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The most popular (and unpopular) SA artist

We need to talk about Lionel Smit and the seeming unpopularity of this über popular artist. His work sells for a small fortune - a bronze bust can go for as much as R780 000 and his shows often sell-out with the red dots gathering before the opening. His gallery, Everard Read, even have a catalogue detailing works in progress. He editions sculptures. Does any local artist sell editions of bronzes? Truth is he can’t make the work fast enough. This should make him the most talked-about art star in the country. Yet he flies under the radar. Not because no one knows of his success, but rather it’s his popularity that has made him so unpopular. This is mostly because no one who is serious about art, knows art, can fathom Smit’s success. Or at least few want to face-up to its implications. He could be regarded as a latter day Tretchikov barring the singularity of his work – at least Tretchikov embraced more than one subject, sitter.

Smit only makes art about one subject. A bust of a woman, referred to as a Cape Malay woman, is reproduced in every way possible. She appears in every work, with her plump lips and short ponytail defining her features. She is an attractive woman, ideal actually. He can’t seem to get enough of this perfect looking woman, nor can art buyers. In a filmed interview, the artist explained his fascination for this subject grew after moving to the Western Cape from Pretoria – his studio is now based on The Strand.

The sculptures are probably more successful than the drawings, which are a very illustrative looking. Aged and battered looking, the cast busts often appear like artefacts from another time. Certainly, there is little about his artmaking that connects it to current trends in art. His art doesn’t communicate anything in particular; there are no layers. It is what it is and that appears to be part of its appeal.

South African art buyers apparently prize the predictability of his art. Perhaps it seems reliable and accessible in the face of a seeming onslaught of contemporary art at all these art fairs and all the new galleries popping up everywhere. Or perhaps conversely Smit is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the seemingly vacuous excesses of our overly inflated local art scene. Moneyed South Africans are shelling out for all sorts of art, some of it quite dubious and over-priced. So few educated South Africans know what contemporary art is and who is worth investing in. Smit seems to offer some level of safety, though I do wonder whether the value of his art will ever hold up at auction. It will be interesting to discover whether his popularity will extend into a secondary market.

Is the universality of Smit’s subject-matter the appeal? Yet, the racial and gender stereotyping that inform his rendering make it hard to accept this figure as universal. “She is neither white nor black,” observed the artist in an interview. Perhaps the inane veneer of his work belies a dream for a post-race society – populated by pretty young women of indeterminate races. Whatever you may think of Smit’s art; don’t tell anyone. – an edited version of this text was first published in The Times, 26 July


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