Through her powerful artworks, Thania Petersen is reclaiming the dignity that colonialism denied her forebears.
Sometimes life takes you to some surprising places, and sometimes the most surprising place of all is home. Just ask Thania Petersen, who left Cape Town aged 10, when her family joined her dad, a political exile, in London. After dropping out of her sculpture degree at Central Saint Martins (she couldn’t afford the fees), a chance encounter with the sculptor Sylvester Mubayi at a posh art fair near Oxford led to an apprenticeship in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. Here, a South Korean popped out of nowhere, while she was carving stone under a mango tree. He told liked her he liked her work, and invited her to come back with him to work in Yeojoo. He turned out to be a bit of a jerk, but luckily the acclaimed ceramicist Hwang Yea Sook took Petersen under her wing – she was her apprentice for almost a year, and exhibited her own pieces at the 2005 World Ceramic Biennale in Icheon.
In 2007, Petersen came to South Africa on holiday. “I didn’t plan to come back at all – I had absolutely no intention of staying in Cape Town,” she recalls. But then she met her husband, Amin. Three babies later, she’s still here.
“Art is really something you need to dedicate yourself to – you can’t really compromise, so I couldn’t work, because either I would’ve compromised my kids or I would’ve compromised my work, so I just had to wait until they were old enough for me to work.” Her youngest is three – capable, she says, of making his own breakfast.
“Never in a day of my life have I ever wanted to be anything but an artist,” she says. Perhaps that’s because her mother tied rice bags to her bag to prevent her from walking prematurely – it’s a Japanese belief, she says, that babies who walk later are more creative. “This is the myth in the family, whether or not it actually happened, I don’t know.”
Although her “extremely bohemian” parents were “a bit crazy”, at least “they were not obsessed with me having a serious money-making career… I was never encouraged to do anything but what I wanted. Shame, I think they regret it now that I’m poor,” she laughs.
In 2015, she staged I AM ROYAL, her first solo show, at the AVA Gallery in Cape Town: a series of photographic self-portraits that trace the strands of her history and identity all the way back to the arrival of her forebears from Indonesia – which included the Prince Tuan Guru – in the 1700s.
“What urged me to do it was this absolute feeling of not belonging and not being noticed and being ornamental in the landscape and just not being taken seriously,” she says. The Cape Malay are “neither black nor white – so we’re sort of stuck in the middle of nowhere with no name and nothing to draw on. I felt a loss, and a sense that history had betrayed us.” This sense of displacement, of homelessness, undermined her confidence. “You don’t feel good enough… it’s been subtle for so long: that you think the white man is better.” She noticed how some women in her community would straighten their hair or wear green or blue contact lenses in a bid to emulate a white version of beauty. I AM ROYAL was a response to that, a way of saying “there is more to us, and we can be proud by just being who we are”. “The most important thing for me is not concentrating on weakness but concentrating on strengths. History as it’s taught is oppressive and teaches us that we were nothing more than slaves. I needed to readdress this history.”
“The reason why I put myself in the front and centre [of each image] is because for so long we’ve been invisible and I think a lot of my intention is about creating visibility – and so I am no longer going to stand at the back or next door; my image is just representative for a person who has just been on the sideline for far too long and, in a sense, it’s saying: ‘We are here and we are present. We’ve always been present, but you will acknowledge our presence.’’
Having reclaimed her heritage through these images, she felt transformed by them into “a whole person”, and was inspired to travel the Indian port town of Surat last year – once a major outpost for the Dutch East India Company. She visited the elaborate mausoleums where the company’s officials are buried. These were the men responsible for bringing her forebears to the Cape from Indonesia, as well as transporting and enslaving countless people from Ceylon, India and Madagascar.
“I was so confident when I walked in,” she says. “I thought that I would be confrontational – I thought it would be as though I’m confronting the past, but actually when I walked through, the past had lost its power over me – it wasn’t about confronting anymore, it was more about just being present and being there because I can.”
It was a process of internal decolonisation. “It’s got nothing to do with claiming anything… I had taken something inside back, which was amazing, I just felt so fulfilled; I was at peace.”
Photographs from the visit form the heart of her new show, REMNANTS, which recently opened at Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town. “We carry the remnants of the past with us in our hurt and pain as people with no sense of belonging. These feelings are not exclusive to us but to displaced communities throughout the world who have been moved from their indigenous homelands in the name of trade and industry,” she says.
Red fabric, an extension of her dress, flows dramatically across the grey, in remembrance of those who came before and “symbolic of the blood spilt in the history of all these colonial empires”.
A composite of 25 images capture her performance of saman, an Islamic dance from Indonesia. I comment on the delicious irony of her performing this in a colonial space, given that the Dutch had sought to ban the practice of Islam in their colonies.
“I can’t imagine anything that would irritate them more” she laughs.
She had had to learn how to perform it from an American girl on YouTube because, in the clips from Indonesia, the dancers were moving too quickly. Initially this frustrated her – but she realised that this offered apposite commentary about the loss of cultural heritage, exposing “how far removed we are from our own history”.
Last night Petersen had a bit of wobbly. Over tea in her book-filled study, she tells me about how she felt like giving up, about how she was considering stopping being an artist.
“You become so emotionally involved, it becomes so difficult to not be affected by how maybe people react or how your work is going to impact and if what you’re trying to say is coming through visually.” She admits that “sometimes I do work and I don’t tell the full story about what the work’s about because I don’t have the guts, because I’m scared of offending people or being too confrontational. I’m not the kind of person who likes to upset people.” She has “a huge social circle and in that everyone feels their own sensitivities and you can’t always accommodate everybody’s sensitivities. It’s a difficult space to navigate.”
I suggest that perhaps it’s the role of the artist to make people feel uncomfortable. She agrees: being “uncomfortable can actually be a healthy thing,” she says.
“It’s just such an incredibly sensitive time that you actually just have to watch what you say because people are so defensive… I’m just scared of saying things – that’s why I’d rather do it in my work… There’s some things where I just feel the work will talk in the right way because when I just speak English it can always be misinterpreted. So sometimes maybe I’ll talk just about the top layer and maybe not further in.”
In ARAVANA (Sanskrit for “the veil of ignorance”), a video performance and sequence of photographs that will be appearing alongside REMANTS, she walks through the Castle of Good Hope in a black hijab.
She notes how many secular societies frown upon the veil; some have even banned it outright. “Muslim women are losing their rights to practise their faith as they choose to. The West views the hijab as oppressive, yet Muslim women the world over feel oppressed not by the hijab, but by the ideals forced upon them by the governing bodies under which they live,” she says. “In certain Islamic countries the hijab too is used by men in an unlawful manner towards women. We are being robbed of our choices on both sides. I question where we are safe if even our safest spaces and what is meant to protect us is used to oppress us. Which way do us as women turn when sanctity as interpreted by men betrays us? We are vulnerable and our bodies exploited and hurt as if they are not our own.”
The “extremely masculine, overpowering” Castle embodies “an oppression we all understand”: imperialism and apartheid. “My movements are reminiscent of the circumbulation practiced on pilgrimage around the Kabaa; however, I am going in the opposite direction as this walk is a silent outcry to be heard above the structure and confines that we find ourselves in.”
Lighter but no less poignant, is Flamingoes, a series of kitsch, crazy images. Originally inspired by the deluge of selfies that her husband, a casting director, receives from women hoping that he’ll make them super stars, they became a meditation on the social media-obsessed madness of modern life.
“Our lifestyle is so fast. Everything is superficial. Modernity is not accommodating us fully; it’s not giving us everything we need – it’s just keeping us busy. Deep inside there is a feeling that something is missing. What I’ve come to realise, through all of this and through the other work, combined, is that we are all displaced.” Both colonialism and consumerism have left us “spiritually barren”. “What is this void?”
“I never know where I’m going to with this stuff, because I’m kind of figuring things out,” she says. Her searching brought her to Bahasagalaramashari, a fictional word – and world – that embodies the “place we all imagine we should be. Utopia. It is about the false ideals that we create which stems from the false perceptions we have of ourselves not knowing who we are and what we need.”
“Only each person will only know what truly will fulfil themselves but only they can find it within themselves,” she says. “I think it’s so individual. It’s hard to look deep inside yourself – I think it’s a lifetime’s work because once you start looking inside yourself you have to look at everything about yourself” – even the nasty bits. “So we’d rather spend our days solving other peoples’ problems,” she laughs.
Remnants runs at the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town until 5 March.
An edited version of this article appeared in the 19 February 2017 edition of the Sunday Times.