I began to pull it apart and one day we used it for firewood (Simon, 1968: 41).

From an early age he loved drawing and carving. He was known to draw on every conceivable surface, leading inevitably to trouble at school, where he would be punished for defacing schoolbooks. Drawing was a compulsion and he began to skip lessons to avoid punishment and hang around with his friends; but even while playing truant he would continue to sit and draw while his friends amused themselves in more boyish ways.His father remarried in 1949, but later, when his health began to deteriorate, he sent Dumile to live with a relative in Johannesburg. Once there, he decided to leave school, although he had only achieved his Standard One pass. Six years later, in 1959, his father died. Dumile had, shortly before this, begun working in various pottery businesses in Johannesburg. Johannes Maphiri is credited with introducing him to clay pot decoration. He later became acquainted with the painter Ephraim Ngatane who was also employed decorating pots. While employed at the Block and Leo Wald Sculpture, Pottery and Plastics Foundry in Jeppe, painting ‘native scenes’ (aloes, huts, hillsides, blanketed figures), he was taught by Wald to model clay and introduced to bronze casting. During this period, Dumile, Maphiri and Ngatane, together with some other young artists, formed an informal art group, sharing skills and advice and displaying their artwork at the Open Art Fair in Joubert Park. An article in Zonk, July 1964, suggests that this was at the initiative of Ngatane. Isaac Magashule records under the subtitle to the article, Promising Protégés, ‘Twenty five year old Ephraim is looking forward to forming a syndicate of African artists. He has assembled a small number of young, budding artists at the Chiawelo Recreation Centre, where he does his painting and acts as a tutor.

Dumile Mgxaji and Welcome Koboka are two of his promising protégés’. This same article carries a photograph of Ngatane, the portrait oil (now held by the MTN Art Collection, Johannesburg) and the young Dumile posing for the portrait. The caption below the photograph reads ‘Ephraim putting the finishing touches to a portrait in oils of his protégé, Dumile Mgxaji, posing next to the painting’.1It was in Joubert Park sometime in 1960 that Dumile first met Madame Haenggi. At the time she had a financial interest in the Queens Gallery and she invited him to bring his drawings to the gallery. It is not documented that there were any commercial dealings between them at this time, but he remained in contact with her nevertheless. In 1961 she opened Gallery 101(Miles, 1994).Dumile continued working in the pottery until late 1963 when he contracted tuberculosis and was isolated in the Charles Hurwitz South African National Tuberculosis Association (SANTA) Hospital. Fortuitously his artist acquaintance, Ephraim Ngatane, was also a patient at the Tuberculosis Clinic at the time. Nursing staff drew the attention of the matron of the Clinic, Mrs. Foster, wife of the superintendent, to the artistic enterprise of her young patient and his acquaintances and as a consequence Dumile and his colleagues were asked to paint murals for the sanatorium. She provided them with art materials. Dumile, Ngatane and Sathekge (also a patient at the time) painted several murals in the wards and chapel. Of these only one, dated 1964 and signed by Dumile, is still intact, the others having been covered by paint during renovations (Miles, 1994). Encouraged by the enthusiastic response to the group’s artistic endeavours, Dumile began to develop his interest in Fine Art. He viewed an exhibition of sculpture by Bobereki, one of the first exhibitions he had ever seen. He wished to meet the artist and went to Gallery 101, hoping for an introduction. There he once again met Madame Haenggi, now the owner of the gallery. She once more indicated her willingness to view the young artist’s work in order to assess the progress he had made. He showed her some of his small sculptures and drawings. Obviously impressed, she extended an invitation to him to exhibit at her gallery, which afforded him his first real commercial opportunity. The resulting exhibition received encouraging reviews and effectively launched Dumile as an ‘up and coming artist to be reckoned with’. At this time he also received support from a key group of Johannesburg intellectuals including Lionel Abrams, Bill Ainslie, Barney Simon and Cecil Skotnes. The achievements of the 1965-67 period followed.

Yet inevitably, despite the exhilaration of the positive response to the exhibitions and perceived success, Dumile found himself in an ambiguous position. On the one hand he was flying the flag for South Africa, while on the other his works were keenly critical of the political regime. It was a situation that could not, for obvious reasons endure; the critical acclaim his works had received made him a target of officialdom: I would not have had the harassment that I had if not for my ideas and also the titles– always the titles – that I give my work. They couldn’t take that, you know. Also some of the compositions that I did. There was a composition of a prisoner, of a victim – a group of fi gures where they are all tied up and you can see the strings. Also I did a couple of pieces of Luthuli (who) … won the Nobel Prize. He was the leader of the African National Congress (Cockcroft 1983).

According to Lionel Ngakane the portrait sculpture of Luthuli by Dumile was the highlight of the exhibition when exhibited in Pretoria in 1968. The irony of this situation was that it was the high regard for his work in the art community that brought him to the attention of the political authorities.

In South Africa at the time, it was illegal for a black person to move to a city without official authority and proof of full time employment. The authorities questioned Dumile’s artistic merit, asking him to prove that being an artist was a proper job, since he only had a Standard One certificate. Despite having a contract with Gallery 101 he was refused a pass and threatened with relocation to a tribal homeland, a fate that would effectively have ended his artistic career. A possible solution to this dilemma was for Dumile to leave the country. The Government has given me six months to stay in Johannesburg. Then they say I must go back to where I was born. To the reserve in the Cape. I want to stay in Johannesburg because here is where my friends are and art. I am trying to get a passport for overseas.

I want to see America and Europe. Then I want to live in Swaziland. Why do I want to live in Swaziland? Well, because it isn’t my home. So when bad things happen to me there, it won’t hurt me so much (Simon, 1968: 43).

Lionel Ngakane records that: Dumile failed to convince the authorities that being an artist was a profession and he was eventually expelled from Johannesburg and sent back to Cape Town. In Cape Town he was given fourteen days to leave and was endorsed to his town of birth, Worcester. Worcester also refused him a resident’s permit and in turn gave him fourteen days to leave, or be arrested and sent to a tribal reservation. Dumile in desperation returned to Johannesburg and applied for a passport to leave the country. He had to wait for a year before he was granted the passport (1970: 10). Dumile had been staying with Bill and Fieke Ainslie in Jubilee Road for some considerable time, but in the period before his departure he was not receiving tuition from Ainslie; the two artists were merely working together. Dumile was attending the Academy in Craighall, which was established by the sculptor, Peter Hayden. In 1967 Bill Ainslie wrote a letter to Eric Estorick of the Grosvenor Gallery asking him to invite Dumile to London for an exhibition. Estorick had seen and admired Dumile’s art on show at Gallery 101 and had purchased some works. It was agreed between them that the letter of invitation would not be binding. The letter was written to afford Dumile an opportunity to apply for and eventually obtain his passport and visa. It would hardly be presenting a balanced view of Dumile to exclude observations and recollections that could provide further insight into the commanding persona of the artist. In this regard Eachus King states the following:…in his short life of about 23 years – he does not know how old he is – he has lived the knockabout, often hazardous, life of an orphan in the townships of Johannesburg. He was for the most of his life without identification papers, he bears the scars of many beatings up and stabbings by tsotsis, and once lay for a day on a mortuary slab, officially taken for dead (1966: 5). The archival record also contains further insightful information, often merely in brief notes or comments, which further illuminate his character and life.

Bill Ainslie, interviewed by Steven Sack in March 1988, provided some candid notes –Hit it off with Dumile and Dumile came to visit us regularly… Pass raid on station – He had to run – Persuaded us to invite him to stay with us – two years – produced best work… Tried to get pass for Dumile – phoned Cobie Marais. Came to meet Dumile (impressed me). Got him a pass. Cobie often helped - although he was a member of the Broederbond…2 Dumile fed up and very upset when Motau died.3 Dumile and Bill had bust up. After funeral – (Dumile) behaved badly at Motau’s opening in Pretoria. Dumile was endorsed out of Johannesburg. Had been selling to many international buyers… He earned a lot of money and spent it fast. Made spectacle of himself at Motau. Kissing white women; very provocative. Trying to get passport for him, wishing he’d behave better. Next day police looking for him. Marais covered for him…Winnie Mandela, Peter Magubane used to drop in… Dumile spoke of Ngatane – major mentor. Dumile started drawing: lived precarious existence in Soweto – ate rats, stabbed with spoke – had hallucinatory imagination – provoked people charging situations through provocative comment… 60’s very tough – special branch people around a lot… Wally… disciple of Dumile. 1968 Wally detained with John Slaberbersky… Weird time. Dumile did a lot to focus energy amongst artists – intangible manner – he was committed to work… people fascinated by him. Dumile came along and filled a gap (I had had reservations about a lot of the art) called the Goya of the townships, which summed it up. He gave an extra stature to art – not working for a white audience… Skotnes advised Linda Goodman not to show a Dumile drawing of a servant waiting at a table, serving male genitals.4 Surreal dimension to Dumile. May have been an authentic surrealist although the term diminishes him because of the context… Dumile said I shouldn’t teach life drawing, because you take peoples’ madness away. Binged outside of his work.… 60’s were for me the most fraught time – because political situation was frightening – bannings – house arrest – underground existence… 60’s – bleak and frightening. Relationships were risky – visits from S.B. Moji Mokone provides a different perspective. It must be taken into account that Dumile’s demeanour would no doubt have been transformed once he had left South Africa and that Makone’s observations would have been based on meetings with the artist a considerable time after the turbulent ’60s in S.A.

…Indeed, far from being reticent and taciturn, as London art critics tacitly 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 (Mail and Guardian, March 2002). Dumile arrived in London in 1968. He stayed for some time in the apartment of the exiled writer Bloke Modisane, to whom he dedicated a pen and ink drawing. The sketch is of a woman and represents Dumile’s respect for Bloke, “because women are always respected and as mothers they always worry about their children’s safety” (Ngakane, 1970: 13). It has been claimed that Dumile travelled to Algeria and China en route to London4 (Verstraete, 1988). Due to the restrictions placed on travel to certain destinations prohibited by the Nationalist Government and the severe penalties that could accrue as a result of minor transgressions, records of any such ‘illegal’ activities would not ‘in the normal course of events’ be readily accessible. Dumile is reported as having participated in a cultural festival in Nigeria in 1968 (Jansen: 2003). Once in London the Grosvenor Gallery turned out to be genuinely interested in his work and had a very high regard for his drawings in particular. In the summer of 1969 the Gallery, then at Davies Street, exhibited 37 drawings by Dumile. The show was well reviewed. Richard Walker of the Arts Review wrote:Dumile, the African Negro artist, with delicate ink-line drawings of tribal life, achieves a balance between a detached, remarkable European formal expressionism and quiet depth, a product of intimate identification with his subject. A large drawing by Dumile Four figures was illustrated in the review.Terence Mulally also reviewed this show: A discovery at once heart-warming and sobering is to be made in the exhibition just opened at the Grosvenor Gallery, 30 Davies Street, Mayfair. In this exhibition, drawings by a young African artist, Dumile, whose work has not previously been exhibited in London, strike through conventions. They remain on view until September 8.

It comes as a surprise, when most London galleries are showing nothing more exciting than mixed exhibitions of what is left in stock, to come upon a new talent of sustained power. Dumile’s work, like all art that matters, is firmly rooted in his time, yet speaks for all time. What the Grosvenor Gallery is showing is a set of ink drawings.The pen moves in a thin line outlining or shading. This pen line stands out against the startling white paper, yet in every case, and all these drawings are figure studies, bodies are defined, belief established. Dumile is an accomplished draughtsman. Yet to say no more is hardly to hint at the qualities that make his work so moving. In drawing after drawing he touches the nerve ends of our consciences. This young artist’s theme is the universal agony of man, rendered specific through his own experience in South Africa. His figures are frozen in a kind of agonized despair. In some cases the twist of an arm, the sprawl of a leg, is as eloquent as a mask of pain for a face. At other times it is as though the music of some wild ritual dance has suddenly stopped. Its dying note lingers in the heart. Dumile also exhibited at the Contemporary African Arts exhibition at the Camden Centre, London 1969 and at Gallery 21, London 1975. Yet despite these and other shows, Dumile had a grim time in London. He had little income and if it hadn’t been for jazz music, for which he had a passion, life would have been unbearable: When I listen to jazz, I get ideas. Even in London my mind is taken back home (Ngakane, 1970: 13). Dumile later travelled to the United States. In 1971 he was awarded 1st prize for sculpture in a competition organised by the African Studies Centre in Los Angeles. He was Artist in Residence at the Institute of African Humanities, University of California, Los Angeles for a period from 1979-1980 and subsequently taught at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Thereafter he completed the graduate programme in film and television at New York University, where he eventually settled. His principal income was derived from designing record covers, book illustrations, posters, calendars and murals. In 1983 Dumile submitted twenty sculptures and drawings for a benefit exhibition for the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa. He explained to Eva Cockcroft that the intention of exhibiting was ‘to keep the conscience of the world alive to the issues at stake’. It is dedicated to ‘the achievement of free democratic, non racial societies throughout Southern Africa’. In 1987 Dumile executed a triptych of major drawings for the American Committee on Africa’s Unlock Apartheid’s Jails campaign and in 1988 he held a show entitled Statements at La Galleria in New York. A catalogue printed for this show featured Theme for someone I know on the cover, as well as a reproduction of a bronze titled Silence. A quotation from Breyten Breytenbach was prominently featured on the inner cover: Almal het Gedog dat Aparthiet on the way out is, en hier het ons hom weer in so ’n nuwe gedaante, met ’n splinternuwe army-jas aan. He also exhibited with six other South African artists in a travelling show Voices from Exile, which toured American cities through the autumn of 1988. In 1989 he facilitated the mural project for the Pathfinder Building in New York, the African-American cultural and economic self-improvement headquarters on the Lower East Side, to which he contributed a portrait of Nelson Mandela (Cockcroft, 1983). In a recent issue of Beeld, Herman Jansen reports on comments by Albie Sachs regarding the repatriation to South Africa of a bronze sculpture, executed in 1987 by Dumile entitled History. The bronze had been unveiled the previous week by President Thabo Mbeki at the Schomberg Centre in New York. The comments are translated from Afrikaans. According to Sachs: Dumile had a difficult life. I visited him in the basement where he lived. He slept on a mattress in a half-dark room with breathtaking black and white sketches of naked musicians against the bleak walls. He made beautiful clay models but could not scrape together the money to cast them in bronze. The last twelve years of Feni’s life, which he spent in America, principally in New York, were especially difficult. For a year he slept in underground tube stations and “lived in his own imaginary world,” says Sachs. Apart from Hugh Masekela, who invited him to stay at his apartment in New Jersey, he also enjoyed the hospitality of Dr Cyril Khanyile. Dumile converted to Islam and took the name Othman Utletaan Feni. In 1991 he suffered a heart attack and died while shopping for jazz records in New York. He died shortly before he was due to fly to Johannesburg. Dumile was buried at the cemetery in Lenasia.

This introduction can merely attempt to focus on the complex semiotic content articulated in the range of artwork produced by the artist in his lifetime, his inherent ability to convey a diverse spectrum of emotion and suggest the loneliness and travail that Dumile, often impoverished and unjustifiably humiliated, suffered throughout his life. His legacy, to date, is a limited number of drawings and sculptures in major South African museums. The present collection of drawings, bought directly from the artist by various private collectors, has been curated and made available for exhibition and acquisition by institutions and collectors. The collection represents work completed after the artist’s departure from South Africa and arrival in England in 1968, until his death in New York in 1991.

Bruce Smith
August 2004