Lionel Smit is a South African artist who operates a remarkable studio just outside of Cape Town wherein he pursues his craft in all manner of media with areas dedicated to sculpture, painting and printmaking.  

Smit and his talented team produce works that blur the boundaries among these media, and installed throughout the large spaces are works from earlier in the artist’s career, as if reminding him where he has been and guiding him into new realms of endeavour. 

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

Lionel Smit Portrait.jpg

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. 

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 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 Somerset West, 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 painting Kholiswa has 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.

Selected Exhibitions 

Art Taipei, The Cat Street Gallery, Taiwan 
Contronym, solo exhibition, The Cat Street Gallery, Hong Kong 
Morphous, solo exhibition, Circa, Johannesburg 

Art Miami, featured artist, Cynthia-Reeves, Miami 
IS Sculpture, solo exhibition, IS Art, Tokara, Stellenbosch 
Strarta, Saatchi Gallery, Rook & Raven, London 
Fragmented, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London
Accumulation, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Johannesburg 
BP Portrait Award 2013, group exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, London 
Wonder Works, group exhibition, The Cat Street Gallery, Hong Kong 
Metalwork: Public Art in Stellenbosch, group exhibition, Stellenbosch 

Compendium, solo exhibition, 34FineArt, Cape Town 
Accumulation of Disorder, solo exhibition, University of Stellenbosch Gallery, Stellenbosch 
Strata, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London 
India Art Fair, Robert Bowman Gallery, Delhi 
FNB Joburg Art Fair, Everard Read, Johannesburg 

Surface, solo exhibition, Artspace, Johannesburg 
ArtMonaco 2011, 34FineArt, Monaco 

Out of the Office, group exhibition, Kunstmuseum Bochum, Bochum 
Art Miami, featured artist, Cynthia-Reeves, Miami 
We Are Not Witches, group exhibition, 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

Destructure, solo exhibition, Everard Read, London 
Art Central, .M Contemporary, Hong Kong 

Divide, solo exhibition, ARTLIFE, Los Angeles 
Obscura, solo exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami 

Emerge, solo exhibition, .M Contemporary, Sydney 
State, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Johannesburg 
Exposed, public installation, Helen Day Art Center, Vermont 
Influx, public installation, Cynthia-Reeves, Rhode Island 
Premise, solo exhibition, Circa, Cape Town 
Art Central, .M Contemporary, Hong Kong 
Faces of Identity, solo exhibition, Everard Read, London 

Faces, solo exhibition, Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki 
New Release, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Johannesburg 
Morphous, public installation, Union Square, New York 
Cape Town Art Fair, Everard Read, Cape Town 
Trace, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, New York 
Obscura 2, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London 
Art16, Rook & Raven, London 
Echo, solo exhibition, Cynthia-Reeves, MASS MoCA Campus, Massachusetts 

Art Miami, featured artist, Cynthia-Reeves, Miami 
Recurrence, solo exhibition, .M Contemporary, Sydney 
FNB Joburg Art Fair, Everard Read, Johannesburg 
Cumulus, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London 
Fugitive Identity, group exhibition, Cynthia-Reeves, MASS MoCA Campus, Massachusetts 
Close/Perspective, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Johannesburg 
Origins, solo exhibition, Rook & Raven, London 
Obscura, solo exhibition, Everard Read, Cape Town 
Art Central Hong Kong, featured artist, Rook & Raven, Hong Kong 
Accumulation of Disorder, solo exhibition, Independent Art Projects, MASS MoCA Campus, Massachusetts 


Delaire Graff Estate 
Didrichsen Art Museum 
Ellerman House 
European Investment Bank 
Johannesburg City Council 
Laurence Graff Private Collection 
Louis Norval Private Collection 
Rand Merchant Bank 
South African Embassy, Nigeria 
Standard Chartered Bank


2013 Visitor’s Choice Award, BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery, London 

2013 Ministerial Award, Department of Culture for Visual Art, Western Cape Government 

2009 Merit Award, Vuleka, Sanlam Art Competition, Cape Town 2008 Achievement Award, Pro Arte School of Arts, Pretoria 

2000 First Prize, MTN Art Colours Awards of Gauteng, Johannesburg