Their haunting stares pierce the viewer with powerful intrigue. These sculptural heads depict in detail the faces of the Cape Malay women and are displayed with poetic grandeur in an outside courtyard in the Arabian Court of the One & Only Royal Mirage in Dubai. Placed on artfully devised pedestals, Smit’s sculptural busts shoot up from a shallow pool offering gentle reflections on the slow ripples of water below. It’s hard to take one’s glance away from their poignant eyes. A mesmerising stillness permeates the space almost akin to meditation, and the viewer is prompted to contemplate not only their exquisite sculptural qualities but also the cultural synthesis that results in each woman’s diverse features.
Lionel Smit. Shift #1. Shift Series. Bronze sculpture
Brought to Dubai by Johannesburg and Dubai-based art institution Zebra Square Gallery this past December, the temporary exhibition offered Dubai residents a taste into Smit’s oeuvre and creative process as well as South Africa’s burgeoning cultural scene. Smit, who is represented by Edward Reed Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town, is one of the country’s most loved contemporary artists.
Born in Pretoria in 1982, Smit is known for his monumental portraiture works on canvas, sculpture, silkscreen, video as well as public installations. Now based in Cape Town, his work has been exhibited at various locations in South Africa as well as internationally at institutions such as Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki. Among the artist’s many accolades is the Viewer’s Choice Award, part of the BP Portrait Award 2013 for his work Kholiswa. In June 2016 Smit’s massive bronze sculpture Morphous took over New York’s Union Square. It offered an exploration into the nature of hybrid identity and its ever-changing state within South Africa's social landscape to the American public.
Lionel Smit with his Morphous sculpture in New York's Union Square
While living in Pretoria, the artist would derive his subject matter from the people and places that populated his surroundings. “When I moved down to Cape Town I took on that same practice—to just go into the street, see people, and take photographs and the people happened to be Cape Malay because I had this new environment,” he explains. Smit, who established himself first as a painter, has over the last few years ventured back into sculpture.
In his work on canvas, Smit incorporates a mixture of gestural brushstrokes, vibrant patches of colour and drips of paint culminating in an expressionistic rendering of his subjects. Artists who have inspired his painterly process include Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. His sculptural works reflect many of the same gestures that are found in his paintings—grooved surfaces, clay intrusions and highly detailed chiseling —all of which result in the same melancholic and startling depictions.
Lionel Smit. Close. 2015. Oil on Canvas. 250x350cm
Smit’s portrayals of the Cape Malay women are full of humanity. “I started painting these Cape Malay women and I became a little obsessed with their image and then I started deconstructing it and asking: What is their identity? I loved the fact that they weren’t black or white and that they were universal,” says Smit. “South Africa can become so political and I like the fact that I have found a middle ground to speak about the human [being].”
The artist’s portraits are at once representational and abstract; they point to a specific person and to the universal idea of mixed race. The genetic origin of the Cape Malay community, which dates back to the 1600s in South Africa, stems from Malaysia, Africa and Europe. Such diversity tells of the potential for the country despite its apartheid past. “It seems like it [diversity of Cape Malay] covers the whole world,” he says. “I started deconstructing the idea of where do we come from and who are we as South Africans and in the world so that it becomes this melting pot of different cultures. It’s about translating the human condition into this universal image.”
A sculpture by Lionel Smit
Smit’s Dubai show presented 10 women, all of whom modelled for the artist. Each is made using the lost wax casting method – one of the oldest metal-forming techniques. Most are also done in blue patinas – a direct influence from Smit’s paintings and which he finds offers a break from the traditional greens and browns that are often used. “I am exploring all of these mediums with a certain iconography,” says Smit. “I’ve got printing, drawing and sculpture all based in my studio.”
The busts of the Cape Malay women seem intended for the water feature in which they are placed. Such gentle stillness evokes a sense of harmony. What is harmonious is also universal—its intention is to speak and touch all. “It’s about the muse that I built up and the concept that I focused on—the Cape Malay women which speak to us all through a common visual language.”