Dumile Feni

Article Bio Works Projects
apartheid, catastrophe, exile
Visual Arts (drawing, painting, sculpture)
Africa, Southern, Europe, Western, America, North
South Africa, England (UK), United States of America
created on:
June 13, 2003
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The derailed train is a symbol

Dumile Feni was an artist with first-hand experience of apartheid in South Africa. In 1968 he emigrated in his mid 20s to Britain then later to the USA. His drawings are notable for their nervous expressionistic style and often show human catastrophes, accidents and grievous crimes. His portraits of Nelson Mandela brought him further recognition, but he died in New York in 1991.
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.

The fact that this hopelessness was due not to fate but to the behaviour of Dumile´s fellow countrymen is plain on comparing his ´Railway Accident´ with another work of his, ´The Stricken Household´, which was painted at about the same time. The presentation is similar except that in the latter case the misfortune is due to no technical hitch but to a human assault. To be seen are huts trembling in empathy with destitute villagers spread-eagled at random as if crucified. This memorable scene is one which Dumile Feni had experienced first hand.

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 honour which he hardly enjoyed earning.

Dumile was first trained in the ceramics works in Jeppe in Johannesburg. While recovering from severe tuberculosis, he began drawing and finally decorated whole walls of the hospital. From 1965 on, he worked with the politically active Gallery 101 in Johannesburg and in 1967 exhibited at the celebrated São Paulo-Biennale. A year later he moved to Britain.

Stylistically Dumile inclined towards figurative realism, and his nervous but exact lines recall those of Egon Schiele. His artistic materials were often very simple, the drawings often done with a ballpoint pen, as much for economic as artistic reasons. He died in New York in 1991. The recognition which he deserved came to him posthumously, though he had exhibited during his lifetime in many galleries in South Africa and Britain. On the initiative of several members of the African National Congress, especially Dumile´s friend Isaac Witkin and the conservator and bronze-caster John Phillips, funds were set up with which to bring Dumile´s works back from the USA to South Africa, to be shown in the National Gallery in Cape Town. A grand retrospective of his works is planned for 2003 by the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Author: Ulrich Clewing


Born between 1939 and 1944, Dumile Feni was trained at the Block and Leo Wald Sculpture, Pottery and Plastic Foundry in Johannesburg. He emigrated to Great Britain in 1968 and later to the USA, where he became the artist in residence at the African Humanities Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles and a guest professor at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He died in New York in 1994.


Exhibition / Installation,

The Short Century, exhibition catalogue, München, London, New York 2001

Published Written,

The Short Century, Museum Villa Stuck, München; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA.

Exhibition / Installation,

Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa.

Exhibition / Installation,

La Galleria, New York, USA.

Exhibition / Installation,

South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa.

Exhibition / Installation,

Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Exhibition / Installation,

Grosvenor Gallery, London; Camden Arts Centre, London, Great Britain.

Exhibition / Installation,

São Paulo Biennale, Brazil.

Exhibition / Installation,

101 Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Exhibition / Installation,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)