Artist’s statement about Dutch works referred to in “We Live in the Past”

Artist’s Statement about Dutch works referred to in We Live in the Past

Lizza Littlewort, September 2015.

This body of work is inspired by the research I did during my Honours in English Literature, andfurther research towards a Masters on the narratives surrounding the early Cape. This subject has been brilliantly written about by Dr Hedley Twidle, whose Doctoral dissertation Prison and Garden can be found online. These research studies helped me understand the overwhelming extent to which the ways we understand the world are historically-produced ‘Grand Narratives’ deeply embedded in our colonial past, which remains a fundamental architecture of the overreaching structure of global power as well as mundane details of daily life in South Africa to this day… money, law, language, inclusion and exclusion, and domestic ideologies.

While I subscribe to Jacques Derrida’s argument that “there is nothing outside the text” – in other words that the original author’s or artist’s intention does not control its ultimate meaning, but that this resides with the viewer’s reception of it – I am nonetheless interested in recording some of the principle ideas which affected my choices and approaches in making this work.

Each painting in this body of work is a play upon an earlier painting by a Dutch Master painter. Some of the earlier paintings are very famous, and others less so. The less famous ones were chosen because they were painted by my ancestor, Jakob Willemzoon de Wet the Elder. I chose these works in order to make my comments about the continuities between past and present more personal, embedding them in my own family history.


My intention for Tragedy and Farce was to create direct recall of a quintessential Dutch work, to set up a historical parallel. The work in question foregrounds the buccaneering spirit and opulence which still draws admiration today for the Dutch ‘Golden Age’.

My interpretation adds a futuristic neon-looking blue memento mori which brings into question the role over time of a memento mori. It would originally have been intended to warn the viewer that we cannot take our riches with us when we die. Individually we can’t, but the astonishing wealth Holland accrued at this time has fundamentally shaped global history, and the fates of those affected by this legacy.

The title Tragedy and Farce refers to Marx’s comment that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. This is intended to amplify a sense of the present as a “double” of the past, only more extreme. Hals’s Laughing Cavalier was merely smiling. Mine is laughing, cavalierly.


A sense of doubling is continued in the next work. Many artists have adapted Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring to make a political statement about racial power. My reworking refers to the particular community we have at the Cape. Zayaan Khan is a food security activist working with the Slow Food Network and the Surplus Peoples’ Project, two organisations which could be argued to be working to rectify the damage inflicted by colonialism. Zayaan is herself a descendent of Indonesians imprisoned at the Cape as the Dutch East India Company ransacked their islands for profitable spices.


 History Repeating Myself continues the theme evoked by Marx’s words. As a woman similar in age and appearance to Haesje van Cleyburgh when Rembrandt painted her, I am examining here my complicity and predicament as one who benefits from Dutch merchants’ wealth and power. My mother was born a de Wet, and her mother was a Versveld. Both the de Wet and Versveld families owned large farms in the Robertson and Darling areas respectively. The de Wets’ ancestor, Jakob Willemzoon, was a Haarlem-based painter and art dealer, and his son was given a fairly powerful post in the Dutch East India Company’s way-station at the Cape. This brings home for me how closely intertwined these worlds were, that they existed in the same family: the profits being raked in by the world’s first globalised corporation, the VOC, and the use of those profits in acquiring art treasures.


The Concealing Veil of White Entitlement is inspired by the interest I have taken in the growing field of “Whiteness Studies” which examine white privilege and the tendency of those who have this privilege to be oblivious of the extent to which it privileges them.

The work also plays on contemporary Islamophobia exacerbated by Western military aggression in the Middle East, which demonises the wearing of the hijab. In response, many have commented that veils are traditional in the Christian West too, in nuns’ habits, Catholic mantillas, and also the traditional “white wedding” bridal veil.

This discussion is especially poignant in a city like Cape Town, with its large Islamic population brought here as prisoners by the Dutch spice trade.


The Custodian of History alludes to how the accepted establishment version of history tends to support the right to power of those who already have the most power. Or, as George Orwell famously wrote, “History is written by the winners.”

One of the genres of opulently beautiful painting which arose as a result of Holland’s massive spice-trade profits was flower painting. My adaptation celebrates the beautiful flowers of Indonesian spices, which were the prize without which Dutch art would have been unable to flourish.

Continuing a theme about Indonesian livelihoods impacted in order for the VOC to accrue wealth, I have added Javanese fish into a typical Dutch still-life.

The skull which appears so often in Dutch still-life painting was known as a memento mori and was intended to remind the wealthy art patron that no matter how opulent his treasures, he would die just like everyone else. My “multi-skulled” painting is inspired by historian Simon Schama’s book An Embarrassment of Riches, which first made me aware of the sheer extent of the wealth Holland gleaned from the spice trade.

In his book White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, J.M. Coetzee includes a chapter titled “The Picturesque, the Sublime, and the South African Landscape” in which he discusses how South Africa was viewed through the European gaze of its colonisers. For instance, the European landscape was anthropomorphised as the embodiment of what were perceived to be desirable European qualities, like ‘reflectiveness’ seen literally in the surfaces of its many lakes. On the contrary, the strange, dry, inhospitable landscape of South Africa was deemed to be monstrous, sans eyes or ears or intelligence. Coetzee focuses a lot of his research and fiction on the South African farm novel. In a savage critique of this genre, taking the form of his novel In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee fictionalises a common colonial perception that life in South Africa dragged Europeans backwards into uncivilised barbarism. By the end of the novel the main protagonist, Magda, is raving mad, trying to write her truth using whitened rocks, in the hope that they would be read by passing space-ships.

In the “swan” work, I have reworked a painting by my ancestor Jakob Willemzoon de Wet, so that the swan from his Italianate still life is now marooned, like Magda, in the inhospitable, massive landscape of the Karoo.

Continuing the theme of the South African landscape being viewed as monstrous by the European gaze, I have taken the heroic Dutch citizens of Rembrandt’s Night Watch and depicted them as wraiths strewn and lost in a surreally hellish landscape reminiscent of Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain. I was interested in evoking the ludicrously improbable quality created by Joseph Conrad in his depiction of Belgian traders in the Congo in his novel Heart of Darkness.

Cape Town historian Dr Nigel Penn writes about the genocide perpetrated on the Khoi and San peoples in his book The Forgotten Frontier. He describes how difficult it was to find any historical record of what really went on on the “buiteposte” or outlying farms of the early colony. He describes going through the court records of reports written by these outlying farmers, and how they were “innocent of grammar or punctuation” and barely corresponded to the High Dutch language in which they were ostensibly written. He spent years copying them out in longhand, over and over again, in order to start acclimatising himself to a sense of what on earth their authors could possible have meant by them.

It is clear from Penn’s description that solid facts about the early Cape are rare and flimsy to say the least, and most of what we think we know about it has been constructed in retrospect. In Jakob Willemzoon de Wet Arrives at the Cape, I have conferred this sense of vagueness on the arrival of my first ancestor at the Cape. The painting is a “reworking” of an early painting by the artist Jakob Willemzoon de Wet, whose son (or so my family tells me) came to the Cape as an assistant to Governor van der Stel. Various rumours circulate about this ancestor. My mother, née Pixie de Wet, claims that when he arrived, his father the painter was on board the same ship, but continued to the East instead of staying here. Another rumour I’ve encountered is that he was actually the illegitimate son of Van der Stel, and that this explains Van der Stel’s favouritism towards him.

An uncle of mine claims that this ancestor was so corrupt that he was the cause of the first slave rebellion at the Cape, only known dates of this rebellion don’t conform to this story. Then again, the real effects of his behaviour cannot be fully known, as the historical record is porous and conjectural.

All in all, the history of my ancestor is one which has been selectively papered over to make a palatable, recognisable narrative, but like much of this kind of history it falls apart under closer inspection. Likewise, my painting appears to be a recognisable scene of coming ashore from a sailing ship, but when one looks closer, it’s just a lot of incoherent pools of paint.

My family history reveals on a personal level the intimate relationship between the Old Masters of Dutch oil painting and Dutch East India Company, and how connected they both were to the settlement at the Cape. Jakob Willemzoon de Wet’s practice was in Haarlem, the site of the first incarnation of the Rijksmuseum, which was created to house the burgeoning art treasures of the Dutch Golden Age. The Rijksmuseum opened in 1795, the same year that the Dutch lost the Cape to the British. Thus, much of these art treasures would have been accrued during the same period that the Cape was governed by the Dutch East India Company. If Michel Foucault could argue that there is not one history but multiple histories, then this exhibition is about the history of how Dutch painting was produced by the spice trade, which also produced the settlement at the Cape and the foundation of white South African colonial narratives which persist to this day. One could say South Africa and the Old Masters are the spawn of one father, the VOC, the world’s first multinational corporation.

Continuing the Conradian theme of the ludicrously ill-fitting colonial administration in Africa, a Dutch pastoral scene by Paulus Potter is reworked into an indigenous African Nguni bull pulling an improbable chariot that is titled Roman Dutch Law. The chariot is derived from imagery of actual gold-encrusted ceremonial carriages used by the Dutch monarchy at the time. Here, though, it is a ghostly circus monocycle adrift on an arid African plain. Nonetheless, despite appearing so improbable, its legacy has been powerfully felt by indigenous African people whose native land was carved up and stolen with the aid of this law.

Continuing the theme of the vagueness and inaccuracy of the “establisment” historical record about what really went on in the early Cape and in the Dutch spice trade in general, Rembrandt’s fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee is purposefully misinterpreted as a sailing ship engaged in the spice trade. The vessel is painted as if it was made of melting Gummy Bears and bouncing along on a sea of frothy milkshake… in other words, it satirises history as a childrens’ tale (see an image of this painting on the last page of the catalogue).

Finally, as I was making this body of work a strange thing happened. A movement by black students at UCT demanding the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes drew a panicked outcry from whites, some of whom went as far to claim, hysterically, that the removal of the statue meant the loss of “all” of their history. This is an astonishing claim coming from a group of people who repeatedly demand that black South Africans “get over the past” and stop harping on about the damaging legacy of Apartheid, which ended all of 21 years ago. Rhodes died 113 years ago, and was pretty much out of sight and out of mind until this fracas began. This was proof, if ever we need it, that the demand to “get over the past” is actually a demand that one’s preferred version of the past is prioritised over others.

In The Historic Panic Mill, Rembrandt’s mill is relocated to Rhodes Memorial, where it waves its arms in panic over the landscape, much as Rhodes imposed his imperialist fundamentalism in days gone by. Like the long shadow thrown across Cape Town every evening by Devil’s Peak on which Rhodes Memorial sits, colonialism still exerts its posthumous power on the details of daily life in South Africa. Without doubt, we live in the past.