Masixole Feni’s ‘Drain on Our Dignity’ at the Wits Art Museum (WAM), is a case for the value of socio-political art in an environment where aesthetics are placed above provoking thought. The exhibition is a journey led by Feni into the realities lived in by marginalised communities. Having personally lived in the Cape Flats, where the community is forced to endure hardships such as poor sanitation, no access to clean water, endless fears of fire and constant flooding the works on show carry a sense of authenticity. ‘Drain on Our Dignity’ won the 2015 Ernest Cole Award and stays true to the photographic activist roots of Ernest Cole and his famous banned book, House of Bondage. Feni casts spotlights on those living in the shadows of a dystopic post-democratic South Africa. However, he portrays his subjects with a dignity often not reserved for those who live in townships and informal settlements. The images speak of the hardships of the faceless in our country and the polar divide between the wealthy and the poor.
There had been little change in the sixty years since the signing of the Freedom Charter which advocated for basic human rights for all South Africans. This sentiment is amplified by Feni, ‘Marginalised people were neglected by the apartheid regime. Twenty-three years into our democracy it is a reality that has stayed the same for many.’ Feni shows us a seemingly endless systematic, perpetual state of pause, with scenes that expose the inhumane service delivery failures of inadequate sanitation. In one image we are faced with twelve portable toilets which are expected to be used by an entire community. The colour-popping saturation of these toilets is set against a infinite bland backdrop of make-shift homes, which forces the viewer to take note of the importance that these minuscule sanitary structures have within this setting. In a second image, a mother and child stand outside their shack waiting to be evicted by the police. Feni frames the solitary pair and home in isolation to any other people, Leaving us as the viewer to complete the events taking place. In this image Feni crops the mother and child, each looking out of opposite ends of the composition. These images reveal the intimidation, insecurity and vulnerability of those grappling with poverty on a daily basis.
In another image, a woman fights a fire threatening her shack, armed with just a single bucket. The composition places us behind the woman as she takes on the furious and brilliantly coloured flames. It drags us into the scene, placing us in the immediate danger of that moment but to the conditions of living in spaces which are inaccessible to emergency services. The socio-economic and political messages present in each of his images is amplified by Feni’s subtle manipulation of the normal elements; evident in his cropping, angle choices and artistic tweaking of colour intensity, which not only elevates these works from those of reportage but also firmly places them in the realm of artistic representation.
Much of Feni’s experience in creating photographic narratives surrounding the lives of black people living in Cape Town townships, stems from his earlier ventures into these spaces. Most of these areas were featured in publications such as the Cape Argus and Cape Times. His decision to use an inexpensive digital camera to document scenes and events while on assignment, during this phase of his career, has noticeably aided in Feni’s familiarising and understanding of all the pictorial elements contained within the photographic frames he captures.
The beauty given to the construction of these compositions of soul-quaking and jarring subject matter makes it near impossible not to think of this exhibition’s content days after seeing it.