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We Live in the Past | Littlewort



  1. Lizza Littlewort

Lizza Littlewort’s uncomfortably beautiful paintings embody images that take issue. Frame by frame, these oil-covered boards stage an irreverent counter-narrative to the dominant, conservative (art) historical canon as it is institutionally upheld in present-day South Africa. By détourning* the works of ‘household name’ old Dutch Masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, as well as paintings by her own ancestor Jakob Willemzoon de Wet the Elder, Littlewort effectively re-purposes the style, form and content of traditional European genres like portrait, landscape and still life painting in order to launch a biting socio-political commentary on the sustained presence of white privilege in the post-colony.

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Her own family's surreal heritage myths are visually dramatised to conjure up the colonial ancestry of local art-buying elites. In this spirit, each of her absurdist tableaus takes a turn at making strange a whole host of familiar historical tropes, themes and traditions of European visual art and thought, and brings into view how these have remained encoded and archived in the parochial reception of ‘Golden Age’ Master paintings over centuries of colonial rule up until the present day.


The countercultural spirit of ‘We Live in the Past’ has its roots in resistance art, which campaigned against white supremacy and the Apartheid state using a populist lexicon of revolutionary iconography. Twenty years on, Littlewort’s motifs form part of a new art of protest, addressing a broad-based lack of social change from within the only nominally open marketplace of the art world.


The show’s title speaks back at the commonly made, pernicious demand placed by white South Africans on their black peers to ‘get over the past’, emphasizing that it is precisely and only the past out of which the present is made, and that“when we ask others not to live in the past, what we are actually asking is for them to prioritise our version of the past over theirs,” as Littlewort points out.


Littlewort’s recent move from the satirist’s pen to the absurdist’s brush has opened up a richly layered terrain of ambiguous references in her work, where beauty and ugliness, horror and humour can coexist almost without contradiction: for example in her re-painting of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’, where wraith-like translucent figures hover across melting, surreal moonscapes; an image which speaks to the paucity of reliable record of what actually went on in the early Cape, and allows us to reflect on how unreadable the South African landscape was to the eyes of colonists schooled in the European visual language of the picturesque. This aesthetic and conceptual expansion allows Littlewort to seduce rather than to repel the viewer, and create works that might operate like a cuckoo’s egg: their challenge of grand narratives around ‘art,’ ‘culture’ and ‘history’ is imagined as a secondary, delayed effect, slowly setting in on second thought, after they have found a home primarily on the basis of their formal beauty and novelty.

- Niklas Zimmer




* "Détournement is similar to satirical parody, but employs more direct reuse or faithful mimicry of the original works rather than constructing a new work which merely alludes strongly to the original." (Détournement, 2015)


Read an in-depth interview with Littlewort about the exhibition on Between 10 and 5 here.

Earlier Event: September 30
Emergence | Adler
Later Event: November 4
A Space Between | Stock