Dumile Feni (1942 – 1991)

Dumile Feni

(1942 – 1991)

Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba “Dumile” Feni was born in 1942 in Worcester, Western Cape. Sadly his mother died when he was only five or six years old, he then went to live with some relatives in Cape Town until he was eleven. Feni then began working for his father, whom was a trader and preacher. Feni continued to exercise his childhood passion for carving and drawing. By the early 1950s Feni had moved to Johannesburg where he began working as an apprentice at the Block and Leo Wald Sculpture, Pottery and Plastics Foundry in Jeppe. In 1963-1964 Feni was a patient at the Charles Hurwitz South African National Tuberclosis Association (SANTA) Hospital in Johannesburg. During this time he was given art materials, which was the way that he began his drawing career. With Ezrom Legae, Feni decorated numerous walls within the hospital. He also received support from Lionel Abrams, Bill Ainslie and Barney Simon.

Since then Feni has exhibited successfully for a number of years in Johannesburg and was even selected as one of the artists to represent South Africa at the 1967 Sao Paulo Biennale. However the work he created for the exhibition was severely criticised by his fellow artists in Durban, where he was living at the time, for being disposed to represent the apartheid regime on an international exhibition. When Feni decided to return to Johannesburg he was faced with the prospect of being deported to either Queenstown or Worcester under the notorious Pass Laws. He decided then to go into voluntary exile in London, arriving there at the beginning of 1968. Fortunately Feni’s time in London brought him success and recognition, as he was able to show his at the Grosvenor Gallery and Camden Art Centre, as well as in other exhibitions.

In 1979 Feni decided to go to the United States, where travelled first to Los Angeles and then to New York, where he spent the last decade of his life. In 1991 Feni planned to return to South Africa but he died from heart failure shortly before this, while he was shopping at his favourite music store, Tower Records in New York. His body was returned to South Africa and he is buried in Johannesburg.

Feni found his subject matter in the life and events that he observed around him. He worked primarily with graphic art in predominantly monochromatic hues. Many of his works also reflect his deep love of music, especially jazz. Rather than depicting naturalistic likeness, both Feni’s drawings and the sculptures are symbolic portraits of a great leader and a wise and noble man.