From ex­ile to highly re­garded

The art of the South African artist Du­mile Feni does not en­joy the promi­nence it de­serves. But a planned exhibition in New York could change this.

Finweek English Edition - - ON THE MONEY - By Jo­han My­burg

in New York, the city where South African artist Du­mile Feni spent 10 years in ex­ile, there is lit­tle ev­i­dence of his work. His big­gest public her­itage in this city, was a mu­ral that he painted shortly be­fore his death in 1990. This paint­ing on the Pathfinder Press build­ing in Green­wich Vil­lage in­cluded portraits by other artists of po­lit­i­cal fig­ures such as Martin Luther King, Mal­colm X and Fidel Cas­tro, and Feni was re­spon­si­ble for the Nel­son Man­dela piece. It was re­moved six years later when it be­came nec­es­sary to ren­o­vate the build­ing. Feni’s stay on for­eign soil was largely a bat­tle for sur­vival. The Lon­den Grosvenor Gallery is ex­hibit­ing Feni’s work in New York from 5 to 7 May, where the gallery is tak­ing part in the art fair Frieze Art New York. Grosvenor’s exhibition, Strug­gle and Re­pres­sion, is ex­hib­ited as part of the Spot­light Sec­tion of this art fair in Ran­dall’s Is­land Park.

Acord­ing to Charles Moore, Grosvenor’s di­rec­tor, this gallery de­cided to ex­hibit Du­mile Feni’s works in New York be­cause they are so “ter­ri­bly un­der­rated in the US and be­cause we be­lieve that they will ap­peal to the mar­ket ow­ing to Du­mile’s – as he was gen­er­ally known – re­mark­able story and the qual­ity of his work”.

Al­though his works have sold for more than R3m in pri­vate deals, they are sol­dom avail­able on auc­tions in New York. “Grosvenor’s exhibition at Frieze is there­fore a rare oc­ca­sion to see a col­lec­tion of his works – 10 to 15 works on pa­per and three bronze stat­ues,” says Moore. The works on pa­per are from the gallery’s col­lec­tion, al­though a few pieces have been ob­tained from pri­vate col­lec­tions in the UK. All the works are for sale.

In­ter­na­tional in­ter­est

“Du­mile is a prom­i­nent South African artist in 20th cen­tury South African art his­tory,” says Moore, “but the im­por­tant thing is to get in­ter­na­tional mu­se­ums and col­lec­tors in­ter­ested in his work. It’s only then that one could talk of a high re­gard for his works.”

Moore em­pha­sises the ties that the Grosvenor Gallery had with Du­mile since the 1960s: “It is one of the rea­sons why we ex­hibit his work, but we are just as ea­ger to ex­pose new view­ers to his work, peo­ple who would not have been in­tro­duced to his work be­fore.”

Du­mile Feni (1942-1991) left South Africa in 1968 and first set­tled in Lon­don and there­after in New York, where he died. In 1967, soon af­ter he rep­re­sented SA with works at the bi­en­nial in São Paolo, Brazil, the au­thor­i­ties of the apartheid gov­ern­ment be­came more and more un­easy about him. Du­mile re­ferred to this in an ar­ti­cle writ­ten about him in 1983: “I would not have at­tracted at­ten­tion, were it not for my ideas and the ti­tles – al­ways the ti­tles – I gave to my works. And also for a few com­po­si­tions I made. There was one com­po­si­tion of a prisoner – of a vic­tim – of a group of fig­ures who were all tied up and you could see the ropes. I also made a few pieces of Luthuli.” It was es­pe­cially Du­mile’s bronze stat­ues of Al­bert Luthuli, the leader of the ANC at the time and the re­cip­i­ent of the No­bel Peace Prize in 1960, that up­set the gov­ern­ment and con­trib­uted to his de­ten­tion. And why the screws were sys­tem­at­i­cally tight­ened. In terms of the Group Ar­eas Act, Du­mile was forced to re­turn to his place of birth – Worces­ter. De­spite a con­tract he had with Gallery 101 in Jo­han­nes­burg, he was not al­lowed to re­main in Jo­han­nes­burg. If he wasn’t pre­pared to re­turn to Worces­ter, he was doomed to im­pris­on­ment or ex­ile. He chose ex­ile and had to wait a year for his pass­port. Dur­ing this pe­riod, Du­mile was stay­ing in Bill Ainslie’s house in Jo­han­nes­burg and reg­is­ter­ing at the Craighall Academy, which was started by the sculp­tor Peter Hay­den. Ainslie, artist and founder of sev­eral art train­ing pro­grammes and of the Jo­han­nes­burg Art Foun­da­tion, wrote to Eric Es­torick, an Amer­i­can art col­lec­tor who es­tab­lished the Grosvenor Gallery in 1960, and asked him if he would be pre­pared to in­vite Du­mile for an exhibition. Es­torick’s in­vi­ta­tion fa­cil­i­tated Du­mile’s pass­port ap­pli­ca­tion and in 1968 Du­mile left for Lon­don where he held a solo exhibition in 1969 at the Grosvenor Gallery and also took part in a group exhibition at the Cam­den art cen­tre in Lon­don. Du­mile was not the prod­uct of an art train­ing pro­gramme. As a child he sketched on any­thing and with any­thing he could lay his hands on. The poverty in which he grew up near Cape Town did not make pro­vi­sion for his tal­ent. It was only in a tu­ber­cu­lo­sis hos­pi­tal in Dur­ban that he had his first art classes in the 1950s. When he was trans­ferred to the Charles Hur­witz Santa hos­pi­tal in Soweto in 1963, he be­gan paint­ing mu­rals on the walls of the hos­pi­tal to­gether with the artist Ephraim Ngatane. Ngatane took him to the Ju­bilee art cen­tre in Jo­han­nes­burg and in­tro­duced him to Ce­cil Skotnes, who helped him with his paint­ing teqnique. In 1966, he held one of his first solo ex­hi­bi­tions at Gallery 101, where all his ex­hibits were sold.

“I would not have at­tracted at­ten­tion, were it not for my ideas and the ti­tles – al­ways the ti­tles – I gave to my works.”

South African artist who spent years in ex­ile

Du­mile Feni

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