A selection of articles and reviews on the illustrations of Francois Smit.
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:
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.
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
By Anne Taylor, Rhodes Journalism Review
Francois Smit is an artist, designer and illustrator. Many readers will recognise his distinctive illustrations from The Sunday Independent , which carried his work since its launch in 1995 until April 2010. During this time he produced around 800 works for the paper.
Critic Mary Corrigall likens Smit to a cunning journalist with a "talent for capturing the essence of a story and building it into a fascinating and absorbing product". Smit's gripping illustrations reveal his "knack for simplifying or reducing complex news stories into graphics with which one can easily identify", she wrote in The Sunday Independent in 2006 in response to his exhibition launched at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg in 2006. Conceived as a celebration of the close relationship between newspaper and artist, the exhibition showcased the best of his works – many of which are definitive in the country's visual discourse. Vivian van der Merwe, a former teacher, mentor and the curator of Smit's exhibition, says the artist is widely respected for his "formidable imagination, skill and artistic rigour, and especially for his idiosyncratic pathos". Describing him as an exceptional artist, Van der Merwe explains that Smit's art "somehow manages to balance on that almost impossible edge between sharp conceptual narrative and beautiful visual forms. Perhaps it is his extraordinary cultural background and personal experience, offset by a profoundly idiosyncratic sense of the contemporary world, which merge in a remarkable and unique vision. It is not often that we see imagery that engages complex media issues and yet is able to stand alone as compellingly good art." Smit's works demonstrate a sophisticated mastery of the digital medium. His tools are Photoshop, Freehand, Illustrator, Painter, and 3D software, which he combines with hand-drawn images, digital photography, scans and three-dimensional modelling. "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," Corrigall wrote. Smit studied Fine Art in the late eighties before moving to Johannesburg. In 1992, he took up a position as a graphic journalist and illustrator for the Sunday Star, working for the Star until 1996.
Smit is now the director of Quba Design & Motion, a company specialising in design, illustration and video production. Smit has won several SPA Pica Awards, including best overall magazine design for CMYK/Enjin magazine, as well as several Mondi awards for magazine and newspaper illustration. He worked with photographer David Goldblatt on the design of his book, Particulars, which won first prize at the photographic festival in Arles, France in 2005.
I have been looking at the art of Francois since 1986. That equals twenty years of aesthetic scrutiny, twenty years of professional admiration, and twenty years of artistic fascination. And twenty years later, there is no doubt that Francois is widely respected for his formidable imagination, skill and artistic rigor, and especially for his idiosyncratic pathos. All these qualities are compellingly obvious in the works on show here.
But upon seeing Francois' art hanging together, in close proximity, for the first time ever, one also senses something else: It is like a persistent theme that is less obvious, like a complex leitmotif in a large symphony. At its very core this exhibition engages a fascinating contradiction, and it is a contradiction that is central to visual art of our time.
History has shown us that there is an ideological pendulum that swings in art. It expresses a contradictory energy that drives art along its fascinating and often unpredictable course. Whether we choose to think of it as a cause and effect, or thesis and antithesis, it is clear that there are two opposing attitudes towards art, or more specifically, towards the role of art and the artist.
The one point of view suggests that art is not very useful.
In 1891 Oscar Wilde declared that, "All art is quite useless". He was, of course, referring to the business of aesthetic vision, or more correctly, to the notion of disinterested contemplation, without which art cannot exist. Oscar Wilde was certainly not the first, nor the last, to suggest that art has no real or physical value, other than that which we choose to project onto it.
As artists, we all battle with these questions. In some central way, it can indeed be argued that art is genuinely useless. It has no real purpose in a materially defined society. This sense of the social impotence and political irrelevance of art forms a major theme in contemporary art theory, and keeps reminding us of Oscar Wilde's dictum that says: "All art is quite useless."
But the ideological pendulum swings, and at the opposite extreme, we encounter the statement by Russian-German poet, Ludwig Rubiner: "Painter - you demand. You transform the world. Or else you are a private citizen. To paint for painting's sake is like rowing a boat in one's own room!"
Rubiner, not long after Oscar Wilde, was appealing for an art that would be socially relevant. He was condemning the notion of "art for art's sake". He demanded that art become "useful". Rubiner, along with successive generations of Avant-garde artists, tore down the ivory towers, liberated art from its elitist enclosures, and forced art to become politically relevant. It is no coincidence that the Modernist artists took the term "Avant-garde" from military language, referring to the shock troops that first advance across enemy lines to inflict the maximum damage. The Avant-garde therefore represents the other extreme, where artists have tried to make art useful, and socially, politically and economically effective.
Regrettably, a hundred years later, the Avant-garde has not yet succeeded in liberating art from its middle-class ennui. But did they prove Oscar Wilde wrong? Does this prove that art simply has no cultural relevance or value? Does this mean that Oscar Wilde and Ludwig Rubiner have covered all the bases, and that making art is a profoundly futile exercise?
In his art, Francois manages to achieve the near-impossible: He not only reconciles the contradictory aesthetics of the Oscar Wildes and Ludwig Rubiners, but he also presents South Africa with what I call a mythography that is at once beautifully sophisticated, and also socially relevant, and he does both to an extreme degree.
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'.
Francois' art has always been driven by visual simplicity. His art is simple, but never simplistic. He distills and refines colour to within exceptionally fine degrees, and his work is therefore never achromatic (without colour). Upon closer inspection, a work such as this abounds with extremely muted, yet fine, variations of complimentary colour, the subtlest interactions of warm and cool hues, and subtlest tonal modulations. It is this quality of highly refined naturalism that sets Francois' work well apart from the generic school of "digital" illustration that has become alarmingly common in published media today. And it is this quality, along with the conceptual resonance of his imagery, which allows Francois to elevate the muchmaligned genre of illustration into an artform that is able to function, unapologetically, as visual art of the highest order.
- Vivian van der Merwe
Postmodernist art is well known for employing visual and stylistic references to "other art". This device is often referred to as historicism and appropriation, and should never be mistaken for plagiarism. It is this quality of appropriation that gives Postmodernism its so-called eclectic quality. In a visual culture saturated with media imagery and competition for attention that operates with an increasingly indiscriminate "cut-and-paste" mentality (smelly or otherwise!), this work stands out like a "breath of fresh air"!
One of the most intriguing qualities of Francois' vision is his ability to work with surprising and incongruous subject matter. His juxtapositioning of a universal, and often potent, iconography leaves the viewer intrigued, slightly disturbed, and always smiling. It becomes like Chaucer, or Cervantes, but without the text or words, evoking deep and pre-cognitive responses in the viewer. It is precisely this quality that sets Francois apart from most other visual artists. Whereas most visual artists working illustratively would tend to work from a conceptual premise (the narrative, the meaning, the story, the idea) and then seek "appropriate" imagery that either "reveals" or "conceals" (or sometimes a bit of both), Francois has always understood the primacy and potency of visual intuition. His idiosyncratic imagery always triggers some or other recognition of the human condition, either in its fallibility, its absurdity, its profundity, its beauty, and sometimes even, it's incredible simplicity.
While this image confronts us with a many layered parody, deliberately incongruous stereotypes, and an arresting tableaux of art historical innuendo, it also functions as a visually compelling artwork. Formally and technically, Francois leaves nothing to chance. His use of form and counter-form, ground-figure relationships, compositional devices, and the overall spatial construct, express a mastery of the medium that obliterates any notions about digitally conceived art being inferior to "great paintings".
- Vivian van der Merwe
At first glance, this image confronts us with a seemingly ordinary, somewhat austere still life: a simple rice-bowl with chopsticks on a printed sheet. The Korean text and small white crosses (substituting the rice) provide clues as to the content and scope of the accompanying article. Closer visual interrogation reveals a heightened austerity with ambient colour having been drained from the sheet containing the text. This severe austerity, and icon-like symmetry were redefined and refined repeatedly until Francois had achieved the subtlest balance of formal elements, along with an intense feeling of extreme exposure. By contrast, the background is occupied by a naturalistic rendering of an oppressive and turbulent sky, filled with cumulus storm clouds. It is this intentional juxtapositioning between a harsh yet subtle simplicity, organised with the eye of a Flemish still-life master, and the Wagnerian background with its naturalistic sturm und drang, which gives this work its peculiar intensity.
Much of the power of Francois' art derives from the fact that he conceives his unforgettable mythography, both in spite of, and because of, the given text. This is a complex process that cannot be "explained", and one that too many artists avoid. Herein lies the unceasing paradox of visual metaphor, and a clue to the compelling magic of Francois' work.
- Vivian van der Merwe
With the overwhelming prevalence of so-called Conceptual Art, many new theorists suggest that figurative or representational art is a spent force in the contemporary artworld, implying that the human imagination has to seek new or alternative modes of expression.
And yet, a work such as this, using seemingly conventional pictorial techniques and devices, presents us with a dream-like vision that seems both "real" and unquestionably "original". Francois has always had an uncanny ability to turn the world upside down and inside out, especially when least expected, but he never leaves the viewer doubting the pictorial integrity of his vision. He never uses gratuitous devices or predictable tricks. Between the Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro (the dramatic flashlike contrast between light and dark), the superbly accurate rendering (slightly distorted) of recognisable elements, and the "surreality" of this visually disconcerting "event", he confronts us with a world that us at once strangely unnatural and yet compellingly real.
As with all of Francois best works, one senses his unique visual alchemy, which shifts uneasily, yet intentionally, between intense humour, bizarre theatricality and riveting beauty, which always combine in a profound seriousness and sincerity. If forced to classify or describe Francois' work, one feels that we're looking at a Postmodernist re-invention of the medieval morality tableaux, where Francois is at once the jongleur-joker, the mythographer, and most importantly, the utterly serious master of his visual craft.
Francois' work is a powerful reminder of the fact that the artist's imagination will never rest, regardless of medium and method.
- Vivian van der Merwe
HB: How did you meet Francois?
vdM: He was a student of Fine Art, and I was a lecturer in Fine Art. That was 20 years ago, in Port Elizabeth, and from the very first moment, he made a big impression on me. I those early years Francois spoke in a very distinctive Kakamas Afrikaans that is impossible to translate; even into mainstream Afrikaans! Even as a young art student he brought some really intriguing and idiosyncratic values to visual art and art discourses. I also immediately became aware that Francois had that unique Namaqua-Afrikaner gift for social and cultural narrative.
HB: What sort of work was Francois doing when you met him?
vdM: Typically, as a young art student, he was experimenting with various media, approaches and visual idioms. His work ranged between interdisciplinary multi-media constructions and more conventional figurative painting and drawing. From the beginning, Francois' work demonstrated high levels of technical and perceptual virtuosity, but the thing that intrigued me most of all, was an underlying visual intelligence that you seldom find among young art students, even among the most talented. Francois' work was always charged with a complex uneasiness that is difficult to describe. I saw it as a kind of intense, uncompromising, sometimes dark, and visually compelling iconography that increasingly expressed a highly sophisticated visual sensibility. His obsession with questioning current conventions and trends in visual art often resulted in studio debates that were very lively, often extremely heated, always intelligent, and inevitably affirmed new and constructive insights. I believe that Francois' intense struggles during those years, yielded the first evidence of the mythography and visual eloquence that distinguishes his best work now. Those certainly were very memorable years.
HB: Why do you think you sustained your relationship?
vdM: With students of Francois' calibre you quickly realise that you're dealing with a potential peer or younger equal, something that happens very rarely. You never talk "down" to someone like that, since that would be insulting and condescending. Also, studiowork tuition is based on a one-on-one dialogue, and therefore becomes highly individual, which means that you often get to know your students intimately. Art history contains many stories of life-long artistic friendships that have developed between teachers and their former students. Thankfully, artistic dialogues such as these outgrow their institutional confines, or origins, very quickly. I suspect that we also share something when it comes to some of the deeper or tougher issues relating to South African colonialism and progressive Afrikaner identity. And we both have much in common when it comes to the nature-culture debates.
HB: How do you experience Francois as a person?
vdM: Francois is an intensely creative person, and he is driven by interesting passions and aversions. His origins are in a much misunderstood and maligned Afrikaner sub-culture. There is a distinctive linguistic-social paradigm that's often referred to in the popular media as that of the Namaqualanders. If you don't understand South Africa and Afrikaans really well, you'll never fully appreciate the complex depth, richness, subtlety and contradictions that Francois not only brings to his art, but also to his incredible sense of humour. Along with Francois, there comes a Namaqualand ethos and pathos that is almost impossible to explain or contextualise in English. Beyond the art, there's something quite formidable about Francois' sense of humour and his ability to tell stories.
HB: Do you have anything in common as artists? Are there very clear points at which you diverge? (conceptually)
vdM: I sense that we both believe, as artists, that formal/technical integrity is non-negotiable, or to put it simply: that "how well" an artwork is conceived is of primary importance. Regardless of style, intent, content, medium, or context, an artwork should be well conceived and well executed. This does not mean that one is subscribing to a formalist or academic aesthetic, it simply suggests that the artwork is a visual manifestation of visual intelligence and therefore cannot be conceived around conceptual-semantics alone. When Francois speaks about the "integrity" or "dignity" of an artwork, I am sure that he's referring to this fact. After all, there is no doubt that Francois' best works stand, without needing any annotations or justification, as autonomous and fully independent works of art. Nevertheless, given the media context/environment, the prescriptive subject matter, the content, Francois obviously works with visual narratives. His art has to include this. To what extent these narratives merely become subject matter (like still-life objects become subject matter to some painters) is a very complex question. I don't think one can merely substitute the one with the other. Our art differs in many fundamental respects, formally, technically and conceptually. But we've always had great mutual respect for each other's work.