In 1963 and 1964, while a patient at the Charles Hurwitz South African National Tuberculosis Association (Santa) Hospital in Johannesburg, Feni was given art materials.
It was in this way that he began his drawing career in earnest. Together with Ezrom Legae, he decorated numerous walls in the hospital.
He received support from Lionel Abrams, Bill Ainslie and Barney Simon.
Feni exhibited successfully for several years in Johannesburg and was selected as one of the artists to represent South Africa at the 1967 Sao Paulo Biennale.
However he was severely criticised by his fellow artists in Durban, where he was living at the time, for being disposed to represent the Apartheid regime on an international exhibition. His work at this exhibition was however of a very political nature and embarrassed the South African government of that time.
Upon his return to Johannesburg and faced with the prospect of being deported to either Queenstown or Worcester under the notorious Pass Law, Feni decided to go into voluntary exile on a one-way exit visa to London. He arrived there in the beginning of 1968.
When Feni left South Africa in 1968 his wife was seven months pregnant with his only child, Marriam Diale.
Vusumzi had an interesting bit of information that he could also share in this regard. He still has a clear memory of when he met Dumile Feni when he was 8 years old.
At the time, Feni came to Worcester to come and greet his sister, Beli at De Wet Cellar, Vusumzi’s father and mother and his other family and friends before he would go into exile.
Besides his wife in Johannesburg, who was expecting his child, Feni’s family in Worcester were his closest relatives.
Vusumzi remembers that Feni had three close friends in Zwelethemba who he also came to greet at the time. The first one was Mapoysana Mfutwana at 729 Mtshila Avenue, who worked at the then Department of Bantu Affairs.
The second one was Patrick Luthuli at 507 Africa Road, who was a tailor. The third one was Aron Shope at 516 Africa Road, who later died in Cape Town, but whose sister Katie Shope is still alive. Aron and Feni were school friends, since the time they attended the Methodist Church in Zwelethemba.
Vusumzi still has a crystal clear memory of the last time that he saw Feni when he was eight years old in 1967. Vusumzi and his great nephew, Zolile Moses Fumba, both recount how one last final prayer was held for Feni in Zwelethemba to say goodbye as everyone knew that they would never see him again.
This prayer was held at 155 Njila Road at the family residence of Jacobs and Dora Fumba. The prayer was conducted here because Stanford Mgxaji and Jacobs Fumba’s mother were sisters.
According to Vusumzi he was very fond of Feni and followed him everywhere he went at the time. He followed Feni to the Fumba residence, but just before Feni entered the house, he turned around and stuck his hand in his pocket, took out a 10 cent coin, bowed down, and gave the coin to Vusumzi and told him to go to the shop to go and buy some sweets for him. Vusumzi took the coin, went to go and buy the sweets, and when he returned, Feni was gone. He went to look for Feni,but couldn’t find him anywhere. He kept looking for him, until his mother said “Do not go after him, Dumile is gone.”
Vusumzi was able to show a very special photo that was taken in the lounge of the Mgxajo family residence at 556 Africa Avenue in 1967, which shows both his parents, Stanford Mgxaji and his wife, Elsie, together with Feni.
This is the only photograph that the Mgxaji family has of Feni and is quite special, as this must surely be a photo that many of Feni’s reseachers and biographers are probably unaware of. The original photo is preserved in his house, and is so precious that he only shows a copy of the photo to people who ask.
Vusumzi recounted a fascinating tale of how Feni left five of his drawings at Vusumzi’s parents’ house when he came to greet in 1967 and before he went into exile. This was a typical characteristic of Feni, because he was always on the move and he left his artworks for safekeeping or gave most of them away as gifts and paid for services with his artwork wherever he went. Just before he went into exile, Feni gave a lot of his drawings to Vusumzi’s parents as a present and as a keepsake to remember him by.
According to Vusumzi, these drawings later became old and were unfortunately lost over time, but because the drawings were always lying around the house, he still has a clear memory of the scenes that Feni drew. Even as a child, Vusumzi knew that the drawings were something special and he sat for hours looking at them, memorising the scenes and trying to decypher what these scenes meant.
In 2010, Vusumzi took the time and drew the scenes of Feni’s drawings exactly as he remembers them.. The first drawing is of a man in a frame, holding his hands aloft.. The second drawing is of two men on a horse and a woman with a child. . The third drawing is of a woman taking her son to school. . The fourth drawing is a classroom scene.. The fifth drawing is the most significant one. This is a highly complex and layered drawing in which Feni wrote the meaning of the artwork: “Burn us all, I ask of thee . . . Who is we [sic.] Who is we [sic.] Where do I come from? What am I doing in this world? Tell me Lord Tell God Father of All Tell Me God! These are the things that we go through for nothing in the world. Lord do this for me, God Do for us. I tell you what I wish the Lord should do for us all. Look at the top.”
Vusumzi was also able to tell how after this last visit of Feni to Zwelethemba, his father went to Johannesburg in early 1968, to go and see Feni off for the final time before his departure for London.
As senior family member, Vusumzi’s father felt that he owed it to Feni to go and greet one last time.
In London, Feni again enjoyed success and recognition, showing his work among other exhibitions, at the Grosvenor Gallery and Camden Art Centre.
According to Vusumzi, it was when Feni got to London that he changed his surname from Mgxaji to Feni, because it is so much easier to pronounce and because the people overseas were unable to pronounce the click sounds of the surname, Mgxaji, that Xhosa demands.
According to Vusumzi, Feni picked his surname, because it derives from his mother’s side of the family. - Read the third and final part in next week’s edition.
Dr. Julian Kritzinger is Mayoral committee member for local economic development, tourism, arts and culture of the Breede Valley Municipality.
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