Absurdist Painting in South Africa – New Works of Resistance by Lizza Littlewort

Niklas Zimmer

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[1] 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. 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.

Central European (art) history has been selectively written to form a continuous, meaningful story from prehistory to modern America. In the South African chapter of this story, the Dutch Masters – as well as a concomitant succession of specific styles and artists – arise as part of an exceedingly violent discourse of cultural supremacy. Fully committed to a deconstructive process that deserves the name, Littlewort’s practise confronts the lies and limitations of this narrative. She stands back from the magic circle of white privilege in order to look at the hypnotic impact of its common cultural constructions – such as ‘the natural,’ ‘genius’ or ‘talent’ – and acknowledges the mechanisms by which important issues around land and labour, first-language familiarity, and Pan-Africanism[2] continue to be undermined, undervalued and misunderstood.

“(…) excessively linear and causal readings of art inevitably caricaturise the things they select for inclusion, and deny the things that cannot be slotted into the chronological line-up. Such readings feed into Euro-American centric and patriarchal modes of storytelling that have historically excluded many things, including women’s contributions.” (Groom, 2014)

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.


 “What makes contemporary painting particularly interesting for me is a revisionist, humorous approach that can dig at and have fun with historical representations.” (Gratrix, 2015)

Bertrand Russell famously stated that “the fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd” (Russell, 2009). This might lead to a definition of works that aim to document or depict a state of collective deception as being ‘realist.’ Yet, according to the literary critic Robert Scholes, absurdist works “resist categorization as realism or fantasy” (Scholes, 2011). While the absurdist mode indeed bears a certain resemblance to that of the satirist, pointing to the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and failings of those in power, it is the author’s positionality that is essentially different: rather than operating along an imagined binary of right and wrong, or more specifically, a charter of values assumed to be common to all, absurdism entirely implicates the painter (author) in the critique, together with her subject and her viewers. This of course makes engaging the work more demanding and less clear-cut than reading a newspaper cartoon, but it certainly also has the potential to raise smiles.

Painting over a canvas of ‘petit-bourgeois’ suburban snobberies such as the appreciation of fine wine, fine music and fine art, Littlewort’s work disturbs as well as resists a range of assumptions and values underlying the reverence paid to an untroubled European heritage. In this sense, the overt meanings implied in each work only fully develop in the context of a Foucauldian archaeology:[3] a dialogue with meanings already collectively, culturally and historically inscribed in ‘masterful’ works of Western Art. Earlier generations of ‘anti-artists’ such as the Dadaists a century ago performed similar attacks on conservative currencies of culture by radically altering the way in which images, texts, objects, sounds and movements could be created and perceived as (non-)art. However, regarding the small pool of gallery visitors in present-day Cape Town, Littlewort believes that such extreme practices “would go right over the heads of most white Saffers,[4] whose understanding of art begins and ends with queueing to see The Night Watch when on holiday in Europe”.

Littlewort puts to work a wide range of visual defamiliarization techniques – such as quotation, juxtaposition, distortion – and a whole host of ‘paint effects’ in order to deconstruct persistent classist assumptions and desires invested in apparently benign and immutable epistemes like ‘timeless mastery’ and ‘artistic genius’. In these paintings, the luxuriant, dexterous realism of the Dutch Masters is contrasted with a wide range of contemporary paint experiments which stretch the medium of oil paint into bizarre and hyperbolic effects. These, of course, flow from a modernist trajectory: the accidental painting of Max Ernst, the paranoiac-critical outpourings of Salvador Dali and the postmodernist ‘Paras’ by Neo Rauch, to name a few. Combining the conceptual approaches and aesthetics of ‘straight’ satire, Dada and Surrealism, as well as individual contemporary painters like Joseba Eskubi, Littlewort stages a demonstrative departure from a historical naturalism set up to symbolically manifest the establishment version of history.

Thus, 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 records 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 aesthetic appeal and novelty.


 “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (Benjamin and Eil, 2003)

 For her examination of the particular past haunting our present, Littlewort conducted research into her family’s colonial heritage. She imagined the first arrival at the Cape of one of her ancestors, Jakob de Wet, and the narratives about the condition of white South African coloniality that it played a part in producing. The archival records are typically ambiguous: De Wet is said to have arrived at the Cape as an official of the Dutch East India Company in 1697 or in 1686. He may or may not have been the personal assistant to Simon van der Stel, and may or may not have been swiftly promoted to the first Kelder Meester of the Cape because he may or may not have been Van der Stel’s illegitimate son. A more ubiquitous version of the tale states that he was the son of Jakob Willemzoon de Wet the Younger, who may or may not have alighted at the Cape with his son, before continuing further East.

One fact, however, is certain: Jakob Willemzoon de Wet the Elder was an art dealer and painter of some renown who lived and had his practice in Haarlem in the Netherlands, and counted among his clients a few kings of England, and among his pupils Paulus Potter and Jan Vermeer – of posthumous ‘Old Masters’ fame. Haarlem was the site of the first incarnation of the Rijksmuseum, which was created to house the burgeoning art treasures of the Dutch Golden Age. It opened in 1795, the same year that the Dutch lost the Cape to the British. Thus, the Golden Age of Dutch painting overlaps exactly with when the Cape was governed, not by the Dutch government, but by the Dutch East India Company.

“(The Night Watch) is the altarpiece of the Rijksmuseum, the whole place is arranged around this beautiful masterpiece.” […] Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th century art, told CNN the arrangement “shows off how important this painting is to the Dutch nation. It is the national treasure.”” (Jones, Garcha, and Torre, 2013)

Furthermore, the National Archives record Jakob’s wife as “Maria van Jakarta,” indicating that she must have been an Indonesian prisoner brought to the Cape by the VOC, which further troubles Littlewort’s ancestry with a spectrum of questions around gender, power and race. Thus, Littlewort’s work not only interrogates the selectiveness of historical narration, but also reveals the intimate relationship between the Old Masters of Dutch oil painting and the Dutch East India Company, and how closely connected they both were with settlement, slavery and social separation at the Cape.

“So, I believe in ghosts. As all ghosts must. (…) More importantly, I believe in their agency. I believe that justice is unimaginable without the conviction that we have a responsibility before them.” (Harris, 2015)

Read in line with Foucault’s observation that there are always multiple histories at work in any given socio-cultural context, ‘We Live in the Past’ shows us how Dutch painting was produced by the spice trade, which concurrently produced the settlement at the Cape, and how both are entwined in white colonial master narratives. Littlewort’s absurdist mode makes bitter light of how South Africa and the Old Masters share the same father: the VOC, the world’s first multinational corporation. Ground-breaking new historiographies, such as the Subaltern Studies movement in India, have begun to juxtapose different histories to show that the establishment version of events often differs very markedly from that of other parts of the social fabric: ‘history’ is not a bedrock of facts, but a selection of interpretations, written, as Walter Benjamin famously stated, by the winners.[5] The undesirable bits tend to get lost, while those that support the dominant ideology may be manufactured from the scantiest of evidence, and repeated until they achieve the appearance of fact. Littlewort’s work has been to take up a set of famous historical images posing as ‘facts’ and to give them a dressing down; as Camus famously wrote: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus, 2005).


 “… far from violating the purity of the aesthetic, socially engaged art practices often represent a compelling re-articulation of it, involving as they do many of the key features we have come to associate with aesthetic experience, including the suspension or disruption of habitual forms of thought, the cultivation of an openness to our own intersubjective vulnerability, and a recognition of our own agency in generating normative values.” (Grant, 2015)

By harnessing the aesthetic impact of ‘masterful’ handlings of oil paint to an explicitly oppositional re-reading of colonial (art) history, Littlewort’s reappropriations synthesize critical observations of a largely untransformed society into an astonishingly layered visuality of protest that serves to expose a complex web of inherited power relations alive in a multitude of interconnected local discourses: from the history classroom over the news on TV to facebook. In this sense, Littlewort’s brush picks at a continuum of hegemonic power woven into the persistent reification[6] of a narrow repertoire of ‘Cultural Heritage’ – including much of what is traded in its wake as ‘contemporary’ cultural products to wealthy gallery patrons – enabling viewers to survey the absurd brutalities and banalities of an historical continuum of privilege and entitlement. She does this, in her own words, “not in order to ‘attack’ whiteness, but in order that we may get to see its own blindnesses and constructions, so that we can have a level field – rather than a sloping, biased field – in which to communicate”.

Undeniably, we live in the force-field of a powerful historical Past, within which are layered many important, yet less dominant narratives. The process of reconstructing them requires great imagination, courage, insight and indeed humour.

Littlewort’s brush has been living it up in the past, and has brilliantly dreamed up a panoptikon of figurations still deeply enfolded in our present. The future of these quasi-prophetic surfaces at work in our present now is fascinating to contemplate.


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[1]                 “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)


[2]                 “Perhaps we should not be so quick to throw the proverbial ideological baby, of Pan-Africanism, out with the bath water of the politics of non-intervention, collusion and in-action which African leaders are currently practising.” (Murithi, 2015, pp. 231 – 231)


[3]                 “’Archaeology’ is the term Foucault used during the 1960s to describe his approach to writing history. Archaeology is about examining the discursive traces and orders left by the past in order to write a ‘history of the present’. In other words archaeology is about looking at history as a way of understanding the processes that have led to what we are today.” (O’Farrell, 2010)


[4]                 ‘Natives of South Africa (mainly used in the UK). Based on the abbreviation for South Africa as SAf. “Come to our BBQ, there will be lots of Ozzies, Kiwis and Saffers there!”’ (O’Donnell, totiboy, and 27, no date)


[5]                 “Die Natur dieser Traurigkeit wird deutlicher, wenn man die Frage aufwirft, in wen sich denn der Geschichtsschreiber des Historismus eigentlich einfühlt. Die Antwort lautet unweigerlich in den Sieger.” (Benjamin, 1977)


[6]                 n., 1846, “act of materializing,” from Latin re-, stem of res “thing” + -fication. In Marxist jargon, translating German Verdinglichung.