Making space for the dream and poetry in Kitso Lynn Lelliott’s work

Describing herself as a “nomad in time”, Johannesburg-based multi-media artist Kitso Lynn Lelliott creates work that reverberates with the weight of absence. “I am interested in troubling the hierarchies between different ways of knowing,” she says, and quietly disrupts hegemonic narratives by inserting ‘forgotten’ or marginalised voices into these histories to create a space in her work where the past and present shift, unsettle and fuse.

Her film and installation works refer and defer to each another, offering fragments of wholes that fall short just on the margin of coming fully into being. Fascinated with the notion of palimpsest, Kitso builds opaque layers in her work which are inhabited by ghostly figures. These shades refer simultaneously to the absence in history as well as critically destabilise the very process of erasure.

Locating her work in specific and historically charged sites, Kitso’s work is haunting, a sacred reckoning for the voices that history has overwritten. Her films are like doorways through which the present occupies the past to engage with narratives moving in and out of settled form creating space for the elided to emerge.

Kitso’s work has shown at film festivals and exhibited in galleries and museum shows around the world including Africa in Motion, Cine Sud, Cap au Sud, Tri-Continental Film Festival, Next Reel Film Festival, the Uganda Museum, Galerija101 Lithuania, Goethe on Main, Nubuke Foundation gallery in Accra and the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Still from By And By Some Trace Remains

Installation view of By And By Some Trace Remains

How did you find your way to film and what appeals to you about this medium?

I have been a bit obsessed with film for most of my life. When I was little I was always a bit of a loner and without many friends I would just indulge in the fantasy of film. I was a glutton for the moving image and experiencing somewhere fantastical beyond my own immediate reality. I think now, as I have grown, it is this kind of capacity to compose on reality that I am drawn to in cinema. It’s the uncanniness of the medium, how it’s so close to the way we experience ‘reality’ and, once you buy into the world of a film, the way it carries you through experiences and possibilities. It’s those moments you remain suspended in that I find so powerful. You literally commit those minutes or hours of your life to experiencing something other and it leaves its impression, its mark, amongst the accumulation of things that we pick up as we move through life and that make us. It’s taking time away from how you see and entering the world as it’s presented from another’s imagining in a way that is oftentimes quite emotive and ultimately is very intimate. Because you access it in this emotive way film is quite accessible as a medium and a language, which is also one of the major reasons I’ve gravitated towards it. You don’t have to explicitly understand all the rules and language of the form in order to experience and feel it. It says what it says and does what it does in ways that can be accessed on many levels that don’t necessarily preclude someone who is unfamiliar with it on a formal level. Cinema is magical for me, a projection of light and colour that you fall into other worlds through, meditate, contemplate, feel all the things.

How does your academic work influence and inform your artistic work?

It is a bit tricky for me to really make a distinction between the two as the questions and preoccupations I am immersed in in my academic work are part and parcel of what is happening on the creative side. They are both creative actually; creative, interrogative and about working through whatever enquiry is at hand. They just take different forms in their articulations of the things that are possessing me and demanding my attention. I like to let them weave through each other with the processes of research and ‘production’ or materialising of ideas/questions/possibilities from each doing the work of articulation across both spaces. They intrude on each other, pushing and growing and deepening the knowledges pertaining to the enquiry at hand and also more generally in terms of interfering with what is deemed as being within the bounds of what is legitimate in relation to ways of Knowing and coming to Know.

How do the stylistic elements in your films and installations convey or evoke thematic concerns?  

Oh, this is constantly changing depending on the project or piece at hand. I’m really interested in palimpsest and layers of difference combining to produce a plural, fractured whole that is always incomplete. My installations kind of take this on quite literally, where there are many elements that are fragments of a whole that remains open, never quite complete because each installation is more like a node, a moment of presentation in an ongoing process of engaging with interlinked questions and spaces. There is often repetition across videos and installations where a gesture from one is only completed in another so they relay across each other, and rely on a reading across them to be ‘complete’. It’s a sort of refusal to be finite. In the videos the pictures tend to be layered, but lightly, ghostly, there is a soft opacity, an almost not there-ness to the way I like to treat images. I like quiet images where there is space to think and breath and spend time in the moment and in the proposition being offered. Even when the image is busy I still try to maintain a quietness, if this is through the pace, the tone, the movement – I like to leave space for thoughts to gather on themselves. I am drawn to a sense of something being just in the process of becoming and being caught in that not yet fully material space. It is in a way when something is more suggested than presented and there is space left for a viewer to compose on what they are viewing. So again there is this sense of lightness, echoes, suggestions, hauntings that I keep circling around conceptually, thematically and aesthetically. I think it’s the sense of possibility that this still-coming-into-being presets that I’m curious about and hooked on. There is a polemic against totalising forms of knowledge which I find in these light, fractured gestures towards the unknown, the unknowable and the gaps.

i-was-her-and-she-was-me-and-those-we-might-become-1 i-was-her-and-she-was-me-and-those-we-might-become

Still from I Was Her And She Was Me And Those We Might Become

Stills from I Was Her And She Was Me And Those We Might Become

What are some of the key themes or ideas that you’re exploring in your current work?

Time and how we imagine it, inhabit it, or how it inhibits us is something that I’m preoccupied with at the moment, well in general actually. It’s just the ways that it is articulated that shifts. I recently read something by Ian Baucom describing how “what-has-been is, cannot be undone, cannot cease to alter all the future-presents that flow out of it. Time does not pass or progress, it accumulates”. I just read this in passing but it captures something I find intriguing and I am definitely going to be getting my hands on and delving into that book.

So there is this intense presenting of the past which is not past but present and this has been articulated through the language of the ghostly, hauntings, the spectral but also through ancestrality, memory, dreaming and imagining. It’s an imagining informed or guided by being and becoming in a way that is determined or guided by these deep haunting present histories that saturate the experience of the living. So it’s really about paying attention to speaking towards the presence of what’s there but doing so opaquely, in those indirect ways while respecting that opacity and not insisting on locking it down with a kind of rigidity that closes down possibility. It is this idea around opacity that I have been chewing on, gnawing on really, how to not only capture a sense of it in the images but also in the processes of coming to the image.

“I am interested in troubling the hierarchies between different ways of knowing. History is a way of articulating this in a less abstract way I think,”

A ghost-like figure recurs in a lot of your work. Who is this liminal figure and what does she represent?  

I think she is the shadowy bits of us that we are denied. She is about different things in different works, but I think that is the through line of her presence/non-presence. She is an agent of sorts, of the histories that are not within the archive, whose trace is immaterial. She presences those absences, embodies them and notes their absence. She also marks the things that histories of subjugation have produced as lacking in certain bodies. She is the presenting of those ghostly missing parts of subjectivities that are denied the full breadth of our human experience. What are our longings, what are our desires? What animates the contours of our imaginings? She is the presence of and an insistence on there being space for those parts of our humanity beyond the pared down basics of survival that those under the burden of subjugation are often reduced to. So she is in some ways a gesture towards insisting on having space for the dream and the poetry. All those desires and fantasies are important in the face of all that would strip us down to hollowed out versions of our full, complex and nuanced sense of self. While she is often a marker or something missing and of denial she is also a marker of the processes that produce the denial, the erasure. So in her the gesture is twofold, she is both marker of absence and a critical destabilisation of the processes of erasure, being both a return as well as marking the violence that produces her and what she stands for as phantom.

poster for Sankofa Hauntings

Poster for Sankofa Hauntings

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews your interest in the relationship between history and the present, especially in relation to marginalised narratives or histories of trauma. Can you tell us more about this and how it translates in your work?

My interest in history is really about competing and contesting histories as they produce different versions of the realities we inhabit. If I were to strip it down it comes down to epistemology and an interest in communicating across epistemologies, which in itself is a way to trouble the foundations of set ideologies that shape the way we perceive and exist. I am interested in troubling the hierarchies between different ways of knowing. History is a way of articulating this in a less abstract way I think, it is a way of experimenting with the material of life and lived experience (whether directly one’s own or of a people and between peoples) however that experiment has implications for the foundational knowledge systems the various articulations of history are situated in. And my interest in time is also very much about the epistemological, one can’t really speak about how one approaches H/(hi)stories without time being a central pivot. My project, and the way I engage with histories, is about untethering actuality from the grip of dominant narratives and their seeming universality. There is a voiding and erasure of difference that I understand as being at the very core of western epistemology which is the hegemonic. This erasure, denial of value, worth and even presence of difference is for me a foundational violence through with other manifestations of violence are produced. This is where marginality is produced and it is here that I want to contest that process of making some things central and others marginal. The hierarchising of different ways of knowing and the violent erasure and difference has been the process through which domination has been inscribed in our present. So in working on history and challenging the very epistemological foundations of the knowledges that frame our conceptions of selves, there is a tackling and challenging of the erasure which domination functions through.

The moment we live in, the present, is written by the past; it authors us. But we also author that past as history. It is ‘composed’ in retrospect. It’s this convoluted co-authoring and capacity to interfere with past and present that I am interested in as a way to tackle trauma, the violence of denial and erasure that produces it. I am curious about how ‘reality’ looks when you come to it from somewhere in between contesting cannons, where the many different ways of perceiving are revealed in their partiality. So it comes back to this idea of knowing, knowledge and how we come to know, where any one knowledge system has its blind spots and therefore engenders the ghosts that are as much a part of the world though they may be beyond the scope of that knowledge system to grasp.

Much of your work responds to specific sites. How does place inspire your work?

Because I work with/around/through histories I look to spaces that are heavy with it. As much as any place is inscribed with all its histories there are some sites which are particularly heavy with the weight of their pasts, so much so that they scream it, or whisper it in a screaming sort of way. I like to work with these sorts of places – that are in the world and in their histories – so that when I offer whatever intervention I may also become part of the history of that site, shifting it in whatever small way, adding another layer to the palimpsest so that now what that place dose in the world is altered, however slight that shift might be.

Installation view of Rituals Of The Living

Installation view of Rituals Of The Living at Constitution Hill

Installation view of Alzire Of Bayreuth at Neues Schloss

Installation view of Alzire Of Bayreuth at Neues Schloss

What are you working on at the moment and where/when can we see your work next?

I have a show opening in London in January, a video of mine is showing as part of a group effort at the Tiwani Contemporary gallery. It’s called “Field Work” and is on between 13 January and 18 February. Other than that I am wholly taken up in crawling towards the end of my Phd studies. I am working on both the ‘creative’ component which will be a film in the context of an installation, and the written component. I am not sure where I will have the show, I am leaning towards a space in Johannesburg but it could end up in Cape Town. All I know at the moment is that it will be mid-year 2017, June/July.

See more of Kitso’s work on her website and on Vimeo

Stills from Displaced Skin

Still from Displaced Skin

Between 10 and 5