Sound letters to Dumile Feni

Feya Faku and Herbie Tsoaeli pay tribute in music to Dumile Feni at Gallery MOMO, Cape Town. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

Feya Faku and Herbie Tsoaeli pay tribute in music to Dumile Feni at Gallery MOMO, Cape Town. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

There are many stories to be told. One of them is the story of Dumile Feni.

We know his dramatic monochromatic artwork and muscular drawings, the smooth tortured lines of his sculptures. We know his biography, the list of his exhibitions is available. What we don’t know is the details, the stories comprising the moments that tell of the man who is so central in the development and history of South African art.

It was a point hammered home by Thembinkosi Goniwe at a refreshingly original event celebrating the closure of the exhibition at Gallery MOMO, Dumile Feni: Beyond the Line, called Sound Letters to Dumile Feni, which included improvised jazz by renowned musicians Feya Faku on trumpet and Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, a movement performance by Buhlebezwe Siwani and discussion with photographer Omar Badsha and art historian Nomusa Makhubu.

Surrounded by Feni’s solid sculptures of elongated faces whose widely varying expressions gather power as you become accustomed to them – the way we are more easily able to discern mood in the face of a friend than in the new features of a stranger – we heard Faku’s notes soar and cry over Tsoaeli’s bass running and twisting like a tsotsi step stepping through the alleys between shacks to evade the searching apartheid police while Feni’s centrepiece, History, reminded us of where we had come from, of the pain in which the artist’s work was situated.

By their very nature, galleries are places where people observe rather than participate, an act of looking that extends beyond the art on display to anyone else who happens to be in the space, which makes openings in particular rather brittle affairs where image is appraised and judged as if there was no distinction between the art hanging on the walls and the people standing on the floor. This was a closure though, which relaxed the atmosphere due to a subtle sense that the looking was over, it was time for the feeling to begin.

It was also refreshing to be in a racially mixed crowd, an unfortunately rare experience in Cape Town, particularly so in a gallery space. On a personal level, this was highlighted by the fact that the previous evening I had attended an art auction at a commercial gallery in Tokai where the 60-odd punters were exclusively and excruciatingly white, the only black person in the venue being a man employed to hold up the paintings to view as they were auctioned by an elderly white man who peppered his patter with sexist jokes. It was if, in the space of 24 hours, I had shifted from a Verwoedian vision of South African society to an a gathering of the ANC in exile. Stranger still was that the art (although much of what was auctioned could hardly be called art) at the former gathering was contemporary while Feni’s work was created during the National Party’s reign.

In fact Feni’s iconic History was, as noted in a Mail & Guardian article on Feni’s exhibition at Gallery MoMo in Johannesburg last year, created in response to an anecdote that Verwoed, while lecturing his lieutenants on keeping black people in service, “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].’”

Makhubu was right on the mark when she said that today, Feni’s work could be seen as a prophesy.

'History' by Dumile Feni.

‘History’ by Dumile Feni.

But I think Feni would have like the fact that he managed to bring black and white, young and old, born-frees and struggle veterans together at the end of his exhibition. That he is a revered black artist, the ‘Goya of the townships’, helped of course, as did the jazz, which he also loved and depicted in drawings.

The informality of the discussion with Omar Badsha, who has been called a pioneer of ‘resistance art’ provided an inkling of Feni as a person rather than the artist we know him as.

Badsha, who was based in Durban, told how he was befriended by Feni while on a visit to Johannesburg. Simply witnessing Badsha speak publicly was a treat in itself and we carefully absorbed what he had to say, and what he alluded to, recognising that what we were witnessing was a rare moment.

It was in 1966, said Badsha, a few months after Feni had a very successful exhibition and was “the flavour of the month”.

“It was the first time in South African history that the black figure was protrayed in all its glory. He created a new language virtually, that challenged all the notions of the black artist in Johannesburg at the time.”

While in Johannesburg Badsha naturally popped in to Polly Street Art Centre, which was home to the leftist artists and intellectuals. He said Feni came in and paced around before “grabbing him” and persuading him to take a walk. That was the start of a friendship between the two men, of whom Badsha was the younger by three years, which saw Badsha later looking after Feni in Durban and helping him go into exile in the UK.

Feni was a man who had moved from family to family, a man with no home or centre, whose life was always in a chaotic state. Brimming with vitality and not allowing anything to stand in his way, he was demanding of his friends and, at that time at least, relied heavily on a few people to keep him upright. With few words and a wry smile, Badsha let it be known that Feni was not an easy man to live with and the time during which he supported Feni in Durban had its share of difficulties. But between the lines could also be read a loyalty and love for the artist borne partly from a recognition of the difficulties and instability he had had to endure.

It was the stories such as these, the undocumented periods in the lives of those who manage, even after death, to bring disparate races and ages together through the timeless power of their vision and work, which need to be captured in order to deepen our understanding of our history and heritage and each other.

–Steve Kretzmann

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