Untitled (Primary Title)
Dumile Feni created the clay model for this monumental head, along with several others, while living in New York. The artist’s life coincided almost exactly with the era of official apartheid in South Africa (1948–1991), and his political stance lead to his harassment, physical abuse, and imprisonment. After fleeing to London in 1968, he moved to New York around 1970 but had difficulty affording a studio and often had to abandon his work. Dumile was excited to return home to South Africa when apartheid was abolished in 1991, but he died of a heart attack in Manhattan’s Tower Records store while shopping for jazz CDs to bring to his family. After his untimely death, fellow South African sculptor Isaac Witkin, who lived in New Jersey, rushed to preserve Dumile’s clay models that were cast at a later date.
One of the artist’s most important sculptural projects, the heads are a motif through which he explored degrees of psychological intensity. The series seems to draw from the magnificent heads from Ife and Benin (Nigeria, 12th–19th centuries), no comparable works in bronze exist in the history of African art. Indeed, Dumile might have been inspired by these earlier works, which he likely saw in the landmark exhibition Treasures from Ancient Nigeria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980.
The juxtaposition of this work by Dumile Feni with the murals by Esther Mahlangu directly opposite brings together contemporaries from South Africa, though they did not know each other. Their work provides a fitting prelude to the gallery beyond by introducing two of the most essential characteristics of African art—the human figure and abstract pattern.
Some object records are not complete and do not reflect VMFA's full and current knowledge. VMFA makes routine updates as records are reviewed and enhanced.