Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba “Dumile” Feni was born on 21 May 1942 in the small town of Withuis in Worcester, Cape Province. While his date of birth varies substantially in various sources, from 1939 to 1942, Prince Mbusi Dube confirms his birth year as 1942. In an interview in Artlook in November 1996 with Eachus King, Dumile is described as ‘not know[ing] how old he is.’ Many scholars believe Dumile was decidedly ambiguous as to his age and birth year in order to protect himself against several provisions in apartheid law.

His parents, Geelbooi Magoqwana and Bettie Nothemba Mgxaji, were of Xhosa origin. They named their son Zwelidumile, or “a person known all over the country.” (Dube, 2006) His father was a policeman, who eventually became a trader and an evangelist. His mother, who died while Dumile was still young, was a gambler who operated an illegal pyramid scheme out of their home in Withuis and insisted on prayers every evening. Shortly after his birth, the family moved from Withuis to Welcome in Cape Town after a series of events regarding Bettie’s pyramid scheme threatened the family’s well being.

As a child, Dumile was encouraged to draw. Even at the age of six, Dumile produced complex sketches, often drawing on furniture, in books, or wherever he was able. In the morning, he would sketch scenes and images from his dreams before doing anything else. Statements about his early school years reveal that he was often punished for drawing in his schoolbooks. Dumile began to skip his lessons to avoid punishment for his compulsive drawing. Many believe that Dumile’s artistic impulses parallel the method in which spiritualists work, and thus draw a connection between Dumile and the San people. Later in life, Dumile claimed his work was significantly influenced by San drawings in caves he had visited as a child. He stated, “I am amazed by one thing that I’m glad never left me – that is the beauty of the lines, the fine lines” (Smith, 2004) in relation to the San cave paintings. Dumile’s drawings and designs can be claimed to use the ochres and earthen colours of these cave paintings.

After the death of his mother, Dumile, at the age of six, moved from the Cape Province to Rylands. When he contracted tuberculosis at eleven, Dumile was sent to recover in Queenstown with his stepmother’s brother. Dumile travelled alone on a segregated train from Cape Town to Queenstown. He became a patient at Isolation Hospital, now Philani Clinic. He enrolled at Mgijima Bantu Community School, or Kwa Israel as it was known by the local community. This was not to be Dumile’s first battle with tuberculosis.

Dumile was discharged from the hospital, fully healed, and was reunited with his family after his father, stepmother, stepsiblings, and cousins moved to Queenstown. Dumile withdrew from school in Grade 4, having just received his Standard One pass. These developments occurred against the backdrop of the National Party’s strengthening of the apartheid regime. Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, instituted the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which segregated instruction at all levels. African ‘coloureds’ were barred from attending European institutions in South Africa, and the curriculum in Bantu schools became increasingly centred on traditional African materials. Prince Mbsusi Dube claims, “given this form of subservient education, Dumile could not have remained at school.” (Dube, 2006) Nevertheless, Dumile’s lack of further formal education did not prevent him from producing art. From 1953 to 1957, Dumile developed a substantial body of work. Several of his drawings and sketches, as well as several terra cotta busts, were exhibited and sold at the Queenstown Art Gallery.

At age fifteen, Dumile was advised to pursue his artistic talent in Johannesburg. His father had just died, and Dumile moved from Queenstown to Johannesburg thereafter. His stepmother moved to Johannesburg as well. Upon his arrival, Dumile was met by Amos, his cousin, who helped him become employed as a policeman at the Jeppe Police Station. After being “knocked off” that very afternoon, Dumile met with Amos and went to George Goch Men’s Hostel where Amos lived. Between 1957 and 1963, Dumile worked at the Sculpture, Pottery, and Plastics Arty Foundry in Jeppe. There, Dumile decorated ceramic ornaments like pots, animals, and vases. He was introduced to bronze casting and model clay. During this time, Dumile formed a loose art group with other artists to give advice, share skills and techniques, and display their work at the Open Art Fair in Joubert Park. Circa 1960, Dumile was introduced to Madame Haenggi, who invited Dumile to bring some of his work to the Queens Gallery. Despite a lack of official records of any commercial dealing between Haenggi and Dumile at this time, the two remained in contact. Haenggi would open Gallery 101 in 1961. 

At 25, in 1963, Dumile contracted tuberculosis again and became a patient at the Charles Hurwitz Santa Tuberculosis Hospital in Soweto. He spent three months recovering there. Many scholars attribute his time at the hospital to significant developments in Dumile’s artistic career. The hospital matron, Mrs. Forster, introduced him to other artists in the hospital, including Ephraim Mojalefa Ngatane, an established South African artist. Ngatane became one of Dumile’s mentors and best friends. Together they worked on murals in the hospital. Only one of these murals remains, dated 1964, and is signed by Dumile.

After being discharged from the hospital, Dumile stayed with Ngatane in Soweto. Dumile entered the art world during the Poly Street Era, which is named after Polly Street Art Centre. Polly Street Art features township scenes and social housing. Dumile spent much time with many artists associated with this style. However, his art is characterized by a more spiritual, lucid, and abstract modernist style and subject matter.

After viewing an exhibition by sculptor Bobereki, Dumile returned to Gallery 101 to meet the artist and became re-acquainted with Madame Haenggi. Haenggi extended an invitation to exhibit at her gallery, providing Dumile with his first significant commercial opportunity. The exhibition at Gallery 101 received positive reviews and gained Dumile the the support of Johannesburg intellectuals like Barney Simon, Cecil Skotnes, Lionel Abrams, and notably Bill Ainslie.

In 1964, Bill Ainslie, a revered South African artist, was invited by Madame Haenggi to visit Gallery 101 to meet Dumile and view his work while he staged the exhibition at her gallery. Ainslie offered Dumile accommodation at his house on Jubilee Road, Parktown in Johannesburg. Ainslie facilitated Dumile’s entrance into the world of mainstream art, and became an intimate friend and mentor for over twenty years. Ainslie played a crucial role in Dumile’s development as a well-known artist, helping Dumile display his work at commercial galleries and establish relationships with private collectors.

In 1964, Dumile took classes run by Ngatane at the Chiawelo Centre, Soweto. Dumile exhibited in several group exhibitions during this time, including exhibitions at the Transvaal Academy annual show held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (1965), the Republican Arts Festival (1966), and the Fame and Promise Exhibition (1966). In 1966, Dumile won the Merit Award for a mother and child piece in the South African Breweries Art Prize exhibition. An exhibition opened at the Durban Municipal Art Gallery from August 1966 until September 1966. Omar Badsha and Dumile initiated a show at the newly opened Natal Society of Arts Gallery in October 1966. His work was displayed in a group show at the South African pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal in 1966.  

In 1967, Dumile visited Lesotho with friends Ngatane and Lucas Sibiya. In Lesotho, the three worked, exhibited, and discussed their methods and pieces. Local artists joined Dumile, Ngatane, and Sibiya to form a working group, including Meshu Mokitimi. In Lesotho, Dumile and Ngatane engaged the art community in various lectures, shows, and salons.

Together, Mokitimi and Dumile spent a day meeting with many South Africans exiled in Lesotho. Dumile also spent time at Lesotho National University, where he and others were artists-in-residence at the British Council under the supervision of Ngatane. At the university, Dumile and Mokitimi worked on a mural together entitled “Who is Guilty?” The mural depicts several figures; the figure on the left points his finger at another figure, and the figure on the right holds a clenched fist. Much of Dumile’s work focuses on anguished figures, often contorted and distorted. This mural, along with arguably his most revered work, African Guernica, a 218 x 226 cm charcoal drawing on newsprint, displays his stylistic emphasis on social realism, distortion, and powerful emotion. While Dumile claimed that his “subjects are African because they [were] his people, but [his] message [had] nothing to do with racialism,” the work reflects the social context of oppression under apartheid in the urban South African setting. (Smith, 2004) The work deals with sentiments of anguish and humanity through multiple layers of shadows and images.  

In 1967, Dumile’s work was selected to be exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennale. Five of his drawings were chosen, and one was published in the catalogue. Two of these works are currently housed in the South African National Gallery, including Train Accident, which was included in an exhibition called The Short Century in 2001.

            This period marked Dumile’s entrance into the international art world. In addition to the Sao Paulo Biennale, Dumile’s works were exhibited in Belgium at the Antwerp Museum of Art and at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, England. Also during this period, however, the apartheid government’s security forces tightened their monitoring of Dumile’s movements, and thoughts of exile grew serious. The regime questioned his career as an artist, professed him an enemy of the state and proponent of the African Consciousness movement, and denied Dumile a pass to remain in Johannesburg despite his contract with Gallery 101. In Arts and Artists in June 1983, Dumile explained, “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. Also some of the compositions that I did. There was a composition of a prisoner, of a victim – of a group of figures where they were all tied up and you can see the strings. Also I did a couple of pieces of Luthuli.” (Smith, 2004) Here Dumile refers to Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. Dumile created two bronze busts of Luthuli, which provoked the attention of the apartheid regime. The Study for the Portrait of Albert Luthuli, a drawing, is a profound representation of the sculptural quality in Dumile’s style and oeuvre. Line plays a central role, along with form, in all of his work. The drawing characteristically emphasizes the human figure, posture, and symbolic likeness over naturalistic likeness. Dumile reflected that this bronze “somehow disappeared after having been shown in a museum in Durban.” (Dube, 2006)While Dumile was not a formal member of the ANC, he was certainly a sympathizer and supporter in a broader cultural sense. The apartheid regime viewed him, however, as a political dissident through his artwork.

Dumile was forced to choose life in Worcester, jail, or exile abroad. Dumile applied for a passport to leave the country; this process took a year. With regard to the situation, Dumile stated, “the government has given me six months to stay in Johannesburg. Then 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. 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.” (Smith, 2004)

            In the year before his exile, Dumile took residency at Bill Ainslie and his wife Fieke’s house on Jubilee road. He enrolled in the Academy in Craighall, which was established by sculptor Peter Hayden. During this time, Bill Ainslie wrote to Eric Estorick, an American art collector associated with Grosvenor Gallery in London, and suggested that he invite Dumile to display his work at the gallery. Estorick had supposedly bought several pieces of Dumile’s work at Gallery 101 and admired the artist’s style. Estorick responded and offered Dumile a non-binding invitation to put on an exhibition in London, thus providing him with valid grounds on which to apply and receive a passport and visa. In 1968, after intensified harassment from the apartheid regime, Dumile left for London.

            Upon his arrival in London, Dumile stayed for some time with Bloke Modisane, an exiled South African writer and actor. Grosvenor Gallery became interested in Dumile’s oeuvre and an exhibition was agreed upon. In the summer of 1969, the gallery exhibited thirty-seven of Dumile’s drawings on Davies Street. Dumile received positive reviews from the London public. In a review by Richard Walker in the Arts Review, Dumile’s style was described as “delicate-ink line drawings of tribal life, achiev[ing] a balance between a detached, remarkable European formal expressionism and quiet depth, a product of intimate identification with his subject.” (Smith, 2004) Similarly, a review by Terrence Mulally claims “a discovery at once heart-warming and sobering is to be made in the exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery. In this exhibition, drawings by a young African artist, Dumile, whose work has not been previously exhibited in London, strike through conventions.” (Smith, 2004) Along with this show, Dumile was featured at the Contemporary African Arts exhibition at the Camden Centre in 1969.

            In 1970, several of Dumile’s pieces were represented in an exhibition titled “The 51 Club Winter Art Exhibition” at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. He was also represented in a solo exhibition of pieces from the collection of Desmond Fisher at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. The following year, Dumile was featured once again in a group show at Gallery 101, and was awarded first prize for a bronze sculpture in the art competition held by the African Studies Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1972, he won the UTA Pavement competition, USA. Dumile remained in London until

From 1972 until his death in 1991, Dumile exhibited in a variety of group and solo exhibitions at galleries and shows including Goodman Galleries, Gallery 21 in London, the South African National Gallery, the Cape Town Festival, Jabulani Standard Bank, National Museum and Art Gallery in Gaborone, Botswana, the Los Angeles African American Museum, the United Nations Plaza, City without Walls Gallery in Newark, New Jersey, La Galleria in New York, and a gallery in Applecrest, New York. Travelling exhibitions included a group show organized by the University of Fort Hare, which travelled to Rand Afrikaans University, Pretoria Museum, University of Orange Free State, William Humphreys Gallery, and Kimberly. His second prominent travelling exhibition was a group show entitled Voices from exile that toured the United States, notably Washington DC, Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia.

            Dumile was instated as the artist in residence at the Institute of African Humanities, University of California, Los Angeles from 1979-1980. Subsequently, Dumile taught at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boson, Massachusetts. He completed a graduate degree in a film and television programme at New York University, and eventually settled in Manhattan, New York City. While living in New York, Dumile’s principle income was derived from designing record covers, book covers and illustrations, posters, calendars, and murals.

            In 1983, Dumile submitted approximately twenty sculptures and drawings to a benefit exhibition for the International Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa. Although Dumile’s work is stylistically distinct from overtly political poster art and township art, the context of his oeuvre and the character of his line and form convey a subtle anti-apartheid, humanist project that can be viewed as inherently political. Dumile stated that his intention in submitting work to this political organisation was “to keep the conscience of the world alive to the issues at stake.” (Smith, 2004). In 1987, in a similar act, Dumile created a triptych of drawings destined for the American Committee of Africa’s Unlock Apartheid’s Jails campaign.

            The next year, La Galleria in New York City held a show entitled “Statements” with Dumile’s work. In autumn of 1988, Dumile exhibited with six South African artists in the show “Voices from Exile” that travelled throughout the United States. In 1989, Dumile participated in a mural project for the Pathfinder Building, the African American self-improvement headquarters in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. He donated a portrait of Nelson Mandela.

             Life in exile, both in London and around America, was characterized by difficulty and poverty. Despite having fallen into a group of exiled South African intellectuals, Dumile often struggled to find a place to live and enough income to sustain himself. Albie Sachs stated  

“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.” (Smith, 2004)

In 1991, Dumile suffered a heart attack and died in a Jazz record shop, just before he was supposed to fly to Johannesburg. Dumile was buried at a cemetery in Lenasia. Dumile’s style still enthrals and puzzles art historians and critics. Some, like critic E.J. de Jager, root his distorted, anguished figures in a “tortured self-conscious” (Nettleton, 2011). de Jager also claims that Dumile’s content is inextricably tied to social conditions under apartheid, and his style is that of spontaneous creation and energetic animation. In response to this argument, Anitra Nettleton claims that this “rob[s] the work of its political significance and demean[s] the artist’s achievement.” (Nettleton, 2011) She posits instead that Dumile’s style is the result of deliberate construction, and the means by which Dumile contorts the human figure conveys “the folly of humanity” (Nettleton, 201) and provokes intense emotions in the viewer. Regardless, Dumile’s biography and enigmatic artistic oeuvre remains influential in contemporary art and his story holds testament to the political, philosophical, and moral struggle that many artists faced under apartheid.

This article was written by Sophia Reuss and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship

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