Dumile Feni, Silence

24 Oct 2019

The increasing availability of the work by the late anti-apartheid visual artist Dumile Feni into our public sphere is an invaluable privilege for our times. This bust, Silence (1986), is an important piece demonstrating Dumile’s fascination with faciality, and in general with the human body. The sculpture demands an intellectual reckoning with human vulnerability in the world. Its anthropomorphic focus speaks to issues of trauma, loss, anguish, dispossession and dehumanization which are pervasive in his work. But the continuing vacillation between human and non-human in Feni’s work, in which the artist constantly registers an anthropomorphic representation of the animal man — not as a duality or through a Darwinian frame but as species-beings — also simultaneously engenders alternative formal interpretations of the body. Faciality has remained a prevalent anatomic site of registering the experience of black alienation, with memorable and visceral aesthetic features such as the then prevalent motif of gaping mouths and bulging eyes that largely prevailed in the 1960s. However, in the years of Feni’s exile, first in London and then New York, his representations of the face begin to shift from the excessive emotive articulations of pain, opting instead to interpret their faces with shut eyes and gagged lips. Even the titles of these later works, like Silence (a word that appears more than once in his series of busts) invoke this subdued, but no less evocative, demeanour. Although subdued, they contain very distinct visual characteristics — some old and some relatively new. For instance, the pointed breasts form part of older motif of erotic representations, whilst the sharp geometric quality can be considered a later aesthetic development. Silence therefore represents an interesting turn in Dumile’s work in which geometric planes and technical facility become the defining features of his mature phase.

Athi Mongezeleli Joja.