A sketch of greatness

2012-03-03 15:51

Zwelidumile Mhlaba Mgxaji was born in 1939 in Worcester, Western Cape. He had little formal education, but was destined for greatness.

In 1963 he fell ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to the Charles Hurwitz Hospital in Johannesburg.

It was there where he met and befriended Ephraim Ngatane, an artist from Soweto. The two did some painting together and Ngatane introduced the artist who would become Dumile Feni to established artist Bill Ainslie. Ainslie became an important feature in Feni’s life.

The artist now widely known as Dumile Feni was launched into the wider world. His strong, fluid lines and
sculpture were immediately engaging.

His art was about ordinary working people who were victims of state oppression.

Feni left South Africa, lived unhappily in the UK and moved on to the US, where he continued to work as an artist. He died tragically in 1991, away from home, before he could share in his country’s liberation.

The author of this book, Professor Chabani Manganyi, is a clinical psychologist, a biographer and a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria.

Says Manganyi: “It is very important to recognise that, initially, biographies were written about prominent figures in society. It is this element that remains in the popular imagination.

“But since about the 1980s, when there was a developing interest in what was called ‘history from below’, there has been increasing interest and attention on the life stories of ordinary people.”

However, Feni, the subject of Manganyi’s book, was no ordinary person. Manganyi interviewed more than 30 people who knew Feni intimately in order to tell the story of a man whose work was often difficult to understand.

The critical role memory plays in biography is evident in The Beauty of the Line.

Manganyi adds: “There are many voices in this book. You can notice a kind of cumulative resonance of memories that bring to life the kind of story that I tell.

“Although I have examined some of Dumile’s works and writings about him, my focus is not on the work per se; it is on the coming together of life and work.”

In The Beauty of the Line, there is an interesting conversation about Feni’s art. The conversation, hosted by the writer to include in the book, took place in 2008.

This conversation presents us with questions and some answers about Feni’s art in the face of a prevailing view by some that “we do not understand Dumile”. Those who offered their views included Omar Badsha, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Mario Pissarra, Lize van Robbroeck and Elza Miles.

The most substantial and intriguing part of this book, the part about memories of Feni, is possibly the most compelling from a human interest point of view. Those who knew him intimately will remember that he was often troubled, was very intelligent, politically astute and great company.

He was also very close to many people who are prominent public figures in South Africa. Some of them – such as Moeletsi Mbeki, Barbara Masekela, Albie Sachs, Wally Serote and Keorapetse Kgositsile – share their recollections.

While the book reflects national pride in this remarkable South African and his work, it also explores the pain of his tragic death and the disputes about where some of his works have disappeared to.

On this subject, Kgositsile says: “We will never own the work as a nation, as Dumile’s people.”

But perhaps this book might give us back that sense of ownership.

Like the subject’s own work, the reader needs to read it actively and engage with it. If you do, then the story stays with you in a deeply personal way, long after you have put the book down – much like Feni’s work.

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