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The art of giving a face to the dead: Ms Kathryn Smith
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 03/12/2020

​​Not many artists will ever feel comfortable enough to give talks on the politics of death or new post-mortem identification protocols that the police service can use, or to attend the Extraordinary World Congress on Mummy Studies or gatherings of the International Association of Craniofacial Identification. Then again, not many artists are Kathryn Smith, a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University's Department of Visual Arts. Her work lies at the interface between art and practical science, as it involves sculpting virtual faces using state-of-the-art 3D software and virtual clay to help identify unknown skeletal remains.

Growing up in the 1980s, television series like the crime investigation programme Police File had already found an unlikely follower in the would-be artist and academic from Durban.

Her interest has since not just taken her to art exhibitions and museums, but also to medico-legal laboratories and conferences that put the spotlight on topics that some might find dark, even macabre.

“People think I'm a weirdo or Goth, or that I'm very morbid, but I'm actually the most cheerful person you can find," Smith cheerfully comments.

Smith is a former recipient of the 2004 Standard Bank Young Artist award but has since translated her intellectual interest in forensic aesthetics into actual forensic practice. In 2018 she presented the best poster at the International Association for Identification educational conference in San Antonio in the USA, the oldest and largest forensic association in the world, frequented by forensic experts of all disciplines. In 2014 she won a scholarship to attend the International Conference on Craniofacial Superimposition. She has also received scholarships from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, the UK-based Chevening Scholarship and the National Research Foundation.

She was recently a valuable team member in the University of Cape Town's Sutherland Reburial initiative, involving nine individuals whose remains were unethically obtained by UCT in the late 1920s, towards reburial. Archival records enabled the location of contemporary descendants of these individuals, of the San and Khoe communities of Sutherland in the Northern Cape. They instructed the team on which scientific analyses they wanted undertaken in order to better understand the life experiences of their ancestors, including facial reconstructions which they say provided “a way into the bigger story".

“The work encapsulates the kind of research and service focus I hope to continue delivering in the future, for both heritage and forensic contexts," Smith said in a recent article on the project in Research@Stellenbosch 2019. “It also opens up a rich area for teaching across art and science, which fundamentally questions how knowledge – and by extension, our histories – has been constructed."

Smith has spent the better part of the past five years at Liverpool John Moores University's Face Lab, where she this year successfully completed her PhD under guidance of world leader Prof Caroline Wilkinson.

While there, she worked as a research and graduate teaching assistant, and contributed to Face Lab's archaeological and forensic casework, research and public engagement projects. Smith also helped to launch LJMU's MA Art in Science postgraduate programme in 2016.

In the UK she had access to technology developed by Wilkinson's team. Their digital workflow process incorporates a system called Geomagic Freeform, which provides touch-feedback to a user. It allows for a constant evaluation of the virtual sculpting process. Those using it have the sense that they are sculpting with something tangible rather than merely virtual, something more than just a flat computer screen image.

Using the software to her disposal, Smith reconstructs facial muscles, fat and individual features with virtual clay, also adding a neck and shoulders. Thereafter a skin layer is added and refined with finer details.

The first step in any facial reconstruction process is the careful analysis of a particular skull. Either the original or a digital 3D version thereof is used. Validated anatomical techniques enable the estimation of most facial features, and relevant photographs and reports provide further information that could be valuable in suggesting other aspects of highly individualised physical appearance. Once such a close analysis of a skull is completed, including the reconstruction of any missing or damaged parts, markers of varying lengths are placed at anatomical points that correspond with points on a living face.

Her PhD thesis, with the hefty title of Laws of the Face: Re-Staging Forensic Art as a counter-forensic device, is accompanied by an online artwork called Speaking Likeness. It looked at cross-cultural practices of post-mortem representation by considering forensic art's role in human identification.

“Facial reconstruction is a very delayed process, only being requested when all other methods of identification have proven unsuccessful or are not available," she says.

Part of Smith's PhD research therefore explored the viability of post-mortem depiction as a much earlier intervention in the visual identification process, where the living appearance of an unidentified person is developed from a facial photograph of the deceased.

Through her initiative Stellenbosch University will soon have the only Freeform system in the country other than the one used by the South African Police Service's pathological services. It will be available for research and postgraduate training.

“A combination of good anatomical knowledge, solid artistic technique and this state-of-the-art system allows us to be accurate within 2mm across the skin surface, with 70% overall accuracy. It's been tested by reconstructing faces using CT data of living people, so we can compare like with like," she explains.

Smith says there's very practical reasons for investing in such technology: “South Africa has a crisis of unidentified individuals. We need more people with knowledge of the techniques to identify skeletal remains.

She says only two forensic artists in SAPS are trained in the use of this digital reconstruction system. Both were trained by Wilkinson's team. Before the technology became available to them in the late 1990s, the work had to be done manually.

“South Africa has been ahead of the field in many ways; a necessary response to the volume of cases over time. As a result, these practitioners are incredibly skilled and experienced. They do beautiful work, but it's a Sisyphean task. They handle such an enormous case load. Essentially all unidentified persons in South Africa, the Western Cape included, is their responsibility."

Now that she is returning to South Africa and Stellenbosch, she will co-ordinate a research collaboration with colleagues at UCT and SAPS' Forensic Pathology Services. It will explore multifactorial methods for post-mortem identification, including osteobiography, stable isotopes analysis and forensic genetics, expressed through facial depictions.

Smith says she is not from a family of scientists, artists nor police officers.

“I'm almost unicornish in being the only artist and one of the first in my family to go to university," she mentions jovially, before relaying that her grandfather was president of the Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish community organisation who prepare the deceased for burial, and that her mother, who was once a teacher, is now a palliative care practitioner.

Her practical exposure to forensic medicine started in her 4th year of undergraduate Fine Art studies at Wits University when a law student friend asked for her moral support. He had chosen forensics as an elective module and wanted someone to accompany him to observe an autopsy that was part of the course.

She has since completed two Masters degrees – one in the humanities, the other in the sciences. The first, in Fine Arts, was completed in 1999 at Wits University, and looked at how American artist, Joel-Peter Witkin, use death as theme throughout his work.

For her MSc in Forensic Art from the University of Dundee in 2013 (also under guidance of Wilkinson), she investigated the relationship between shape accuracy and recognisability of facial reconstructions, and how it influences the broader forensic analysis of faces.

After university she started writing for the Mail & Guardian newspaper's art section and online art magazine Artthrob. Since then she has self-funded much of her work through teaching and curating exhibitions such as Poisoned Pasts (in 2016, about the legacy of South Africa's chemical and biological warfare programme, for The Nelson Mandela Foundation). Most recently she has taken on a senior curatorial role with the A4 Arts Foundation in Cape Town.

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For the next few weeks, we will introduce you to some of SU`s researchers whose work is featured in the latest edition of Research at Stellenbosch University.