South African Artist Lionel Smit Deconstructs Identity to Reveal the ‘Emotional Landscapes’ in Cape Malay Faces

He has been working with the native South African people for a decade.

Lionel Smit at work in his Capetown studio. Courtesy of Art|Life Gallery.

What does a person’s face reveal about who they are? That’s a question South African artist Lionel Smit asks in his new exhibition at Art|Life Gallery in West Hollywood, “DIVIDE,” which explores the nuance of cultural and ethnic identities.

The show brings together a selection of the artist’s paintings, sculptures, and silkscreens, much of which is traveling from his recent solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. As is the case with most of Smit’s output, the works in “DIVIDE” are all based on the Cape Malay people, an ethnic group native to South Africa whose bloodlines—a mix of African, Asian, and European heritage—are uniquely shaped by the region’s colonialist history.

Lionel Smit. Courtesy of Art|Life Gallery.

Smit began working with the Cape Malay people a decade ago. He was drawn to what he believes they represent: the country’s recent past, the fluidity of identity in an increasingly multicultural world, and the reality that no one can be reduced to genealogical categories.

“I started to deconstruct their identity of who they are and realized how complex it was,” Smit tells artnet News. “Their mixture of bloodlines gave me the idea of a universal person, one not from a particular race. Creating an iconography provides a way to engage with us all.”

In his expressionistic paintings, messy, gestural paint strokes come together to form a face, which, in this case, all belong to women. Contextual details such as clothing and backgrounds are eschewed, leaving instead only the most distinct facial features.

Lionel Smit, Divide (2018). Courtesy of Art|Life Gallery.

Take, for instance, Divide (2018), the show’s titular work. In it, a bright tan face in the center of the canvas emerges from an otherwise indistinct background of swirling paint streaks. The specific contours of the head are hard to define, but the subject’s lips, nose, and especially eyes are all exactingly rendered.

This is a common trope of Smit’s work. Despite his tendency toward gestural abstraction, the eyes are always sharp and pronounced—a moment of clarity in the chaos.

“For some reason, the eyes have always fascinated me,” Smit says. “With my paintings, I feel like I’m trying to create an emotional landscape of the face. It just made sense to create that tension in the eyes, which has since become more refined—it invites the viewer into a second layer of emotion to explore.”

Lionel Smit, Accumulation Cloud (2018). Courtesy of Art|Life Gallery.

This is Smit’s first show on the West Coast. His work, though inextricably linked to South Africa, is also particularly relevant to the US. “The context your work is placed in always changes in different countries,” he says. “But it is interesting that South Africa and America have similar historical connections, creating a very complex identity.”

Lionel Smit, Monumental Process (2018). Courtesy of Art|Life Gallery.

“DIVIDE” opens September 27 and will be on view through October 28, 2018, at Art|Life Gallery in West Hollywood, California.

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