Self as Ghost: Haunted whiteness in Lizza Littlewort’s painting

Posted on: November 12, 2019 in Asai by Lize van Robbroeck

Link to Original Article

“In great pain and terror one begins to access the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according a principle more humane and more liberating: one begins to attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history” – James Baldwin [1]

As a composite of ‘haunting’ and ‘ontology’, Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ provides a way of dealing with the spectral presence of a past that is very much with us. [2] Since hauntology is an attempt to make sense of a haunted present, it is a practice that responds particularly to times that are ‘out of joint’. [3] Lizza Littlewort’s forays into South African colonial history can be interpreted as such a hauntological investigation into the ways in which Western capitalist exploitation caused global diasporic spatial and temporal disjunctions not only for the colonised, but also for a settler subject that is haunted by her own ontological displacement. In her more recent works, this interest in the haunted aftermath of global capitalism expands to encompass the apocalyptic environmental effects and affects of the Capitalocene. [4]

As much as hauntology is concerned with beginnings, Derrida cautions that a nostalgic longing for authentic origins (to launch utopian futures) is integral to the very Western metaphysics that provided the rationale and justification for global domination. The pursuit of origins classically leads to explanatory Grand Historical Narratives that reduce complex, entangled events to a linear sequence of causes and consequences, which line up to culminate in the cultural, scientific and economic triumph of the West. In a way, Littlewort’s art tracks precisely such a chain of events, but stripped bare of any trace of telos, redemption, or superiority. She tells the same story, using the same lexicon, but lays bare its moral bankruptcy, hypocrisy and pretension. In that sense, her work can be described as an anti-historical history. This anti-historical history constitutes a systematic critique of the successive macro-narratives of “western civilization” as they responded to different stages of capitalism. In tracing the stages of capitalism from its early mercantile phases (when the Cape was established), through settler colonialism and apartheid, with its peculiar inter-subjective dynamics, to the unmitigated greed-fest of contemporary neo-liberalism, Littlewort engages this story of avarice and settler white complicity with a mixture of horror, shame, wry absurdity, and, more recently, personal retrospection and a hint of redemption. Her latest works departs from scathing critique to explore a more enigmatic and affective space – a space that helps us to not only make peace with the past, but also to deal with the deep ecological sadness accompanying the apocalyptic consequences of this totalizing history.

Her first solo exhibition consisted of large, boldly coloured and exquisitely rendered portraits of recent graduates from UCT’s art school. While the scale and painterly accomplishment of these oil paintings makes for an enjoyable visual experience, the title, I want to be Famous hints at a sustained target of her future exhibitions: The white South African art scene. As the playground of suburbanites, this art world is characterized by derivative games, ambition and petty rivalry which serves, in Littlewort’s scalding satire, as a microcosm of white settler privilege. Her next exhibition, Drawings on a White background, consisted of a series of cartoons she made for the Michaelis Art Shop in 2005. Here she abandons the striking big paintings and their accompanying bold aesthetic in favour of anti-aesthetic sketches of various sizes. She draws on her background as illustrator to mobilise the full arsenal of satirical weapons: irony, sarcasm, ridicule and exaggeration, to show up the pretensions, infantile rebellions, rampant insecurities and smug entitlement of the white inhabitants of the art zoo. Each drawing is titled to identify the target with relentless precision. We see revealed a nasty cocktail of oedipal inferiority and envy towards the mainstream “first world” art scene, accompanied by the ‘whitely habits’ of self-congratulatory, trite games and puerile transgressions that characterize much contemporary ‘avant garde’ practice. The structural embeddedness of white privilege is bought home in Early drawings on a white background, which shows an infant drawing on the wall with crayons, while an exasperated domestic worker, dressed in standard depersonalising ‘maid’s’ uniform with matching apron and doek, stands by with brush and detergent at the ready. It is clear that what launched this scathing exploration is an acute awareness of how her own interpellation into the rituals of white culture emanates from precisely such a deep, structurally encoded privilege.

Early drawings on a white background, 2005. Watercolour, 21 x 29.7 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

This foray into satirical cartoons continue in The Paris Salon (Whatiftheworld Gallery, 2006) in which settler whiteness is attacked in the form of American heiress and socialite, Paris Hilton, whose egocentric vanity and entitlement makes her an extreme variant of the white princess. That Paris represents, in this exhibition, a global spoilt settler woman is brought home in Paris fucking Corporal Theunis Barkhuizen on his Dad’s Safari Ranch in Rhodesia, 1976, a cartoonish watercolour sketch in which Paris stands in for a rich white Rhodesian debutante in flagrante with a conscript soldier in the back of a Nissan bakkie. Visual quotations of Fragonard abound, whose frivolous Rococo paintings of French 18th century high society parallel the hedonistic mindlessness of trust-fund babies whose inherited privilege render them impervious to the socio-economic costs of their wealth. Whereas Fragonard painted his rosy frivolities in the build-up to the French revolution, Paris’ ‘Rhodesian’ decadence takes place against the backdrop of desperate national liberation struggles in Africa.

Paris fucking Corporal Theunis Barkhuizen on his Dad’s Safari Ranch in Rhodesia, 1976, 2005. Watercolour, 21 x 29.7 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

This concern with global whiteliness, and its manifestation in South Africa, is amplified in Where the trouble started (Whatiftheworld Gallery, 2008). As in the previous two exhibitions, the lay-out consists of a collage of sketches and paintings, mostly small and unframed, that are mounted on the wall like a mind-map diagrammatically suggesting an up-ended Christmas tree. South African whiteness is symbolized by an abundance of kitsch snow scenes suggesting a displaced, unhomely whiteness. The White Woods, a vista of snow-covered pine trees with ghostly eyes, evokes a line-up of Klu Klux Klansmen, and a snowman against a psychedelic sunset speaks of a curious, dislocated being, replete with sentiment for a past and a home that (in Derrida’s understanding of the term ‘nostalgia’), never existed. The unequivocal angry cartooning of the previous shows makes way here for something altogether more disturbing. The wry humour is replaced by something sinister, and the exposure of the South African art scene no longer takes on a satirical character, but is directly addressed in accompanying exegeses, one of which explains, with excruciating insight, why art in-jokes are doomed to fail in the margins of the post-colony. Rather than managing to attain an edgy humour, the text cautions, “you go over the edge and fall off the map altogether and become a lost, crazy person, and instead of being funny, you just become scary and people kind of back away from you.” Indeed the exhibition suggests precisely such a state of mental isolation and alien outlandishness, a strangeness amplified by the application of a new painting technique, in which transparent washes replace the broad, confident oil strokes of her earlier portraits, and the illustrative line-work of her cartoons.

My Heart is Melting, 2007. 40 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

Henceforth her exhibitions continue, with growing confidence, to explore this striking new painting technique. Whereas her first solo exhibition displayed her command of an accomplished, painterly aesthetic, and her following two exhibitions built on her experience as illustrator, this new painting style is altogether more suited to an exploration of uncanny whiteness, and would become her distinct signature.

The ghostly, indistinct, under-water effects become more confident, and more surreal, in her next exhibition, We Live in the Past (2015). Here she engages historical whiteness (and white art) in a more complex manner. The title invites a hauntological reading, and compels us to read our South African present through a revival of historical European paintings. A complex causality is revealed, one which requires us to insert the ‘Golden Age’ of 17th century Dutch art into the broader frame of European Imperialism, which brought us to our contemporary, degraded neo-liberal world, in which former and current settler colonies occupy most of the world’s geography, and where white settlers carry inordinate influence and wealth.

Each of the paintings in We Live in the Past is a loose quotation of a Dutch ‘masterpiece’, which is refigured to draw attention to the brutal avarice and genocidal excesses that accompanied the acquisition of wealth that bankrolled Europe’s much vaunted High Cultural sophistication. The title of one of these paintings, Tragedy and Farce, an appropriation of Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier, references Marx’s famous dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This not only captures Littlewort’s hauntological intent, but also declares her Marxist undertaking to uncover the economic base of the ideological superstructure of the Dutch Golden Age. [5]

Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, sees the militia guards reduced to small, near-transparent figures against a melting landscape reminiscent of the Surrealist Max Ernst’s Europe after the Rain (1940-42). This denatured, strange and uncanny space is the terrain of the postcolony, and that it reminds of Europe After the Rain is apt, because no other work of art better explores the devastation, and the twisted and ruined aftermath of military invasion. The landscape is rendered in ghostly greys, pinks and blues, and seems to be inset with shapes uncomfortably like eyes. In some places it seems to be cracking, in others it boils or erupts with strange shapes. The indistinctness of the landscape, and its surreal uncanniness, invites pareidolia, so that ephemeral ghostly faces appear the haunt the scene. If landscape is the settler artist’s métier, in Littlewort’s painting, this quintessential settler appropriative claim to ownership is troubled by the land itself, which seems to be disturbingly animated, as though dreamt or hallucinated.

The Night Watch, 2015. Oil on board, 80 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

That the exhibition, We Live in Past, was produced during the Rhodes-Must-Fall protests at UCT is significant, since this event, which launched the student protests that rocked South African universities for years, compelled a re-visitation of the remains of self-glorifying European heritage in the South African postcolony. This has a personal significance for Littlewort, who references the works of direct ancestor Jakob Willemzoon de Wet the Elder (a Dutch painter and art dealer, whose son occupied a powerful position in the Dutch East India Company in the Cape of Good Hope), in order to “make my comments about the continuities between past and present more personal, embedding them in my own family history.” [6] [7]

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was a megacorporate trading company, the most powerful in the 17th century, and can be regarded as the harbinger of our current trans-national corporate neo-liberal economy. Between them, the VOC and its sister company the Dutch West India Company governed the Eastern and Western trade routes, and was responsible for the establishment of the two settler cities, New York and Cape Town, a few decades apart, on two continents. The VOC was the source of most of the riches that flowed like manna from India through the cities of Harlem (hometown of Jakob Willemzoon) and Amsterdam, and through which, increasingly, goods from all over the world flowed to Europe (including South African wine). Unprecedented wealth created a market for cultural capital, which was supplied by the Grand Masters of the Dutch Golden Age. This wealth was modern wealth, it belonged to the growing middle-classes, and catered to their tastes – smaller works for the home, such as still-lives and portraits, and big works on commission by rich companies, such as the private militia company who commissioned The Nightwatch. This is depressingly familiar and sends a clear message: Littlewort owes her own privilege (including the privilege to study, make and sell art), to the brutal and exploitative mercantile capitalism of her early modern ancestors, which led to settler colonialism and her family’s occupation of indigenous people’s land, which produced the goods that fostered her own art-making that is in turn absorbed into this same spiral of settler middle-class consumption and status. This is the mechanism that drives the enculturation of capital, and it happens against a backdrop of slavery, genocide, dispossession, Apartheid, displacement and precarity.

In Jakob Willemzoon de Wet arrives at the Cape Littlewort examines her “complicity and predicament as one who directly benefits from Dutch merchants’ wealth and power”. [8] Since her ancestral family owned farms in the western Cape, she explores the links between this settler land occupation and a fictitious landing, in the style of countless scenes of colonial settlement, of her ancestor at the Cape. There is the Dutch ship in the background, the distinct edge of table mountain, and figures disembarking from the landing boat, with a lavish, baroque carriage waiting to receive them. All this is suggested, rather than overtly stated, because the figures are rendered indistinct by a grey-green ectoplasm that seems to cover them. Again, it is as though we see this scene through a film of slimy substance. There is a strange beauty to the spectacle, but it is a disquieting beauty. The momentous pomp and splendour of these scenes of arrival become ominous, the figures appearing to rise from the sea like ghouls. The conventions of realism, which this composition evokes, are undone, and indeed, this undoes the entire ideology of European realism, which aimed at naturalising cultural constructs by rendering them realistically.

Jakob Willemzoon de Wet Arrives at the Cape, 2015. Oil on board, 80 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

Just as these paintings subvert the ideological purpose of realism, they also, with exquisite irony, subvert the moralistic messages that accompanied much 17th century Dutch art. The genre of the ‘memento mori’, in particular, is grimly amplified in An Embarrassment of Riches, which sports no less than five skulls, again covered in a slimy substance, as well as the customary flowers and guttering candle signifying impermanence and the fragility of life’s pleasures. [9] Though similar in medium, size and style, Littlewort’s still-lives depart significantly from their 17th century Dutch progenitors. While the former first allow the viewer to enjoy the sensory pleasures of eating, drinking, and viewing, before counterbalancing these joys with subtle reminders of their ephemeral nature, ‘An Embarrassment’ literally drips with excess, decay and gore. Two still lifes, Still Life with Tumeric and Ginger and Still Life with Javanese Fish, refer to the spice route as that which brought her ancestors to Africa, but also serve as portents of the global economy which is subsuming all planetary life to the logic of human greed. Oil paintings of lavish tables, hunted animals, plucked flowers, golden vases and goblets, may contain edifying moral warnings, but fundamentally they function to advertise the owner’s ability to consume. As John Berger reminds us in Ways of Seeing: “oil paintings did to appearance what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a ‘commodity’.” [10]

Littlewort’s paintings are beautiful, but their beauty is toxic rather than seductive. Colours are either too bright, or too muted, and they swim together, like a film of oil on water. Paint runs and bubbles, or is applied in so many overlapping, thin washes that the subject melts before our eyes. A case in point is the striking self-portrait, History Repeating Myself where the artist models herself on Rembrandt’s portrait of Haesje van Cleyburgh. The robust, plain face of the wife of a wealthy Rotterdam beer brewer becomes, in Littlewort’s rendition, a ghostly apparition who stares out of a dissolving face with watery blue eyes filled with a knowing dread.

History Repeating Myself, 2015. Oil on board, 80 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

One of the most striking works is based on a painting by her ancestor, Jakob Willemzoon, of a clutch of dead birds, including a swan, against a Italianate landscape background. The swan is appropriated entire, and re-positioned against the slopes of Table Mountain, as though it crash-landed there, an improbable white spectacle of fussy feathers against blood-red rock and arid background landscape. Titled Still Life with White Hyperbole, the heavy-handed symbolism and derivative Italianate style of Willemzoon comes to embody the pretention, opulence and pomp of dead ‘white culture’, stranded on the southern-most tip of the African coast. But this striking swan carries with it a foreboding of the radical unbelonging of whiteness to Africa, settler protestations of love for the African land notwithstanding.

Still Life with White Hyperbole, 2015. Oil on board, 80 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

Littlewort’s subsequent body of work, The Broker’s Coke dream: a History of the Present Age, returns to the unmitigated loathing of white entitlement that gave rise to the Paris Salon as she shifts the focus of her gaze to Neoliberal excess and the obscene inequalities this engenders. The theme of corrupted still life continues in paintings such as The Invisible Worm (a reference to William Blake’s poem by the same name), and an enormous pink and white bridal confection called The Ideological Layer Cake. The haunted quality of We Live in the Past makes way for a return to the scathing edge of her earlier work in paintings such as Ayn Cultur, a ghastly amalgam of Ayn Rand and Ann Coulter, the American far right media pundit and advocate of Ayn Rand’s unapologetic unbridled capitalism.

Her last two exhibitions, both at Loop Street Gallery, take a new direction. Her characteristic painting technique is applied to evoke a mysterious, oblique engagement with our global current predicament of climate change and the Anthropocene. This foray into the Anthropocene takes her hauntological inquiry into the future, since hauntology was also described by Derrida as a nostalgia for lost futures. In fact, Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (in which he developed the concept of hauntology), was a critical comment on Fukuyama’s celebration of the ‘success’ of global capitalism, which he saw as the Hegelian realization of the universal, utopian human ideal society. [11] That this ‘success’ of capitalism could, however, literally spell the ‘end of history’ and ‘the last of man’, was perhaps not foreseen by either Derrida or Fukuyama, neither of whom interpreted these aphorisms in their literal, apocalyptic sense. In this global moment, where the full harrowing effects of escalating human consumption is becoming clear, hauntology is more appropriate than ever. The Great Grief (Loop Street Gallery, 2016), as the title suggests, captures the distress, sadness and helplessness that accompanies awareness of the full catastrophic effects of global warming which accompanies unbridled capitalism in our late-modern age. Titles of works hint at a combination of haunted feelings: The Howling Id, the Geopolitics of Extinction, The Fourth Horseworm of the Apocalypse.

A spectral atmosphere hangs over these paintings of glowing tree-trunks, starlit night scenes, and animated water (see, for instance, Angry Waves Consumed the Imperial Cavalry). Strange, dreamlike worlds are evoked, animated by an immanent and unstoppable force that seems to have nothing to do with human activity. These works may best be described as an inquiry into the affective power of the material world, that which, in our hubris, we once described as ‘nature’, and perceived as a picturesque backdrop to our momentous activities, and instrumentalised as an endless resource. The Great Grief includes no human figures, but allows plants, the elements and gnarled tree-trunks to do the speaking. Here, her medium of oil on board or on aluminium seems to acquire a life of its own, as though animated by the same energy as the material it is rendering.

Angry Waves Consumed the Imperial Cavalry, 2016. Oil on aluminium, 80 x 120 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

In It Seemed To Throw a Kind of Light (Loop Street Gallery, 2018), Littlewort now paints human figures as part of a rich, embodied and situated world, and so moves away from the deconstructive aims of her historical exhibitions, which dealt with the undoing of Grand Narratives and Western metaphysics. One can describe this as a shift from human stories to material stories, which sees the human as but one manifestation of energy/matter: “geological, biological, and cosmic stories … compel us to envision the physical world as storied matter teeming with countless narrative agencies that infiltrate every imaginable space and make the world intelligible.” [12] The title of this exhibition derives from an enigmatic painting (Guiding Light) of two children running into the ocean towards a light emanated by a strange form rising from the ocean. This creature seems to be part of the ocean, as though a funnel of water rose from the sea to beckon the children. These strange scenes demand no literal reading from us, but rather invites submersion, as a dream invites us to sink into its strangeness.

Guiding Light, 2018. Oil on paper, 21 x 29.7 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

The shift in subject matter and affect in these last two exhibitions is momentous, and mirrors a similar shift in critical theory from an emphasis on culture and representation, to a re-imagination of materiality. As the Posthumanist scholar Rosi Braidotti points out, New Materialism builds on the critical undoing of Western Metaphysics and the anthropocentric traditions of Western humanism by the philosophers of the cultural turn, by engaging materiality and embodiment, which had been left behind in the relentless focus on representation, language and the symbolic. New Materialist Scholars regard the re-imagination of materiality as essential to the project of the Post-Anthopocene. How can we imagine a material world in which human centrality and domination is undone? One way, they suggest, is to recognise that matter has agency, and that it has its own organizing abilities. Donna Haraway uses the term “semiotic materiality” to describe the signifying power of matter. The self-determining and self-organising capacity of matter (autopoeisis), is not confined to organic matter, but also to inorganic materials. This is the poetry of stars, water, and all embodied creatures. This vital materiality allows us to think stories and matter through each other. It is this semiotic materiality that dissolves even our most stubborn dichotomy: the distinction between animate and inanimate; organic and inorganic. Paintings such as The Composter not only captures this teeming energy that occupies all matter, but also retrieves older, situated human knowledges and technologies that worked with, rather than against, this rich, teeming, self-organising planetary life.

The Composter, 2018. Oil on board, 60 x 80 cm. Courtesy: Lizza Littlewort

As such, one can describe Littlewort’s career as following a slow and at times painfully raw redemptive path from scathing fury, to a shamed and painful sensitivity about the horrors of whiteness, to a sadder, kinder re-enchantment with our intricate connectedness and entanglement with our material worlds that are so irrevocably damaged by capitalist excess.

Lize van Robbroeck is Professor in Visual Studies in the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University.

 

Notes:

[1] Turner, Awakening to Race, 109.
[2] The term ‘hauntology’ was first used by Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx (1993) to describe the way in which communist ideals continue to haunt the capitalist present. In the dedication to the book, Derrida refers to apartheid, which makes this application of hauntology to Littlewort’s highly political art all the more appropriate: “One name for another, a part for the whole: the historic violence of Apartheid can always be treated as a metonymy. In its past as well as in its present. By diverse paths (condensation, displacement, expression, or representation), one can always decipher through its singularity so many other kinds of violence going on in the world. At once part, cause, effect, example, what is happening there translates what takes place here, always here, wherever one is and wherever one looks, closest to home. Infinite responsibility, therefore, no rest allowed for any form of good conscience”. (Derrida, Specters of Marx, XiV)
[3] Derrida frequently refers to Marx’s famous dictum, “times are out of joint” in Specters of Marx.
[4] This term is used by the posthumanist scholar Donna Haraway as an alternative for the Anthropocene, and is used to draw attention to the capitalist economic underpinnings of our ruinous human practices.
[5] Of interest here, is that Derrida developed the concept of hauntology in relation to the repeated return of Marxism which haunts capitalist totalization.
[6] Littlewort cited in White, “Lizza Littlewort’s We Live in the Past.”
[7] Niklas Zimmer points out that Littlewort’s archival researches into her family history delivered few certainties except that he was an official of the Dutch East India Company. This vagueness is significant, because it points at the constructedness of the family myths and narratives of Littlewort’s youth.
[8] Littlewort, ‘Artist’s Statement’.
[9] The title is a reference to Art Historian, Simon Schama’s An Embarrassment of Riches (1987).
[10] Berger, Ways of Seeing, 87.
[11] Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man (1989) proposed that the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the global triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, and hence the final destination of human socio-cultural development, as foreseen by Hegel in his concept of a collective, historical human spirit.
[12] Oppermann, “Material Ecocriticism and the Creativity of Storied Matter”, 57.

Bibliography:

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972).

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of Our Debt, The Work of Mourning and the New international (New York and London: Routledge, 2006, translated by Peggy Kamuf) (first published 1993)

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1 (2015): 159-165.

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005).

Littlewort. Lizza. ‘Artist’s Statement about Dutch works referred to in “We Live in the Past”,’ Lizza Littlewort, 2015. Accessed August 8, 2019. //lizzalittlewort.co.za/dutch-master-paintings-referred-to-in-we-live-in-the-past/

Oppermann, Serpil. “Material Ecocriticism and the Creativity of Storied Matter,” Journal of Literary Studies 26, no. 2 (Ecocriticism special issue, 2013): 55-69.

Samuelson, Meg. “(Un)lawful subjects of Company: Reading Cape Town from Tavern of the Seas to Corporate City,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial studies 16, no. 6 (2014): 795-817.

Simon, Schama. An Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpreation of Dutch Culture of the Golden Age (Vintage books 1997, first published 1987).

Turner, Jack. Awakening to Race: Individualism and Social Consciousness in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

White, Josh. “Lizza Littlewort’s We Live in the Past,” The World Weekly, 2015. Accessed September 10, 2019. //www.theworldweekly.com/reader/view/2022/lizza-littleworts-we-live-in-the-past

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