Lizza Littlewort reinterprets Old Masters through sardonic new eyes.
by Wamuwi Mbao
THIS year the National Arts Festival commemorated satire, a genre of criticism that has always acted as a tocsin against the excesses of power in South Africa. Whether it’s the iconic work of Anton Kannemeyer or the pointedly parodic critique of Chester Missing, satire works by estranging us from familiar things, that we might perceive their absurdity more clearly.
So it proves with Lizza Littlewort’s new exhibition, “We” Live in the Past”. On show at Cape Town’s 99 Loop Street Gallery, it is an adroit examination of the European imperial project and its relation to the works of the Old Masters. The title presupposes our familiarity with the past, even as the paintings disrupt that comfort. Taking as her departure point famous paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and others, Littlewort transforms these images into ciphers for stories about the unseen absurdity of European art history. The exhibit forces the artworks to yield new meanings about their creation. Her absurdism implicates the viewer, as the exhibition challenges our passive consumption of canonical art. We laugh, because the images are often genuinely funny, but also because they surprise us by undermining the seriousness of the images they remix.
Littlewort deconstructs, reconstructs and interrupts, often effacing the originals the better to make sense of historical trajectories. She splashes neon across genteel scenes like the intrusion of context against the selectiveness of historical narrative. In Roman Dutch Law, she hitches a spangly Dutch carriage to an Nguni bull, referencing the ghastly absurdity of transplanted laws whose impact on indigenous African people was catastrophic.
When I press her on the bravery involved in challenging these works the way she does, she responds: “Finding a language in which to make this kind of statement was difﬁcult . .. studying postcolonial literary criticism and history, I began to get a fuller and truly staggering picture of what had gone down, and where I stood. Finally, I felt empowered to make paintings which I felt I could position within this overarching historical context.”
Littlewort has long been taken up with rendering visible the processes by which white life is made the unexamined norm. Her 2005 exhibit, “Drawing on a White Background”, subjected the self-mythologizing delusions of South Africa’s white coterie to sharply witty scrutiny. With this exhibit, which runs until November 28, she recon— structs hidden histories, exposing the banality behind the historical continuum of white privilege.
“We Live in the Past” owes much to Edward Said and JM Coetzee, but it goes beyond these literary interventions in order to trouble relations between past and the present. One of the exhibition’s most trenchant thematics concerns how white South Africans often responded negatively to the Rhodes Must Fall protests. Historic Panic Mill references this directly, relocating Rembrandt’s The Mill to Rhodes Memorial, where the mill waves its arms in panic over the landscape.
These works foreground the proximity of the artist. A mouthily unfamiliar name — Jakob Willemzoon de Wet — turns out to be Littlewort’s forebear. How he arrives at the Cape highlights how historical narratives are stopped up and blurred; Littlewort transforms the supposedly straightforward landing into a smearing of shapes where only the Africanness of the landscape is emphasised.
For Littlewort, born and raised in middle- class Rondebosch, the exhibition accesses a self-reﬂexive moment not often found in South African satirical experiments. In The Bankrolling of the Rijksmuseum we see her disdain for the vaunted pomp and ceremony found in Dutch representations of ships anchoring at the Cape. The paintings ask us to reconsider what is not seen.
“We Live in the Past” asks us to understand art as occurring within a wider set of cultural practices than the originals admit. Littlewort sets these ostensibly immobile artworks in motion, creating an alternate archive into which different and more nuanced meanings can be read. They dialogue not only with the works to which they refer, but also with the contexts of exploitation that enabled the works to be produced. LS