Sunday, 05 February 2006 20:08

Even hell can get boring

By  Heather Dugmore
Heather Dugmore Heather Dugmore

On the eve of his first solo exhibition, we bring you the life and times of Francois Smit, the artist behind the Dispatches illustrations these past ten years.

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour...

Ah, the dominee loved the admonitions of apostle Peter. Preaching the devil's name always filled his voice with power and he could feel the chest of his congregation tighten between the white walls of the little church in Nababeep.

In the fourth pew sat young Francois Smit, next to his mother, Johanna. He could hear the lion roaring across the Namaqua plains as fear wracked his Calvinist heart.

Every Sunday Francois and Johanna sat in the same pew. They always arrived at church half an hour early and remained seated until everyone else had left. Obsessively anti-social, Johanna did not engage with any of the other members of the congregation or, for that matter, anyone in Nababeep where Smit's father, Jan Daniel, worked as a foreman on the copper mines.

After church they would walk home in silence, stalked by the threat of hell. But even hell can get boring and Smit couldn't help straying from the fire pit to his favourite fantasy about sailing away to a tropical paradise where the clear, blue water flowed into forever.

"I was born in this dry, rocky place but from the time I can remember I was obsessed with sailing," Smit takes a rare break from his Apple Mac in his Johannesburg studio - where the hypnotic illustrations on the front page of Dispatches are created each week.

"Funny how our childhoods never leave us alone," he speaks as if he's addressing invisible beings – perhaps his own duality – which, appraising his features, suggests a cross between the dark angel and little boy blue.

"I was supposed to be a dominee ..."

A few seconds of silence follow then he starts to laugh. He laughs at his past and he laughs at the future and in that laugh you can hear the lion roaring across the Namaqua plains.

"That's why at age forty, I'm still stricken with guilt."

But not quite as stricken as the young boy walking down the passage towards his mother's bedroom. "She spent a lot of time there – it was her shrine. Here we would listen to evangelists shouting about visions and miracles on her transistor radio with its red, fake leather cover and white knobs with dirt in the grooves. We had no TV or phone, so apart from the Huisgenoot which arrived once a week, the radio was our only contact with the outside world."

Apart, that is from, the peace sign some acolyte of the anti-Christ had painted on a slab of rock on the hillside bordering Nababeep.

"In our home the hippy symbol was the mark of the devil, as were the Beatle records which my three brothers – who are much older than me – brought back from their travels."

Johanna smashed the records and implored her youngest son never to succumb to such sin. Smit's father did not interfere. He found respite in the garage where, every night after work, he sat smoking cigarettes.

"I think my father had resigned himself to apathy; resigned himself to the fact that he would never fulfill his dreams of becoming a lawyer or of owning a cattle ranch in Kenya."

Then the copper market crashed in the mid-seventies and the Smit family was forced to move to Alexander Bay in the northernmost corner of South Africa's west coast – where Jan Daniel got a job on the diamond mines.

"I was terribly excited when he told me we were moving to Alexander Bay. The name sounded so fancy and it was by the sea. I pictured clear blue water and the tropical paradise of my dreams."

What he got was the wild Atlantic Ocean into which the Orange River flowed in a great muddy surge.

Seeking stimulation and fascinated by the mysteries of life, he took out books on archaeology from the library and made ink copies of the symbols of the ancient Egyptians and Mayans. Next he explored the most unsolved mystery of life – romance – and landed up getting his heart twisted by someone other than Satan. This time it was the mine manager's doll-like daughter and young Smit became painfully aware of his family's lack of means. "There was no fancy car, no fancy clothes, not even jeans."

He never got the gal but this period was the turning point in his life as he headed off to high school as a border in Clanwilliam. "It was like going to heaven.

It was like going to New York. I was living in a real town with a mayor and a doctor and a school where people spoke a bit of English and took pleasure in being humorous."

His classmates delighted in the pen caricatures Smit made of their teachers. For the first time, isolation and loneliness slipped from Smit's shoulders and he started to re-invent himself in a world where questioning was encouraged. He made friends with a boy whose mother had studied fine art and who entertained guests who curated art exhibitions in Europe. It was a porthole for his creativity, peppered by a school trip to Stellenbosch University where, for the first time, he visited an artist's studio and saw an installation.

"It was a pig bladder," he smiles. "I was incredibly impressed at the time as it showed me how free the interpretation of art and form can be. Having said that, it's taken me a lifetime to learn to freely express myself creatively. I struggle to be free."

National conscription curbed the teenage Smit's will to freedom for a good few years. "Like most white South Africans, I went to the army and shouted anti-terrorist slogans and fought the apartheid war. It was only after the army that I realised what political intolerance and racism actively means and I saw what I'd been.

"The capacity for total mind shifts is what amazes me about this country. It hit home the other day I was sitting having a drink with a Cuban filmmaker the same age as me. It turns out we were both fighting in Angola eighteen years ago, just ten kilometres apart. We would have blown each other's heads off if we'd made contact.

"So I asked him if he would repeat the past if he had a second chance. He replied that not only would he do exactly as he had done before but also that his thoughts and feelings about life are exactly the same at age forty as they were at age twenty. At that moment I was very grateful to be South African and to live in a place that, irrespective of background, triggers re-invention and change."

Smit's re-invention sowed its most fertile seeds when he decided he wasn't going to be a dominee after all. He was going to use the R3 000 he had saved in the army to study fine art at the Port Elizabeth Technikon.

"When I told my mother she was truly horrified. She said ÔYou are going to become the rotten pumpkin of the family'. Then the phone went dead and I got on the train."

At the technikon Smit met Vivian van der Merwe, an artist and teacher who became his mentor. Twenty years later, Van Der Merwe has curated Smit's first solo exhibition, which opens tomorrow at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg.

Recalls Van Der Merwe: "From the outset Francois made a big impression on me. He showed an underlying visual intelligence that you seldom find among young art students. His work was charged with a complex uneasiness, an intense, uncompromising, sometimes dark, visually compelling iconography."

Smit's complex uneasiness was not confined to his art; it charged his impression of women. "I saw women as untouchable, God-like, too beautiful to approach. I didn't have the courage to say ÔHey do you want to go out with me'."

Yeoville changed all this.

Arriving in Johannesburg in 1989 after completing his studies, he found lodgings here. "In the nice, unspeakably old Yeoville days I encountered a freedom – politically, sexually and socially – such as I had never seen. It was one of the most creative periods of my life and I painted obsessively. I also learned to speak to women and got my first job spray-painting billboards in a factory. Then some people I knew stole and sold my spray-painting tools. Afterwards they felt so remorseful they tried to find me another job. One presented me with an advert for an artist for the Sunday Star. I applied and I got it."

Smit's first assignment was to paint a picture of Nigel Mansel for the sports pages of the paper. "All I had was factory paint but they seemed to like it."

At the time newspapers were shifting to an increasingly high tech approach and Smit started making art on computers. "I found it incredibly daunting at first, but once I got the hang of it, I was blown away by what I could do." Photoshop, Freehand, Illustrator, Painter, Bryce, Maya, Poser and Stratavision in conjunction with hand drawn images, digital photography, scans and 3-dimensional modeling. These became his tools.

During this time he met his wife, Debbie. "She was my neighbour and at first we were friends. She showed me the human side of women," Smit smiles. "She was also very calm and I was into volatility, so it balanced us out."

In 1992 their daughter Sarah was born and four years later their son Alexander. "I battled with the family concept for quite some time and it took me a while to start feeling I am not alone anymore, I have a family. It's actually quite beautiful."

In 1995 when The Sunday Independent was launched, Smit was called upon by Shaun Johnson - the Sunday Independent's first editor – to contribute graphics and illustrations. "I was inspired by his encouragement and, ten years later, I'm still enjoying an incredible relationship with the paper. The editors trust me entirely so it's a totally free process. It's a wonderfully magic moment when the ideas for each story emerge."

Having tuned into magical moments, Smit took to the water. Three years ago he finally went sailing – not in clear, blue water in a tropical paradise – but on the good old Vaal Dam. It was every bit as satisfying as his childhood sailing fantasies and Smit was instantly hooked.

"To launch my sailing career, I took to ten-foot-ten boats called Mirrors on Emmarentia Dam. It's like skippering a hamburger with a mast but it gives me and my son a grand sense of naval importance, especially now that I am Commodore of the Emmarentia Sailing Club – which," he smiles, "is like being Commodore of an important pond."

And so it was the boy from Nababeep forged a path to freedom and artistic fertility. But lest you should think he has overcome his repressed religious roots, fear not. Smit is already working on his next exhibition. The working theme is Everyday Life Exposed and his paintings are packed with religion and sex. So wait a year and Smit will be back with ÔThe Russian Sex Truck' and ÔThe Last Supper in Sandton Square'.

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