Dumile Feni

This show confirms Dumile Feni as one of the most astonishing draughtsman South Africa has produced. Titled, Jabula, it presents us not with Feni’s earlier work, but work produced after he left South Africa in 1968 for London. The work, as such, has shifted from the expressionism of his earlier drawings to what seems to be a more cubist, at least more abstract, sense of the figure. The selection is astute, combining erotic drawings and politically themed graphic works, separated by the partitioning of the white cube space.

Much of what we see on this show are what I would call studies, obviously selected from Feni’s notebooks. On some, such as Dare you say Freedom (Chaka) (1973), the perforated edges have been left intact. This creates the impression of authenticity, giving what appears to be insight into an artist’s private process. The feeling of the study is further enforced by the repetition of figures, or faces and configurations. In Figures and Horses, Feni’s signature animal-human figures metamorphose into one another in at least three constellations. Against the studies are placed more complete graphic works, often ink drawings such as Tell God, which places two mother-child figures opposite each other, their gestures ambiguously proselytising and confrontational.A political motif runs through larger graphic works such as Passage from the Verwoerd Re-enactment Killing Theme. In two untitled works, figures or faces are placed behind bars, while in the others Feni’s own text and titles locate the work clearly within a narrative of struggle. In Generations of Resistance, a handwritten homage to Sicelo Dlomo, Dulcie September, Ernest Cole and Ruth First is inscribed onto the work itself.The most compositionally complex is the work that introduces the show, visible through the gallery’s glass wall. Titled Blue Suede Shoes, it adds a third figure to the background of Feni’s recurring mother and child motif. Done in colour pastel, the work has a sculptural and painterly quality. A curious distortion is achieved by the insertion of the blue suede shoe onto a weirdly mechanical leg extending in the opposite direction to the mother’s torso. The work is somewhat out of place in a show characterised by the division of erotic and political. Like many works, it is labelled as “undated”, which brings me to the question of curatorial attention to the details of ‘labelling’. Often when works have more than one medium, say a mixture of ink and crayon, a compromise is reached: “mixed media”. This is especially strange given that a work like Russian American Dancer appears to be a purely ink line drawing. Mixed media seems to be somewhat careless oversight given Feni’s fairly limited set of media: conte crayon, pastel, ink and pencil.The more substantial works, of which there are five, are distinguished from the studies and smaller graphic works, in scale and complexity, but also in being labelled: “NFS” (not for sale). These works are obviously reserved for museum display. The selection was made with the permission of the Feni family, on whose behalf gallerist Mona Mokoena manages the artist’s collection. While the gallery makes no pretensions about the show being commercial, I found the prices assigned to the studies interesting – starting at R75,000, the prices reached R120,000. This is indicative of the shift in value assigned to South African art in general. That Feni’s process drawings could fetch such high prices legitimates his place within that same history. Here the value of a work is assigned less according to composition and mark-making than oeuvre and name. The pricing of the studies for private collectors is cleverly played off against the completed work for museum collection, marked NFS. Here, I suppose, questions about the mix of media are eclipsed by those of ownership.
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