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.
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.
“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