You Wouldn’t Know God If He Spat In Your Eye

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This phrase has been adopted from Arundhati Roy. 2011. The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile. London: Harper Perennial, p.31.

Although used in a new context, it echoes what Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote when he said: “As sources fill the historical landscape with their facts, they reduce the room available to other facts.”


Michel-Rolph Trouillot. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 49.

Feni’s scroll was first exhibited as part of the Dumile Feni Retrospective at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) in 2005. The exhibition was structured into three temporal and geographically specific periods, with the scroll (dated ‘1975’) falling under the ‘London period’.

This date has become a part of the official record, however there are sources which suggest he continued working on it well into the 1980s, while in the United States. Moeletsi Mbeki remembers Feni working in preparation for an exhibition at the United Nations (New York) in 1983. One of the works he saw at this time was the scroll, which “he had brought with him from London. Bulky as it was, he carried it around and was always adding to it” (2012: 108). Barbara Masekela tells a similar story, writing that:

He worked on it in London before he went to the United States and was always adding to it. In a way, The Scroll was a medium of inspiration for different pieces that he worked on later (2012: 101).

If the scroll did function as a sounding board for work produced in New York, it worth considering how its compartmentalisation limits a number of potentially valid readings, such as the view, expressed by artist and curator Thembinkosi Goniwe, that Feni’s work be understood as being “in a process of becoming, never getting to the point where it says ‘this is final’ …” (2012: 54); or similarly, that of Khwezi Gule, when he wrote that “[Feni’s] drawings are in a constant state of becoming” (2006: 181).


Goniwe, T. 2012. ’Conversations at the Breakwater Lodge’ in Manganyi, C. The beauty of the line: life and times of Dumile Feni. Johannesburg: KMM Review Publishing Company, p. 54.

Gule, K. 2006. ‘Traces, memory and alienation: Drawing as an act of bearing witness’ in Dube, P.M. Dumile Feni Retrospective: Johannesburg Art Gallery. Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, p. 181.

Mbeli, M. 2012. ‘Moeketsi Mbeki’ in Manganyi, C. The beauty of the line: life and times of Dumile Feni. Johannesburg: KMM Review Publishing Company, p. 108.

Masekela, B. 2012. ‘Barbara Masekela’ in Manganyi, C. The beauty of the line: life and times of Dumile Feni. Johannesburg: KMM Review Publishing Company, p. 101.

This quote is drawn from a paper by Katherine Young, which focuses on folklore. In it, Young highlights how the term ‘aesthetics’ has drifted from its original meaning, understood in Greek (aisthētikē) to mean “sense perception” (2014: 196). To this end, she writes:

“As we trace the filaments of folklore into the body, folklorists are uncovering the habit pathways of the sense, the lures we follow from body to environment and back again, arrested for our reflection. Aesthetic ecologies pierce the body and pinion its parts to its worlds. Our job here is an anatomy of desire” (2014: 196).” (2015: 130).


Young, K. 2014. ‘Aesthetic Ecologies: Reflections on What Makes Artefacts Art’ in Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 51, No. 2 (May/August 2014). Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp. 177-198.

In 2016, a digital translation of Feni’s scroll was created by Wits Art Museum (WAM), for the exhibition Activate/Captivate, which formed part of the Collections Re-engagement Project. The digital translation was aimed to give audienced a sense of the original scroll’s dynamism, without putting the scroll at risk. By moving your hand across a sensor, visitors were able to ‘scroll’ backwards and forwards through the digital translation.

In her paper, ‘Outside the World Interior or the Light on the Writing Desk’ (2015), Ho Rui An writes of the contemporary faith in digital media as a f“exceptionalism” (2015: 130) which fails to account for the fact that such mobility is itself bounded by the material and climatological constraints required by such technologies to function, to the extent that:

“. . . the infinity of the cosmos is supplanted by the vast interior of the Internet. By virtue of a presumed all-inclusivity, this new digital interior institutes a forgetting of the outside and the finite material base insulating it from the outside and yet runs on its absurd generosity. Just as we consign to oblivion the global disposal site that is the atmosphere as we dart across the globe on barrels of carbon fuel, the basal material limit of the digital sphere recedes from consciousness as it goes from being a clunky, groaning beige box in a climate-controlled room to a touchscreen device of peculiar thinness” (2015: 130).


An, H.R. 2015. ‘Outside the World Interior or the Light on the Writing Desk’ in Chong, H & Li, C (eds.), Stationary 1, Hong Kong: Mimi Brown pp. 126-139.

Mikhail Bakhtin cited in Young, K. 2014. ‘Aesthetic Ecologies: Reflections on What Makes Artefacts Art’ in Journal of Folklore Research, Vol 51, No. 2 (May/August 2014). Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp. 177-198.

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”


Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, p. 7.

“[Many] assume the independent existence of a fixed past and posit memory as the retrieval of that content. But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only the past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past—or more accurately, pastness—is a position.”


Michel-Rolph Trouillot. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 14-15.

There are many accounts of Feni, published in Chabani Manganyi’s The beauty of the line: life and times of Dumile Feni(2012), which describe the artist as being fiercely independent. One example is Feni’s relationship to the ANC. He is known to have produced artwork for the party, to have lived in their offices in London, to have been supported by their members, and to have sympathised with their cause (Manganyi 2012). He is recorded as having said, “I am ANC” (Manganyi 2012: 38). At the same time, the context of this statement is important—he was addressing a journalist.

On other, more intimate occasions, Feni is remembered as someone who would often distance himself from the party. Neo Moikangoa recalled how, “on visits to the ANC offices [Feni] made it very clear that he was coming as an uprooted South African and not as a card-carrying member” (2012: 113). Similarly, Justice Albie Sachs writes that “[Feni] made it very clear that he was not aligned. He did not want anybody to feel that they owned him” (2012: 129). As such, it feels like his responses to questions of affiliation were contextually specific. When questioned by an outsider, he is willing to say “I am ANC”, yet within the inner-circles of the party or amongst friends, his independence is maintained.


Manganyi, C. 2012. The beauty of the line: life and times of Dumile Feni. KMM Review Publishing Company: Johannesburg

This is a quote from Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s performance lecture video, Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself, which asks asks how the right to silence “can be preserved in today’s All-Hearing and All-Speaking society” (2016). In his address, Hamdan explains how freedom of speech (and here he is speaking within the context of the United States) may protect the semantic content of our words, but does not protect speech itself.

He describes how even the right to silence “may offer a mode of withdrawal from public speech, from the necessity to confess. Yet it is the very withholding of our voices that can mute our political agency” (2016). Presented as a counter-strategy, Hamdan draws on the concept of Taqiyya, “an old piece of Islamic jurisprudence practiced only by esoteric minorities that allows a believing individual to deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal acts while they are at risk of persecution or in a condition of statelessness” (2016).


Abu Hamdan, L. 2016. ‘Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself ’. YouTube. Available online

“The unique factor in the experience of translators is that we not only are listeners to the text, hearing the author’s voice in the mind’s ear, but speakers of a second text—the translated work—who repeat what we have heard, though in another language, a language with its own literary tradition, its own cultural accretions, its own lexicon and syntax, its own historical experience, all of which must be treated with as much respect, esteem, and appreciation as we bring to the language of the original writer … Our purpose is tore-create as far as possible, within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work we are translating. And we do this by analogy — this is,by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics,vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language.”


Grossman, E. 2010. Why Translation Matters. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 9-11.

In her book, Accented Futures (2013), Carli Coetzee highlight show verbal and literary translation is often a one-sided affair that allows for the dominant language to remain the norm,privileging and perpetuating its hegemonic status so that monolingual speakers do not need to learn a different language (2013: 3).


The quote included here is drawn from Coetzee, C. 2013. Accented Futures: Language Activism and the Ending of Apartheid. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, p. xi.

Serote, M.W. 1997. Freedom lament and song. Cape Town: Mayibuye Books, p. 11.

Justice Albie Sachs tells of an encounter that Feni had with a wealthy collector while living in the UK. On seeing his work,this collector had been disappointed to find large ink blots on top of it. “When I saw Dumile I asked him what had happened,” recalled Sachs:

“He spoke very softly and I had to listen quite hard.He spoke in his own idiom and more or less indicated that he thought she was trying to swallow him up. He told me: ‘I saw the drawings that she liked and I stood over the drawings and dropped some ink over them’.So he had deliberately destroyed an opportunity that other artists would have grabbed. He resented her eagerness ...”


Sachs, A. 2012. ‘Albie Sachs’ in Manganyi, C. The beauty of the line: life and times of Dumile Feni. Johannesburg: KMM Review Publishing Company, pp. 130-131.

Malatsie, K. 2019. Interview with the author on 15 April 2019. Skype, Johannesburg. Audio recording in possession of S. Christian.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s biography of Wangechi Mutu was a major inspiration for this project. It was the first time I began to take seriously the role that fiction can play in arts writing.


Wainaina, B. 2014. A Short Biography of Wangechi Mutu. London: Victoria Miro, pp. 9-16.

To date, Feni’s scroll has only ever been exhibited in a vitrine, in order to preserve the work.

“Honey is a slow-moving liquid; while it undoubtedly has a certain consistency and allows itself to be grasped, it soon creeps slyly from the fingers and returns to where it started from. It comes apart as soon as it has been given a particular shape and, what is more, it reverses the roles by grasping the hands of whoever would take hold of it … So the quality of being honeyed … can only be understood in the light of the dialogue between me as an embodied subject and the external object which bears this quality ... The only definition of this quality is a human definition. Viewed in this way, every quality is related to qualities associated with other senses. Honey is sugary. Yet sugariness in the realm of taste, ‘an indelible softness that lingers in the mouth for an indefinite duration, that survives swallowing’, constitutes the same sticky presence as honey in the realm of touch. To say that honey is viscous is another way of saying that it is sugary: it is to describe a particular relationship between us and the object or to indicate that we are moved or compelled to treat it in a certain way, or that it has a particular way of seducing, attracting or fascinating the free subject who stands before us. Honey is a particular way the world has of acting on me and my body. And this is why its various attributes do not simply stand side by side but are identical insofar as they all reveal the same way of being or behaving on the part of the honey. The unity of the object does not lie behind its qualities, but is reaffirmed by each of them: each of its qualities is the whole.”


Marleau-Ponte, M. 2002. ‘Exploring the World of Perception: Sensory Objects’ in Davis, O (trans.), Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The World of Perception. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 46-48.

“Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.”


Sontag, S. 1964. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Picador, p. 2.

Young, K. 2014. ‘Aesthetic Ecologies: Reflections on What Makes Artefacts Art’ in Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 51, No. 2 (May/August 2014). Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp. 177-198.

“The striking thing for me is that it’s as if the art system gives us a chance to talk, and I feel as if we are immediately sharing a language, but in some way we know that the language is inadequate. We’re having to deal with a lot of stuff that seems kind of irrelevant to art. So much of what surrounds art today doesn’t feel very much like art — it feels like publicity, or fear-mongering (we have a lot of that). How can we find something that feels like art? Ironically, a lot of the time it feels like the conversations that we have around art are more like art than art.”


Our Literal Speed. 2017. ‘Alternate Voices: Our Literal Speed’ panel discussion at Zeitz MOCAA. November 2017. Audio and transcript in possession of S. Christian.

Speaking about the use of animation in his own work, artist William Kentridge writes:

“One of the things about traditional animation is the lack of consequence of violence … Things get transformed—a safe falls on your head and in the first frame you’re squashed flat but then you leap up and you’re walking again, and a steamroller goes over you and you get your tongue stuck in a door and twenty knives go into it. It’s the opposite of that dream sensation—when you are trying to defend yourself against an attack but, no matter what you do to the other person, it makes no difference, you have no power … I think the slower transformations, which are fewer and further between in films, have to do both with the lack of that vivid animation that someone like Tex Avery has and with a sense of wanting things to bear the consequences of their transformation.”


Kentridge, W & Morris, R.C. 2017. That Which is Not Drawn. Calcutta: Seagull Books, p. 23-24.

In practice, Taqiyya is a subtle form of mispronunciation, so that persecutors may recognise the semantics of your voice to be saying one thing, while your body says another. This, Hamdan says, was an approach adopted by the Druze community in northern Syria during a period of “alleged mass conversions”:

“Taqiyya is often understood as the divine right to lie, though Taqiyya is not lying. But it is not not lying, either. Taqiyya is a contradictory condition of being simultaneously inside and outside of the law,like police informants who can legally commit illegal crimes whilst under the employment of the police …Taqiyya is an illusive strategy of survival that is both employed in day-to-day life and in the most perilous of situations, and for one little-known Islamic community known as the Druze, Taqiyya is fundamental to their theological and social practice. For the Druze,prayer is typically private, and there are no mosques found in Druze communities … Taqiyya then is the concept through which the non-coercive religious activity of the Druze is maintained. So here, the belief that making one’s religious thoughts public is a form of kind of sacrilege against the private dialogue you would have with God … So Taqiyya is not only a legal dispensation to lie, and an act of dissimulation,but a technology of withdrawal from the fundamental obligation to perform oneself in public, to speak on behalf of oneself, to confess one’s heart of hearts …Taqiyya means you speak to people on the level of the other’s readiness to listen.”


Abu Hamdan, L. 2016. ‘Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself ’. YouTube. Available online.

Abu Hamdan, L. 2016. ‘Truth Measures | Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself ’. YouTube. Available online.

In 1987, professor Njabulo Ndebele gave a lecture as part of the Senate Lecture Series at Wits University (Johannesburg). It was titled ‘Good morning, South Africa: whose universities, whose standards?’. In it, Ndebele writes:

“It is eminently understandable why, now wielding considerable political and economic power, the white settlers of South Africa have insisted on being the human point of reference for all the people of this country. It is for these reasons that many of them who want change, even those who hate apartheid with all their hearts, insist that the need for the maintenance of European culture in South Africa is not negotiable. Instead, change means drawing the oppressed into this culture and making its benefits available to all—to some extent. While apartheid insisted that the oppressed would develop better along, liberals insisted they would develop better with the prescriptions of European standards. They insist on wanting to draw the oppressed into an already sterile, derivative cultural environment that could expose the oppressed to its forms only by law. By definition, such a situation would not allow them to bring in ‘the baggage’ of their African experience.”


Ndebele, N. 1987. ‘Good Morning, South Africa: whose universities, whose standards’ in Ndebele, N & Raditlhalo, T (ed.). 2007. Fine Lines from the Box: further thoughts about our country. Cape Town: Umuzi, p. 15.