Saturday, 16 April 2011 20:03

The Invisible man: Francois Smit and the Sunday Illustration

By  Zen Marie

Francois Smit is not famous. Many have seen his work but few will recognize his name. He has quietly been producing an image a week for the Sunday Independent over the past 15 years. Every Sunday his images were viewed by 179 000 South Africans (the total estimated readership of the paper) If newspapers are a numbers game then there are other numbers that are important in understanding his work:

  • 3 hours - the average time for him to make an image
  • 10 minutes - the average time taken to 'assimilate' (Smits word) the article he illustrates
  • 2 - 30 seconds - the average time a reader looks at his image
  • 7 Days – the time it takes to recycle a newspaper into useable newprint

Smit's illustrations were always made in response to the article they accompanied. He would be sent the article on a Saturday morning and by lunchtime he would email an illustration to his editor. His illustration would be above the crease, with the article below it, on the cover of the Dispatches section of the Sunday Independent.

Having studied painting, Smit is somewhat an in-between kind of character. It is much easier to describe what he is not than it is to accurately pin point what he does. Labelled as illustrations by the newspaper, the term seems to come short. His images are surreal: ranging from punchy and aphoristic visual metaphor to conundrum that the viewer needs to solve. Smit is clear that while his work is an illustration of the article, it is not a literal one. He sees the relationship between article and image working in two directions, necessarily informing each other, compounding to form a complex image-text relationship.

His work is produced using a range of analogue and digital processes. He draws and paints by hand; scans these images and then manipulates them using an array of 3d and 2d software. He poaches and pilfers from a wide range of sources, always manipulating and tweaking in order to render images that are quirky, alluring and (sometimes) provocative.

The experience of stumbling across one of his images can be disconcerting. It is not the kind of image one expects to find in a newspaper and it is surprising that he hasn't elicited any serious controversy in his 15 years. The 3d photorealism sometimes has the effect of showing you impossible, unbelievable and often ridiculous situations. In spite of yourself you stop. For a split second they masquerade as authentic reportage. Before you realise that the image is a constructed digital illusion.

The fame and notoriety acquired by satirists like Zapiro has eluded Smit. In part due to the lack of proper framework in which to place his images, but more probably because of his avoidance of polemic or reluctance to assume a political position - unless this refusal could be taken as a position itself. Unlike Zapiro it is impossible to locate Smit within a set of political markers. It is easy enough to read Zapiro's political position and hence to attribute a certain authorship to him. This is not the case with Smit. His images as illustrations have an integral relationship to the text they serve and as such they change each week depending on the article.

Smit is not interested in politics. He asserts his primary interest in form and colour, principals he attributes to his training in Fine Arts as a painter. Smit has never seen his illustrations as 'art'. It took him a long time to take this platform seriously always seeing it as a kind of hobby. Smit has since reconciled his illustration work and feels privileged to have been able to "entertain, intrigue and confuse so many people every week". It is this populist impulse that seems to drive his work and leads his critique of the art world – which he sees as far too conceptual and obtuse.

His regular Sunday spot was discontinued this year as the Sunday Independent followed most print media in downsizing and optimizing their product. Smit is none-the-less optimistic; he has just finished an illustration for the New York Times and is developing his work in other ways. With the absence of a weekly article to respond to Smit will have to proactively find material to work with. It will be interesting to see how Smit now constructs his work without the set parameters of the Sunday Illustration.

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