Featured: Lizza Littlewort and the persistence of history

Lizza Littlewort is acutely cognisant of the past and the tangible hold it has over our present lived realities. Her body of work, We Live in the Past, is a biting critique of historical amnesia (but not without a sense of humour), and how this imperial-era attitude persist today. In this body of work, Lizza turns her painterly lens to the Dutch Masters’ canon, and refracts classical European fine art tropes into an array of sumptuous and kitsch paintings where still-lifes ooze and drip down the canvas, ‘stately’ figures leer lasciviously and classical landscapes appear martian and surreal. In this body of work Lizza interrogates this decadent ‘Golden’ age of European art (and history) to reminds us of the the colonial pursuit upon which it was built. Through her reinterpretation of famous works from this period, Lizza brings the past into the present to comment on the persisting prevalence of white privilege. “When we ask others not to live in the past,” she explains, “what we are actually asking is for them to prioritise our version of the past over theirs.” In light of recent events like #RhodesMustFall, We Live in the Past presents a sharp statement on contemporary South African attitudes. In this in-depth interview Lizza expands on her ideas about history and its pervasive hold over the present. 

Tragedy and Farce, from 'We Live in the Past'

Tragedy and Farce, from ‘We Live in the Past’

 Can you begin by telling us about the title of your new exhibition, We Live in the Past? The tense seems to imply that the past is always present. How does this relate to the themes in this body of work?

We are immersed in the past. Each word I’m writing here goes into the past as you read it. Likewise, these words are part of a language that was globalised by the British Empire, and that language is embedded in sets of concepts which were spread across Europe and into Britain by the Roman Empire.

Where we are today is thus immersed in a long tale about how various imperial forces fought over the world, carved it up into colonies, and imposed the laws, languages and social hierarchies which would keep them in power and make the most money for those at the centre of empire. Many wonderful things have happened as a result of accumulations of vast imperial wealth, and the Dutch masters’ paintings are one of them, but the whole picture cannot be understood without also seeing the dark side of imperialism… the violent subjugation and ransacking of resources of the conquered. The title of my show is a direct response to a demand many white South Africans make, that black South Africans should “get over the past”, in other words “get over” the damaging legacy of apartheid. I am countering with a reflection on how impossible it is for any of us to do that, because of the extent to which the past continues to create the present, in the form of laws, social norms, languages, hierarchies, systems of oppression, and also art treasures. We can’t cherry-pick which parts of the past we would like to keep without imposing our preferred “version” of the past over someone else’s. 

In this exhibition you’ve focused your attention and brushstrokes on the Golden Age of Dutch painting and the inextricable link between the art world and colonialism. In previous bodies of work you’ve painted critiques of rampant neoliberal capitalism, white privilege and artistic elitism. What role do you think art can play in effecting societal change?

“Art” in the sense we are discussing it here is part of the cultural package imposed across the world by imperialism. Art, literature and other cultural productions have historically been used mainly to flatter the powerful and make their wealth appear to be a result of their natural god-given superiority rather than, say, a galling absence of compassion.  Only after the badly-managed carnage of World War One and Two did levels of disillusionment with ruling orthodoxies start producing art in Europe which radically challenged the ideologies that led millions of Europeans into the killing fields. So in that sense, European art, literature, film, etc began to develop a more critical voice around that time. However, the killing fields in colonies were not and still are not widely recognised as a problem, because it is difficult for those marginalised by imperialism to have a voice at the centre of empire.  So, artists have certainly tried to use art to effect a critique of warmongering ideology. The current state of the world is testament to the resounding lack of influence art has. The stock market is booming as Western sabre-rattlers rave about bombing Syria following the recent carnage in Paris. War is big big BIG business. The most that art can do is participate in a tiny discussion about how war is possibly not very nice, in the hope that the chattering classes might accept this point. Only some of them ever have. The rest prefer art which doesn’t challenge their profits. 

An Embarrassment of Riches, from 'We Live in the Past'

An Embarrassment of Riches, from ‘We Live in the Past’

Slipping, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

Slipping, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

You seem to be very conscious and critical of your position as artist. Can you tell us about this, and also how this understanding might have changed over time? 

I’m conscious of my role as a white South African, and what the historical forces were that resulted in me being born here, and what my responsibilites are around that. It affects everything I do, and art is one of the things I do.

In your current and previous bodies of work, reinterpretations of traditional fine art tropes – still lifes, portraits, landscapes – feature prominently as subject matter. What conceptual or thematic function do these revisions have?

It is famously true that the best art is about art, like the best writing is about writing. So, artists who are conscious of history tend to rework historical tropes to examine the how we got here. This may not be obvious in South Africa, because we have such a small art world here, but in the generation known as the YBA in Britain, artists like Damian Hirst, Yinka Shonibare, Sarah Lucas, and many others used older, classical works as springboards for commentary. So in that sense, I am doing nothing different from thousands of others of my generation. Largely, what this generation has used these works to do, is to foreground the power structures that lie behind the creation of the art. Similarly to me, they have often examined imperialist or racist power structures, or global economic structures, as Damian Hirst did with his diamond skull, which is as much a reference to classical Dutch painting as anything I’ve done.

While We Live in the Past comments on the colonial legacy of the Dutch spice trade, it’s also a personal inquiry into your family history. Why include personal history?

I included my family in this discussion in order to show that I am as embedded in South Africa’s current problems as anyone else, so I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, but talking about a societal reality. My family were imperial profiteers, and the close connection in my own history between Dutch master painting and the VOC station at the Cape (father and son) shows how connected painting was to the Dutch imperial culture at the time.  This helps, for me, to make my point that art treasures are not innocent of politics, as they are so often assumed to be. The wealth which paid for Dutch art treasures was accrued through the plunder of the Spice Islands, and resulted in thousands upon thousands of dead and displaced people, many of whom were exiled to the Cape.

A Reliable History of the Spice Trade, from 'We Live in the Past'

A Reliable History of the Spice Trade, from ‘We Live in the Past’

Jakob Willemzoon de Wet Arrives at the Cape, from 'We Live in the Past'

Jakob Willemzoon de Wet Arrives at the Cape, from ‘We Live in the Past’

A survey of your work from the last 10 years reveals a wide range of styles, adapted to the subject matter being explored. Can you tell us a little about the way in which you approach your medium and visual style?

A cursory glance at the art history books will show that art has focussed on particular stylistic issues at particular historical moments. I have been searching for an approach which I think works for this historical moment, and it has taken lots of exploration to find it. I am interested in working in a way which is totally painterly, and yet also causes one to re-look at painting.  The Russian critic Victor Schklovsky commented that the purpose of art is to make the familiar seem strange, to make us look at it with new eyes. I guess I’m trying to find a way to look at painting with new eyes. I think pretty much all thinking people who paint are interested in doing that.

The Ideological Layer Cake, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

The Ideological Layer Cake, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

Recurring visual motifs in your more recent work include toxic neon colours and oozing or melting forms. Are these visual metaphors? What do they speak to?

I am interested in re-using and mashing together different genres which have arisen during the history of painting, to create hybrids that work across genres. After the European “World Wars” I & II, there was an emerging sense that European culture, with its industrial-scale wars, was absurd, and this gave rise most famously to Dadaism, which engaged in splicing up imagery into collages which broke down their meaning, thereby attempting to break down the ideological narrative used to justify war. Along with Dada, there were also Surrealism, which created a sense of absurdity, and paint techniques like Max Ernst’s “frottage” and “grottage” which enabled the paint itself to create unexpected and bizarre imagery. What I am doing here is using these techniques which Europeans invented to critique the European killing fields, and applying them to the colonial killing fields, if you like. 

The Night Watch, from 'We Live in the Past'

The Night Watch, from ‘We Live in the Past’

What role does humour play in your work? 

When one is countering ruling orthodoxies, as the Dadaists were after the World Wars, one is constantly tempted to use the strategy of sending them up, because often there is no other way of expressing oneself. So, jokey art was a big part of Dadaism, and has been a big part of contemporary art ever since. So I am very normal in that sense. Often, people think I’m being funny when I’m being perfectly serious, too. I suppose I am a generally droll kind of person.

You’ve said that your research for your Masters dissertation in English Literature influenced this exhibition. What else inspires your artistic practice? 

Mainly, I think, I am inspired by an internal battle between two things. One is that I am a total aesthete and a sucker for beautiful things, so I want to make oil paintings because often they are the only way a broke-ass person like me can spend all day around lovely surfaces and colours.  The other thing as that I am confronted every day by being a white South African, caught forever in a physical location that embodies so much colonial confrontation and historical tension. Europeans don’t have to think about this quite as much because they tend to outsource this kind of confrontation to distant places they can’t see, and Americans and Australians don’t have to think about this quite as much because they have all but exterminated the indigenous people whose land they took. For us white South Africans of colonial descent, though, we live in the midst of an enormous population of indigenous people whose needs and predicaments we can’t help encountering, whether we respond to that with elitist denial or with a will to address the enormous legacy of the last four centuries. No matter which way one approaches it, is it stressful, because it raises questions we don’t have answers for, and so we need to keep asking and thinking and learning all the time. The tension between these two sources of inspiration results for me in questions about the politics of beauty. Beauty is problematic because it is often culturally conditioned and serves imperial hegemonies. It helps to position certain values as superior to others. And it has a reputation for innocence and goodness when often it is deployed by very evil people. 

So, how does one work in such a way as to challenge this power while making beautiful things? Issues like these make up a massive and constant visual dialogue criss-crossing between artists all over the world. I can only hope to participate in this huge discussion in some small way.

Zayaan Kahn with a Pearl Earring, from 'We Live in the Past'

Zayaan Kahn with a Pearl Earring, from ‘We Live in the Past’

The Concealing Habit of White Entitlement, from 'We Live in the Past'

The Concealing Habit of White Entitlement, from ‘We Live in the Past’

Being so interested in history, do you perhaps have any postulations about the future? How would you visually render this? 

It doesn’t take rocket science to see how constrained the future is by the past. The systematic de-privileging of indigenous South Africans has left us with catastrophic issues to which there is going to be no magical solution. The future will be a hard struggle against the same ideological systems we have been fighting throughout history. Marx pointed out that all history is the history of class struggle, and the French say “Plus ca change,” which our friend Google defines as an saying “used to express resigned acknowledgement of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.” So, I would render this in whatever way was communicable at the time.

Anything else you might like to add?

Just a big thank you for inviting me to participate in this discussion.


Low Hanging Fruit, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

Low Hanging Fruit, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

Eavesdropping, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

Eavesdropping, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

Horse in the Snow, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

Horse in the Snow, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

The Custodian of History, from 'We Live in the Past'

The Custodian of History, from ‘We Live in the Past’

Roman Dutch Law,  from 'We Live in the Past'

Roman Dutch Law, from ‘We Live in the Past’

Still Life with White Hyperbole, from 'We Live in the Past'

Still Life with White Hyperbole, from ‘We Live in the Past’

The Budget Proposal, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

The Budget Proposal, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

Still Life with Minataur, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

Still Life with Minataur, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

The Invisible Worm, from 'The Broker's Coke Dream'

The Invisible Worm, from ‘The Broker’s Coke Dream’

Between 10 and 5