11.04.2015 – 11.28.2015
Lizza Littlewort’s material engagements with paint and surface communicate a textural sensitivity that is visually captivating and conceptually interesting. Her mark-making, in its contrasts of the firm and of the fluid, and her use of colour in locating our present in faraway landscapes of old, speaks to fantastical worlds and a dreamy surreal into which the viewer can easily fall. From this standpoint, the artist’s use of the imaginary invites creative streams of thinking around the notions of living within the present-day South African colony. However, the rhetoric that frames the exhibition is somewhat explicit in exposing the larger system of immaterial institutional critique in which the work operates.
In ‘We Live In The Past’, the use of text and title play important roles, situating the work in relation to Dutch colonial ‘masterpieces’, as a way of unpacking what it might mean to exist in a South Africa in which this problematic history is very much alive and largely left unchallenged. Dreamy landscape détournements loosely reference historical images, their renaming acting as a strategy to navigate and respond to these old relationships in new ways.
However, when we take a step back and examine how this work works, we encounter the art world socio-cultural currency that is concerned largely with ideological intervention, turning a conveniently blind eye to its own material implications.
A strange artist statement presented on the gallery wall frames the exhibition as being concerned with negotiating a moralistic way for (us) to ‘retain our cultural connection with these (Dutch) Master painters’. As a Black body whose much expressed wish is the destruction of pervasive celebrations of histories and cultures whose existence cannot be separated from oppression and exploitation of Black people, I was shocked at this notion’s normative framing.
It is very clear who the ‘us’ is, and in this exclusion, Littlewort’s work provides no ‘counter-narrative to white privilege’ and I am forced to acknowledge that the work is not for me, and does not see me.
The Night Watch is a dreamy landscape whose magic is gently broken by ominous figures of security that pose faraway threat. Watery ships traveling through backgrounds of Littlewort’s seascapes refer repeatedly to distance, land, the foreign- the settler- and one is easily caught in the materiality of the paint, I think, rather than the material implication of these ideas. What is the connection between colonialism and the gallery space?
In History Repeating Myself, a (presumed) insertion of Littlewort’s own face into the famous portrait, acts as some kind of expression of the tension presented by the artist’s Dutch heritage. Again, this politically correct narrative is undermined by its abrupt collaboration with a conversation around ‘the here’ and a conceptualization of ‘the past’ that makes use of the colonial culture of exploitation it criticizes, and fails to address the actual presence of the oppressed bodies to which it so often vaguely alludes.
In the show, notions of the dispossession of Black peoples as a result of Dutch colonial history in South Africa are explored as a method to evoke specific white feelings. In The Embarrassment of Our Riches (a play on van der Schoor’s Vanitas Still Life With Skulls), the artist scrutinizes this injustice, repainting van der Schoor’s vanitas image with a cruder hand and a more gruesome palette of garish reds, and flat greys. The skulls appear to melt, and in this way are personified in a manner that implies their suffering.
Of course, to benefit from the suffering of ‘others’ is immoral- even perhaps ‘embarrassing’, although this description lacks a certain human empathy- but the presentation of the work speaks to a larger injustice. How is it that this title, The Embarrassment of Our Riches is printed directly above its price tag? How do we investigate an image made to evoke white guilt that makes use of the ideological inequality it addresses as its very mode for material gain? And what can we gauge about an exhibition whose reference to the Black body is as a means of creating meaning and emotion from a white audience?
In The Concealing Veil of White Entitlement, we are faced with an identical problem. For it can only be white entitlement that is convinced of itself as the voice most well equipped to depict ‘white entitlement’ itself, even though a basic understanding of entitlement is its normative, invisible nature.
Self-reflexivity is key. How might a white artist define white privilege, metamorphose it and attempt to counter it without making use of the racialised power phenomena as the very means to this end? Art does have the power to deliver a message that counters a violent status quo, but when these messages are delivered via the system against which they speak, the contradictions are much louder than the alleged message.