An introduction to the artist, from his official biography
Lionel Smit is considered one of South Africa’s most talented artists, best known for his contemporary portraiture executed through monumental canvases and sculptures. Perhaps more than anything else, Lionel Smit’s art is defined by a deeply rooted symbiotic relationship between sculpture and painting. Born in 1982 in Pretoria, South Africa, Smit was exposed to a world of sculpture through his father, renowned sculptor, Anton Smit, who worked from his studio adjacent to the family home.
This studio played a central role in Lionel’s upbringing. By age twelve, Smit was already working in clay and considered himself primarily as a sculptor in the making. At sixteen his parents separated, after which Lionel, a student at Pretoria’s Pro Arte School of Arts at the time, began to use the empty studio space his father occupied for painting. This was progressively becoming his preferred medium as he was finding his own artistic identity. He went on to graduate as the Best Painting Student in his class – the first in a line of accolades for this young artist.
About Lionel Smit’s approach to painting
Today, each of Lionel Smit’s works offers us an entry point into the variety and richness that lies beneath every face we encounter in life, whether applied in bronze or in paint. The blending of techniques across genres is a display of Smit’s work in multiple media, all bearing visible overlap.
His paintings start with abstract lines and swaths of colour that establish a base for the subsequently overlaid image of a face or bust – in most cases posed by anonymous models from the Cape Malay community. For Smit, the Cape Malay woman epitomises hybrid identity within a South African context, and reflects the disintegrating construction of identity within our increasingly globalised world. His work is loaded with both historical and aesthetic precedent; clearly focused on the dialogue between the figurative and expressive abstract. Smit thus translates his own understanding of identity – drawing from images in his daily surrounds.
On speculation and meaning
What lies beneath a face is infinitely more intriguing than its impassive surface may suggest. Smit speculates about the enigmas, the identities and the stories behind people’s everyday stoic façades. In probing how we are shaped – and placed – by our identity, Smit homes in on an ethnic group with a rich, complex and often fraught history: the Cape Malay people of Cape Town. Shipped to the Cape as slaves from the Dutch East Indies during the height of colonialism, their bloodlines have since mingled with those of European settlers and African indigenes over successive generations, resulting in a hybridised masala of identity, language and culture that continues to evolve. Through the visages contemplated in his sculptures and paintings, Smit closely observes this fluidity, challenging simplistic race-based physical stereotypes by depicting a succession of dynamic and multifaceted personae. His subjects may identify with a particular group, but their diversity within that social structure renders them unique. Observing the tension between abstraction and representation, There is a sense of unity conveyed by Smit’s portraits, with the multiplicity of partial or fragmented representations serving to create a holistic image in the mind’s eye.
Psychology tells us that often, that which appears to obscure can, in fact, serve to reveal, imply and illuminate. Smit invites the observer to contemplate the secrets belying these ostensibly inscrutable faces. The people he paints or sculpts possess a particular quality that appeals to his visual sensitivity, but nothing more in the way of social influence. The sitter’s face acts, quite simply, as a vessel for Smit’s experimentation with colour, stroke and technique. In regards to bronze, Smit’s treatment of the medium reveals it to be especially well suited to the translation of his painterly activities into sculpture. Smit’s bronzes are created using the lost wax casting method – one of the oldest known metalforming techniques. Patinas commonly available to artists working in bronze include natural browns, blacks and greens. However, considering the importance of colour to Smit in his painting, he uses alternative methods that result in a unique fusion of intensely saturated patinas onto the bronze.
On colour and style
Brilliant streaks of blues and greens enrich the grooves of an ear, while the natural shadow of an eyelid is intensified by the deepening of rich black patinas. Combing his ability to manipulate the patination process and his focused enthusiasm for surface gradations – Smit’s avant-garde approach to the medium has allowed him to consistently push the envelope.
Smit continues his visual and tactile exploration of hybrid identity and its ever changing and emerging nature within South Africa’s psycho-social landscape. While retaining all their austerity and peaceful aesthetic, Smit’s figures remain highly charged with the emotive and gestural energy of his creative process.
Smit’s works today
Based in Strand, Cape Town, Smit’s process as an artist today remains adaptive, inventive, and physically engaging. Through this he has achieved success all over the world including sell-out exhibitions in London and Hong Kong. His work continues to inspire and captivate the minds of art novices and experts alike from Europe to America.
Smit’s works have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London where it received the Viewer’s Choice Award, as well as selected as the ‘face’ of the BP Portrait Award 2013 for all campaigns. In recent years he has also been honoured with a Ministerial Award from the Department of Culture for Visual Art. A highlight of his career has been the publication of one of his paintings on the cover of Christie’s Auction Catalogue.
Over the past 10 years he has established a substantial international following with collectors ranging from the Standard Chartered Bank to Laurence Graff Art Collection at Graff Delaire Wine estate.
More can be found at Lionel Smit’s website.