Sunday, 12 February 2006 20:10

Smit's images speak without words

By  Mary Corrigall
Mary Corrigall Mary Corrigall

A man thrashes about in murky water hoping to stave off death by drowning, while all who surround him ignore his suffering. Entitled Walking on Water (April 2 2005), this is the manner in which graphic artist Fran?ois Smit visually translates a story Edwin Cameron has written about the stigma around Aids.

Unlike the words of the story that once accompanied this harrowing image, which tend to filter through the intellect, Smit's image conjures uncomfortable emotions that are hard to shake off. While some photographs have the power to evoke a similar reaction, Smit's photographic collages combined with deft illustration present a hyper-reality, revealing the fundamental nature of an event or experience that threatens the equilibrium.

A quick perusal of Smit's illustrations, now on exhibition, leaves one with the impression that the world he presents to readers of The Sunday Independent is dark, sombre and unforgiving. His landscapes are characteristically barren, his palette is typically monotone and his characteristic juxtaposition of light and dark, which he uses to maximum effect, not only creates drama but manipulates the viewer's response.

Take Her Last Moments; 9/11 from the inside (August 30 2003); a woman sitting in a darkened room looks out of her apartment window to the sunlit buildings below. Clutching her telephone, her only connection to the outside world, she waits, hoping to be rescued. The gloomy interior, however, suggests that she will meet a bitter end.

This illustration is straightforward and unpretentious, yet it carries a powerful message. Smit's gripping illustrations reveal his knack for simplifying or reducing complex news stories into graphics with which one can easily identify.

Like a cunning journalist, Smit also has a talent for capturing the essence of a story and building it into a fascinating and absorbing product.

Although Smit mostly has to negotiate weighty topics, he often displays a curious sense of humour; in When Hairy Lips Ruled the World (August 2 2003) one sees a child too young to boast a full set of front teeth with a bushy grey beard engulfing his face.

Creating Heroes - The Art of Russian Obituary Writing (November 17 1995) shows severed heads pushed through a pen that is presumably being used to write lyrical narratives about the dead.

Whereas most digital artists seem to be at pains to recreate reality as a way of assessing a digital medium's capabilities, Smit seems to revel in the infinite possibilities that digital technology offers, often pushing the boundaries of the software, allowing him to distort reality in order to bring the spirit of a story to the surface.

With images on the front pages of newspapers becoming increasingly larger or more prominent, it becomes clear how vital a role visuals play in expressing the heart of a news story.

Although photographs usually fulfil this function, Smit's brand of illustration proves how digital artworks can be potent purveyors of meaning as well as bringing another level of visual energy to the page.

Although Smit's illustrations are teamed up with an article every week, what this exhibition brings to light is that his illustrations tell a story all of their own.

* Ten Years of Sunday Independent Illustrations by Fran?ois Smit is on at the Gordon Institute of Business Science at 26 Melville Road, Illovo, Johannesburg, until February 24

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