Legendary artist Dumile Feni died in poverty in exile in 1991, his sculptures and artworks scattered and claimed by friends, and frequently forged.
His daughter gathered whatever pieces she could from across the world and entered into an agreement with leading gallerist Monna Mokoena.
But she is now taking Mokoena to court, accusing him of making a fortune from Feni while she and her children live in poverty, writes Charl Blignaut
On her couch in a rundown house in Yeoville, Marriam Diale is tired.
But her voice lifts when she speaks of Dumile Feni, the father she only found out about when she was seven, who she knew only through letters and over the phone.
Next to her sits her daughter, Safeiya Morris, a dead-ringer of her grandad.
Together the two are waging a battle against the art world that will soon come to a head in the Johannesburg High Court.
Through her lawyers, Diale, the court-appointed executor of her father’s estate, has filed a notice of motion against Gallery Momo, owned by the first successful black gallerist on the contemporary art scene, Monna Mokoena.
Mokoena’s upmarket gallery in Parktown North has dozens of Feni works for sale.
Despite Diale terminating her contested agreement with him, Mokoena has failed to remove the great artist from his website.
In 2006, Diale handed over whatever works of her father’s she’d managed to gather from across the globe, just 400-odd pieces from a wildly prolific artist who produced thousands, and entered into an agreement with Gallery Momo.
The exclusive sales agreement would see the estate benefit 60% of all transactions. In exchange, Mokoena would take 40% and help with her living costs by lending her money that would be recouped from sales.
She hasn’t seen much money from sales, says Diale, despite reports of Feni sales of up to R6 million per sculpture. And when Mokoena did lend her money, it was irregular.
She has had to eke out a living and pursue him for meetings, which haven’t happened since last year, she says.
Meanwhile, she and City Press have tracked sales of Feni works across the world.
Now the estate has asked the court to order that the oral mandate between the two parties be terminated; that Mokoena hand over all Feni works and sculpture moulds; that he provide a full account of all transactions related to the Feni estate since 2006; and that he and the gallery be interdicted from ever having any dealings with the estate.
Diale’s court application has over a dozen Gallery Momo invoices attached for the sale of over 20 Feni works, which the papers say were provided by a former gallery staff member.
The invoices total about R8 million.
The court papers also include media reports of a record-breaking 2015 sale of R6 million for a posthumous casting of one of the estate’s sculptures – The Prisoner – at the Cape Town Art Fair.
That would bring the total to R14 million, although one widely-acknowledged Feni expert told City Press he believes a conservative estimate for the sale of the estate’s works since 2006 could be placed at up to R60 million.
Diale says the estate has received only two sets of payments for works sold by Gallery Momo at the agreed 60% for each sale.
They amount to R500 000, but few details of the sales were provided.
Of the money advanced to the family, court papers provide a record of R334 000 which Mokoena paid up until 2015. Part of this was to allow Diale to travel abroad to collect works to bring back for sale.
The family says the gallery also directly paid R350 000 for the purchase of a house in Kroonstad.
Monna Mokoena, the owner of Gallery Momo. Picture: David M Benett/Getty Images for Cafe Royal
Mokoena denies the family’s claims. In a text message in response to an interview request and questions about Diale’s allegations, Mokoena said this week: “I’m currently overseas, but happy to sit down with you on my return next week to go through these statements. In the meanwhile, I’ve skimmed through your lengthy text and I’m shocked by what Marriam is saying. Most of it is completely false and that which is not false is a complete misrepresentation of what has happened.
“She also doesn’t speak of the fact that I paid for her living expenses and her house even though works weren’t sold for years. Marriam is making all these false statements and misrepresentations in order to cause me harm. I trust that you would not publish these obviously false statements.”
But Diale’s lawyer, Thokozani Mthembu, hit back saying: “To say the least, Mokoena’s behaviour is dishonest. The artworks were given to him in good faith. How he fails to account to the estate for sales as and when they were made is shameful.
“The court application is not only for accounting by Gallery Momo, but also for the return of the artworks. If he refuses, he will be in contempt of court.”
Gallery Momo, which is opposing the case, has 15 days to file its papers.
WHO WAS DUMILE FENI?
Zwelidumile Geelboi Mgxaji Mslaba “Dumile” Feni was born in 1942 in Worcester, Western Cape.
He lost his mother at a young age and lived with relatives and later his father, a trader and preacher, before moving to Johannesburg to become an apprentice at a sculpture foundry.
He is most famous for his drawings on paper, as well as his sculptures in bronze and clay.
Feni is among the most revered of South Africa’s black modernist masters of the period from 1960 to 1990, and his works are steadily demanding higher prices.
They are also among the most forged artworks in the country.
Feni’s name is mentioned alongside those of Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba, Ernest Mancoba, Lucky Mbatha and John Koenakeefe Mohl.
His work centres on the black body, often naked, sometimes erotic, but commonly imprisoned, and it embraces more cubist and post-modern forms.
A celebrated anti-apartheid voice, his work centred on the black body and demanded dignity for black life, much like Steve Biko’s writings did.
There is a famous enlargement of a Feni sculpture, History, on display at the entrance to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.
A classic Feni, it depicts a giant man yoked to a cart like a horse, pulling three figures. It speaks to black labour and servitude during apartheid.
Feni left the country in 1968, targeted, says Diale, by apartheid forces, and based himself mostly in London, Los Angeles and New York.
He was sometimes homeless in the subway, often staying with friends and always working furiously wherever he found himself.
According to Diale’s records from her mother, Feni had paid lobola and Diale’s mother was seven months pregnant with her when her father went into exile, never to return.
Dumile Feni’s granddaughter, Safeiya Morris, is pictured at her home in Yeoville, Johannesburg.Picture: Rosetta Msimango
“We wrote letters and took photos that we gave to friends to show him, and he actually saw me for the first time as a teenager,” she said this week.
“He called me Seipati and my sister, who he already knew, he called Mbali. He tried to get my sister and myself to the US, but unfortunately that never materialised.”
Because he moved so often, Feni left work behind for safekeeping at art galleries and with friends.
THE MYSTERY OF THE POSTHUMOUS CASTINGS
It’s these works that Diale says she set out to retrieve after his death.
She had some success with galleries and collectors, but many friends who promised to return the works to the estate later reneged, saying they were gifted to them or were payment for services.
She has repeatedly asked questions about one such friend, medical doctor Cyril Khanyile.
Khanyile apparently has about 80 Feni works that he has previously wanted to sell through the Goodman Gallery.
Diale has asked if the works were taken from Feni’s New York apartment when he died. Khanyile has defended his ownership in the past, but neither he nor the Goodman Gallery responded to detailed questions this week.
A 2004 trust and foundation established by Feni’s now-famous South African friends including Moeletsi Mbeki, Albie Sachs, Barbara Masekela, Omar Badsha and Carol Steinberg, tried to help retrieve works but disbanded not long after it was formed.
A 2005 retrospective of Feni’s work at the Johannesburg Art Gallery also helped locate works, but most were in collections.
Then, in 2005, Diale began working with Mokoena who initially bought Feni works at what she now realises were inordinately low rates.
Diale said: “I asked Mr Mokoena to travel with me to the UK and later to the US, and visited the packing company that I had identified through the works that had been brought in for the retrospective to collect all the sculptures from the US and bring them to South Africa.”
They agreed that they would create six posthumous castings of a series of the works and then destroy the moulds.
These castings were paid for by the department of arts and culture. The funds were paid to Diale, who says she transferred the money to Mokoena to pay for the work.
She is unsure about the two Feni sculptures housed at the heritage centre in Freedom Park, assuming they were private sales.
But what Diale wants is clarity. Mokoena has never provided her with a detailed report of what foundries cast which works, and how many.
At one stage, she says, the works were moved to Mokoena’s farm in the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg.
Many visitors to Gallery Momo’s back rooms told City Press that numerous Feni works are stored there.
The posthumous Feni sculptures at The Loop Art Foundry in White River. Picture: screengrab / loop art foundry
A City Press investigation contacted sculpture foundries to try and locate the moulds, and on Diale’s advice found them at the Loop Art Foundry in White River.
Foundry owner Michael Canadas sent City Press a photograph of Feni work he had cast, commissioned by Mokoena. They are human figures.
“We were commissioned to cast these for Freedom Park for Monna,” said Canadas.
Shown a photo of six Feni busts, he confirmed he had cast them, also on commission from Mokoena.
“We still have the moulds here,” he said.
“They are safely locked away.”
Diale also found a posthumous Feni bust on the website of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA).
“We had signed papers to sell the sculpture and a work on paper to the museum. Months later we asked Mokoena about the payment. He said they were busy with renovations. Several months after that when we asked again, he said there was a change of ownership. A few months later said they had not paid and he was thinking of asking for it back.
“We said we would like to see all the correspondence between him and the museum. We are still waiting.”
But museum spokesperson Ellie McNevin told City Press that “The VMFA did acquire the Dumile Feni sculpture from Gallery Momo and it is currently on view at the entrance to our African art galleries.”
She said it was bought from a donor fund, but did not disclose how much was paid.
As for The Prisoner, City Press is in possession of photographs of a cast of the work housed on Mokoena’s property.
“He told me it was never a sale, it was just a ploy to attract media and try to spur the value of his work in the market,” said Diale.
Mthembu has sent legal letters to auction houses planning to auction off Feni works.
“It cannot be denied that some people are legitimate owners of Dumile Feni works,” he said.
“We are in the process of verifying provenance of all the artworks that are being put up for sale. Ideally, any owner or possessor of a Feni artwork should contact Diale for verification.”
Back in Yeoville, Diale’s younger daughter returns from school.
“We can barely afford her school fees. And it’s a rough area for a schoolgirl,” Diale says.
“Sometimes we don’t even have food. If you open our fridge, it’ll break your heart.”