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Poets Printery

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Dumile Feni – An Artist Misunderstood

dumile-feni.jpgI had taken my friend Tembeka to see the collection exhibited at the Ann Bryant Art Gallery, East London, South Africa. It was a warm sunny afternoon; East London is blessed with such lovely days. The gallery boasts one of the best collections in Arts in South Africa. This has been possible due to the avid interest in collecting the best of arts from early eighteenth century to the modern times by its late owner Ann Bryant.

Tembeka went around looking at each exhibit giving her comments. She came upon a oil on canvas depicting a Xhosa Woman in traditional dress. ‘This is a beautiful painting, come and see this work’ she remarked. Instead I asked her to come and see a charcoal drawing which is displayed at the entrance of the gallery. Tembeka came and saw it and immediately her hand flew over her face. ‘I can’t see this work, my son Alungile would cry if he has to see this picture’. Dumile Feni has been once again successful in creating such passions in the ordinary person that can burst out at such unguarded moments.

“Going” by Dumile Feni

This was Dumile Feni’s work titled ‘Going’ done by charcoal on paper. This work by Feni remains the most prestigious item that this small gallery and its curators are proud off. It is a piece of South African history.

The common man in present day South Africa is largely unaware of Dumile Feni’s work and the Contemporary South African Art movement touts him as a ‘Goya of Townships’. Dumile Feni represented much more than that.

Catastrophes, accidents and awful events litter the works of the painter, draughtsman and sculptor Dumile Feni. One of his best-known drawings is from the year 1966 and entitled ´Railway Accident´. Folk are screaming and fleeing, bodies crushed, and limbs disjointed and tossed all over the place. Life has been torn asunder. Among this debris, the steely perpetrator – the derailed locomotive – lies diagonally across the design, itself burst. Pure horror leaps out at the observer through a dark veil of hopelessness.

Dumile Feni was born in Worcester in Western Cape in South Africa at a time not known exactly. It is thought to have been between 1939 and 1944. South Africa was still marked by apartheid imposed by a white-minority government and maintained in the face of opposition by force and violence. Dissidents were suppressed and jailed, and black townships on the fringe of cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg were often run-down and riddled with crime. These were the conditions which Dumile´s works referred to. Since they recall Francisco Goya´s etchings of war and violence in the late 18th and early 19th century, Dumile was dubbed the ´Goya of the Townships´ – an honor which he hardly enjoyed earning.


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