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.
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.
Smit’s subject matter is consistent. 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 metal-forming 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.
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.
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.
Recurrence, solo exhibition, .M Contemporary, Sydney
JHB Art Fair, featured artist, Everard Read, Johannesburg
Close/Perspective, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Johannesburg
Origins, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London
Obscura, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Cape Town
Art Central Art Fair, featured artist, Rook & Raven Gallery, Hong Kong
Accumulation of Disorder, installation, Independent Art Projects, MASS MoCA Campus, USA
Art Taipei, The Cat Street Gallery, Taiwan
Contronym, solo exhibition, The Cat Street Gallery, Hong Kong
Morphous, solo exhibition and installation, Circa, Johannesburg
Cumulus, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London
Fugitive Identity, group exhibition, Cynthia Reeves, USA
Art Miami Fair, featured artist, Cynthia Reeves, Miami
IS Sculpture, solo exhibition, IsArt, Tokara, Stellenbosch
Strata Art Fair, Saatchi Gallery, Rook & Raven, London
Fragmented, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London
Accumulation, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Johannesburg
BP Portrait Award Exhibition, Viewer’s Choice Award , National Portrait Gallery, London
Wonder Works Exhibition, The Cat Street Gallery, Hong Kong
Metal Work Public sculpture, Stellenbosch
Compendium, solo exhibition, 34FineArt, Cape Town
Accumulation of Disorder, installation, University of Stellenbosch Gallery, Stellenbosch
Strata, solo exhibition, Rook and Raven, London
Robert Bowman Gallery, India Art Fair, India
JHB Art Fair, Everard Read
Surface, solo exhibition, Artspace, Johannesburg
34FineArt, ArtMonaco ‘11, Monaco
Out of the Office, group exhibition, Kunstmuseum Bochum, Germany
Cynthia Reeves Projects, Art Miami, USA
We are not Witches, Saatchi Gallery, London
Submerge, solo exhibition, 34FineArt, Cape Town
F.A.C.E.T., Charity Auction, Christie’s, London
Relate, solo exhibition, Grande Provence, Franschhoek
Pretoria, Everard Read Gallery, November 2004