Baltimore-based South African artist Jo Smail (b. 1943, Durban) is celebrated worldwide for her inventive approach to abstraction across tactile media. Often composed through compounded states of material accruals, subtractions, and adaptations, Smail's compositions expressively reflect the human condition in unique ways. Educated in South Africa, Smail moved to Baltimore in 1985 and was Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art from 1988-2017, where she is now Professor Emeritus. Formal exploration as well as innovations emerge from the artist’s personal history – delving into the past, present, and perception of future with equal weight and vibrancy.
Influenced by the horrors of apartheid, a devastating Baltimore studio fire (1995), a life-altering stroke (2000), the socio-political content of personal effects, the natural world, and art history, Smail’s work has been the subject of myriad exhibitions and major publications with significant reviews printed in The New York Times, Art in America, The Hudson Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, Artblog, Baltimore Magazine, Artforum Magazine, among many others.
In 2020 the artist opened a major career retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, while her work has unceasingly entered numerous important public and private collections globally.
At once intimate, vulnerable, strikingly beautiful, and inexplicably awkward, Smail’s art captures an uncompromising approach to touch the void where the complications and contradictions of contemporary life intersects with a resilient reinvention that allows us to move forward with joy, and dare one say love, despite the difficulties we encounter.
Represented in the United States by Goya Contemporary Gallery, Smail has continued to collaborate with fellow South African artist and friend William Kentridge over a number of years. Contemplating poetry, Henri Matisse, native South African textiles, and even historic newspaper advertisements as her muses, Smail’s engagement with language and culture stand as confirmation that the only thing one expects to see in Smail’s work is something unexpected.
Smail has been the recipient of numerous accolades including a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award, Trawick Sapphire prize award, multiple Maryland State Arts Council Awards, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Fellowships, Rochefort-en-Terre Residency in France, and nomination for “Anonymous was a Woman.” Smail's work is included in private and public collections internationally including Baltimore Museum of Art; US Embassy, Johannesburg; Chase Manhattan Bank, Johannesburg & New York locations; Durban Museum and Art Gallery; University of the Witwatersrand; Johannesburg Art Museum; Johns Hopkins University Collection; Mobil Corporation Art Collection; National Gallery of South Africa; Pretoria Art Museum; among many others.