Final chapter of Dumile Feni’s life


Dumile Feni moved to the United States in 1978. He was an artist in residence at the Institute of African Humanities in Los Angeles, USA at the University of California. Subsequently, Feni taught at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He completed a graduate degree in a film and television programme at New York University, and eventually settled in Manhattan, New York City. While living there Feni’s principal income was derived from designing record covers, book covers and illustrations, posters, calendars and murals.

Life in exile, both in London and around America, was characterised by difficulty, but also international fame. Former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs is one of the last living people who knew Feni in New York, and still remembers many things.

“Dumile had a difficult life,” he said. “I visited him in the basement where he lived. He slept on a mattress in a half-dark room with breathtaking black and white sketches of naked musicians against the bleak walls. He made beautiful clay models, but could not scrape together the money to cast them in bronze. The last 12 years of Feni’s life, spent in America, and principally in New York, were especially difficult. For a year he slept in underground tube stations and “lived in his own imaginary world”.

Last message

Vusumzi still fondly remembers the last message he and his family ever got from Feni while he was overseas. Because it was a time of censorship, Feni couldn’t write or remain in contact with his family in Worcester. In 1983, David Hlongwane, an artist attached to the Community Arts Project in Chapel Street Cape Town, won a bursary to study art in New York. There he was able to meet Feni, who told him about his connection with Worcester and his family there. In 1984, when Hlongwane returned to South Africa, Feni asked him to convey a message to his nephew Vusumzi in Zwelethemba. It went: “You must live, you must have a long life to live.”

Death of Dumile Feni

Feni died of a heart attack in New York in 1991. It is fitting that the artist died in a New York record shop in the company of one of his closest friends, Nina Bergman. That he met his end in such a shop is not without its irony – for it was musicians to whom Feni was always drawn, it was their company he sought. Feni died just before he was due to fly to Johannesburg. He was buried at a cemetery in Lenasia.

Posthumous events

Over the years Feni and his work have been celebrated internationally through numerous articles, biographies, books, exhibitions, a national order and even a film.

In 2003, Feni was posthumously awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for excellence in the arts.

In 2010, a documentary called Zwelidumile was released. It was created by South African filmmaker Ramadan Suleman. Through the life and eyes of Feni’s child, Suleman gets to New York’s subways, visits tenement buildings and talks to Feni’s aging friends, fellow artists and admirers.

His work is also displayed at the Constitutional Court in Braamfotein.

In 2020, during the Worcester Bi-Centennial Festival, Feni was posthumously awarded honorary citizenship of the town of Worcester at a conferment of civic honours ceremony.

Vusumzi recounts Prince Mbusi Dube, author of Dumile Feni: The Story of a Great Artist and curator of “Dumile Feni: A Retrospective Exhibition”, and current Curator of Education at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, taking him to a Dumile Feni art exhibition in Cape Town, where he had the opportunity to meet Feni’s only daughter, Marriam Diale. He met her only once, and knows she lives in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

Career of Vusumzi Chester Mgxaji

In his younger years Vusumzi started working at the Sasko Bakery in Durban Street in 1973, at HexTex in 1975, Rainbow Chickens in 1978, the South African Railways in 1979 and he then went to work at Eskom.

He is very proud of the fact that he helped to build the Koeberg Nuclear Power Plant in 1980 for four years until 1984. That year he went to help build Palmiet Power Station, and in 1985 the Bredasdorp Air Force Base. From 1989 until 1991 he helped to build MossGas. He now is on pension.

Vusumzi Chester Mgxaji, the artist

Coincidentally Vusumzi now finds himself as an artist and eeks out a living from selling his artwork. Vusumzi produces sculptures, drawings, necklaces and wire ornaments. His sculptures are wooden, which mostly depict humans. His drawings are in the style of Feni. His necklaces are traditional African beaded necklaces and his wire ornaments are mostly key rings and bottle ornaments. Tourists or art lovers are welcome to go and visit Vusumzi at 531 Africa Road, where he showcases his art. Otherwise people are welcome to contact his great-cousin, Zolile Moses Fumba, at 083 858 7287 to arrange a visit to see his art.

Personal Life of Vusumzi Chester Mgxaji

Vusumzi has one son, Luvuyo Mgxaji, who used to work at AllPay, but who now stays at home to watch over the children.

Feni succeeded in imbuing his work with feelings of deep sympathy and humanity. As Justice Albie Sachs once pointed out, Feni’s work embodies the ideals and values, which we cherish in a democratic South Africa and which are enshrined in our Bill of Rights. Over the years Feni’s style still enthrals and puzzles art historians and critics who root his distorted, anguished figures in a “tortured self-consciousness of the mind”.

Dr Julian Kritzinger is Mayco member for local economic development, tourism, arts and culture of the Breede Valley Municipality.

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