Artist Lizza Littlewort is holding her first major solo exhibition since returning to full-time painting earlier this year. Inspired by influences as diverse as Foucault, JM Coetzee and the now-humble Cecil John Rhodes, she’s turning the works of the Dutch masters upside down. Rewriting history? An ambitious task. But according to her, it’s already been done. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
Is it possible to rewrite the past? Artist Lizza Littlewort believes it is. Not only that, but also that it has already been done – and that if it’s possible to reverse the process, she would like to play a small role in that.
Her latest exhibition – her first major solo exhibition since she returned to work as a full-time painter following some years as a storyboard artist in the film industry – is entitled We Live in the Past, and references the golden era of Dutch painting to illustrate how inextricably we still are linked to the influences of our past. In particular, Littlewort wishes to tackle what she calls “the cherry-picked version of history” that has been foregrounded for centuries, that of the privileged and powerful.
She began with her own family: tracing the history of her forefathers, the De Wet people, down to the first boat landing; a contested history with multiple versions, and with controversial characters (read ‘slaves’) erased, in an all too familiar South African way.
“If I were to reduce this exhibition to one sentence,” she says, “it would be this: we do live in the past. If you want to say to others ‘get over the past’, then you must be willing to chuck all this shit away, and if you don’t want to do that, then acknowledge that others also have their stuff that they don’t want to throw away.”
“All this shit” is, in this case, the work of the Dutch masters, which Littlewort references directly in the exhibition; but it is also, indirectly, the historical narrative that she references indirectly: the whitewashing of the era of imperialism.
“Imperialism was constantly supported by this narrative of the arts,” she says. “The grandiosity of the paintings; the noble VOC. It’s all so heroic. And it’s all stuff that still bears on the present – this idea of the heroism of imperialism.”
In We Live in the Past, Littlewort exhibits paintings in pairs: one well-known and easily recognisable painting by one of the Dutch masters (exhibited as a thumbnail), and its partner, her reinterpretation of the original work.
So why Dutch paintings, particularly? “I don’t know where to start describing this subject,” says Littlewort. “It’s huge. I was almost trying to make it smaller by just making it about Dutch paintings.” The blossoming of Dutch art, of course, also coincided chronologically with the occupation of the Cape, and the same period in which her own ancestors arrived. “It’s all part of the same thing, building the same people,” she says.
It is the building of wealth at others’ expense that concerns Littlewort first and foremost. Three of her paintings, namely Still Life with Javanese Fish, Still Life with Turmeric and Ginger, and Zayaan Khan with a Pearl Earring, directly reference the spice trade – the ransacking of the Javanese islands to create what Littlewort calls “the obscene wealth of the Dutch”. But, more subtly, she also critiques the sanitising of history – the retelling of the story that erases the suffering caused by this accumulation of wealth. And in the case of this exhibition, the way that period of history was depicted by the artists of the time. The three paintings above pointedly reinsert the Indonesian people into the story.
Littlewort is fascinated by the tension between the beauty and luxury of the work of the Dutch masters and the morally dubious undertones of imperialism. “In order to represent this image of the hardworking white farmer and his family in their little enclave, it was necessary to blank out the black people. The farmers were not indigenous and not doing all or even most of the work,” Littlewort points out.
One of her forefathers, Jakob de Wet, was himself a notable painter and art collector. His wife was one Maria from Jakarta, yet Maria is typically removed from family trees in contemporary discussions by amateur genealogists online. “My own family is part of the rewriting of history,” says Littlewort.
To Littlewort, painting in itself is the wrong medium, and art, too, doesn’t necessarily amount to anything. In South Africa, she says, we’re still operating more or less on the assumption that markings on a page or canvas can amount to change eventually; in Europe and America, it’s understood that activism requires action. There’s a sense, talking to Littlewort, that she almost finds art paralysing, but feels the dialogue is nonetheless essential. “The problem with painting is that it’s all very non-literal,” she says. “It only is what people say it is. You only have what I say my intention is, the meaning I have assigned to it. It’s a weird, difficult area to work in, and you’re engaging with a public that doesn’t necessarily know a lot about the language of painting.”
And paint as the wrong medium? “In JM Coetzee’s White Writing, he talks about how the European gaze is almost unable to see the landscape, how none of the picturesque exists. Painting itself actually works best for the European landscape. You take some white paint and mix in a splodge of grey and you have a perfect little cloud. It’s an imperial medium. It’s the same with watercolour. But if you’re looking for the hot blue of a South African sky, I’m sorry to say it looks ugly.”
Paradoxically, Littlewort did not find her niche in studying art. Studying art history, she says, made no sense to her. It was in the study of literature and history, and the work of philosophers such as Foucault and Kristeva, that her visions began to take shape. More recently, books such as Nigel Penn’s The Forgotten Frontier and JM Coetzee’s Dusklands informed this exhibition, as did Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches – also the title of one of her paintings.
But intellectualising subject matter is not always a good thing to Littlewort. “I am still coming to terms with the fact that I have ideas I cannot execute,” she says, speaking about areas she has not yet technically mastered. “Ian Gross, for example, is a completely natural photorealist painter. My style is more expressionist. I am naturally a messy person, with a penchant for satire. In portraits, I might get a stronger sense of the person. But there is a schism between the knowledge I have and what I can execute. In every single painting, I imagine one thing and end up coming up with something completely different. You want to say something about white South Africa and end up liking this glutinous drip!”
The biggest challenge, then, was to create something beautiful that still was challenging both to herself and the viewer. One of the techniques she used was to add extra linseed oil to her paints to create a more luminescent effect. Most of the paintings ended up being a surprise to her – “I had no idea what was going to happen. You start off dripping stuff and figure out a way to give it meaning”, she says. “I was more amazed by them at the time.”
But the marriage of disturbing subject matter and an aesthetically pleasing final product was also a major contributing factor in the choice of theme – that is, the Dutch masters. “Often, liberal white South African art takes on incidents, rather than a big topic,” she says. “But this can have the effect of normalising white culture. At the same time, I didn’t want to paint a series of pictures of suffering, of people eating out of dustbins. Painting is a very luxurious medium. I had to make pictures that were beautiful and challenging at the same time.”
Has she exhausted the subject? Not by a long shot. Littlewort’s follow-up project is a series of portraits. Artist Chad Rossouw took a series of portrait photographs for her at Ruth Prowse, in “perfect Dutch-style lighting” – which Littlewort is reinterpreting as a series of painted portraits which will hopefully be ready for exhibition at the South Gallery in December.
So what does Littlewort hope to achieve with this exhibition? One gets the feeling it’s not clear to her. Perhaps – as murky as the goal is – to issue a challenge. “Since 1994 there has been a frequent demand from white South Africans that black South Africans should get over the past,” she says. “In their view, the Apartheid era is lost in history now, and we should move forward. But when black UCT students called for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, it became apparent that many white South Africans are quite vociferously attached to quite minor details of a fairly distant past. So it becomes clear that the demand to ‘get over the past’ is not really about forgetting the past, but about prioritising one’s preferred version of the past over another.”
History as we understand it is not a bedrock of facts, but a selection of interpretations, she points out, and it’s written by the winners. “Art isn’t innocent,” she says. “Taste is not eroded by obscene wealth. Often, I post beautiful watercolours by Hitler on my Facebook page. People love it until they find out who painted it; then they become critical. The fact that you can appreciate light falling on a log doesn’t mean you’re not a genocidal fascist.” DM
* We Live in the Past opens at 99 Loop Street on 4 November and runs till 28 November.