Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Smit, Marietha - VM - Erna Buber and Gert Swart

Marietha Smit: Peeling IV and Dream Flowers

In Search of Self – Two Images from a Visual Autobiography

by Erna Buber-deVilliers and Gert Swart

Some years ago, my husband reconnected with a school-friend he had not seen in decades. As both of them are artists, they had a lot to talk about and so we invited her to visit us. Marietha Smit turned up with a roll of black paper under her arm. We had to move the furniture from our living room in order to view her work. The above is a detail of Peeling IV, which forms a part of a series of five works from 2006 which she showed us. The series is called Peeling the Onion. The average size of each is 3 x 2 m – making a staggering total of 30 square meters of paper covered with areas of tiny writing in between fine-line drawing in coloured pen. I felt overwhelmed. How to take this in? How to react? Do I get down on the floor and crawl across the work and try to decipher the writing, which surely must be important to the meaning of the whole? Or do I just look at each huge sheet and try to glean something through half-closed eyes?

“It’s a mind map in which I am trying to understand all kinds of things about myself and my life and the world in which we live,” Marietha said. She told us about her youth, when her father’s career as a diplomat led to frequent relocations and disruptions of the family’s life and, for her, a sense of alienation. She returned, alone, to her home country to start her university education, where her mental and emotional turmoil led to a breakdown and a stay in a sanatorium. A fellow inmate gave her a copy of H.R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which played a role in her recovery and led to her becoming a Christian.

Marietha then pointed out and explained many bits and pieces of drawing on those huge sheets of paper. Covering most of the right half of the section of work shown above are clusters of little circles. Each is a tiny face. In her words: “They are quick drawings of people taken from my photo albums, all different and yet very similar, which is what happens when you have to do with too many people. It is also an aspect of moving around, namely that the relationships which you form with people remain superficial. You know you will leave, so there is no point in trying to forge lasting relationships.”

After Marietha’s explanation I felt, perhaps, even more uncomfortable with the work in front of me. Now that I’d been told that it was a map of her mind, should I even attempt to decipher something so personal? The sheets of paper both fascinated and repelled me (too difficult!), but most of all the sheer work involved evoked deep admiration ... and even deeper compassion. Here was laid bare such courage and determination to connect, here was “deep calling unto deep.” Perhaps this poem by Edith Södergran speaks of what I mean:

To Cross the Universe

On foot 
must I cross the universe
before finding the first thread of my red robe.
Of my own self I see a faint glimmer. 
Somewhere suspended in space is my heart,
sparks go forth from it, vibrating the ether
in search of other boundless hearts. 

The work of ‘peeling the onion’ – no doubt with many tears – has borne fruit, as shown in this very different and much smaller drawing done in 2013, seven years later:

Dream Flowers is an illustration of a dream of “walking happily among beautiful flowers and very many stars.” The artist has here entered a poetic space, the space of her true self, her soul, where God dwells. She can walk the labyrinth and find direction, at home with her Heavenly Father.

“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God,” Jesus said. He also said “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Let us get to work and ‘peel the onion’.


Marietha Smit: Peeling IV2006, coloured pens on black paper, 2 x 2.1 m.

Marietha Smit: Dream Flowers, 2013, coloured pens on black paper. 60 x 42 cm.

Marietha Smit is a South-African artist who lives in Johannesburg and works full-time as a high school art teacher. In between teaching she obtained a Masters degree in Fine Art from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. She also has a Maitrise de Lettres Modernes from the Université de Paris III La Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France. Currently she would like to produce a PhD Visual Autobiography (Fine Art) project that she describes as “basically telling the story of how Jesus Christ saved me, how I was reborn, and how healing, growth and victory have been the hallmark of my life since 1977 and are still happening today.” 

Erna Buber-deVilliers is a retired South-African high school art teacher who enjoys writing and many other leisure pursuits.

Gert Swart was born in 1952 in Durban, Natal, South Africa. He has worked as a sculptor in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past 25 years. See his work on

The poem by Edith Södergran is included with permission by the publisher. It appears in Poems by Edith Södergran, translated by Gounil Brown, ISBN 0-9511069-5-3, Zena Publications Ltd, 1990.

ArtWay Visual Meditation May 8, 2016