Everard Read, Cape Town
09.02 – 05.03.2017
Thania Petersen’s dual retrospective and forward-facing orientation distinctly sets her apart from other artists dealing with Cape history. Not confined by the pursuit of the ancestral project alone, Petersen reflects on her current reality, with direct reference to her experience of motherhood, of mass consumerism, and the assertion of her own sexuality within and in addition to these spaces.
What is most striking about Petersen’s Remnants is its ability to be simultaneously playful, somber and reflective. In a series of photographic collages displayed on light boxes, Petersen tackles the phenomena of kitsch and capitalism in the contexts of one of the biggest malls in Africa, Canal Walk. In Kanala, Petersen fills the mall’s empty food court with signifiers of conspicuous wealth and ostentation, exemplified by two giant pink flamingos flanking the tableau. Typically occupied by families and hordes of teenagers, Petersen’s own image, and that of a young boy in a kiddie’s superhero suit, populate the space surrounded by repeated images of cool drinks, bells, and beaded cowry shells.
The work’s title Kanala, describes a sense of generosity, or in other contexts, a term used to obtain or ask for something for free, that emerged out of Cape Malay and former slave communities in the Cape. Still used today, kanala has a multitude of meanings and uses, one of them being a nickname for the Century City mall – ‘Kanala Walk.’ This kaleidoscope of saturated colour and excess continues in Flamingo (2017), in which the artist addresses sexuality and the selfie.
The digital textile collages Portrait of Motherhood and Portrait of Womanhood, and the embroidered work Slamse bind the entirety of the exhibition in their commentary of Petersen’s experience in the present. In both Portraits the use of carpet and embroidery serve as an important material link to the past. Slamse, gold embroidery of the work’s title in silk, also does well to ground the exhibition in both the past and the present. Directly referencing the medora, cloth of this kind is used in baby naming ceremonies, and worn by brides at weddings. As iterated in several other texts previously, Petersen is a descendent of Tuan Guru, widely acknowledged as the father of Islam in South Africa. Petersen reclaims the term ‘slamse’, which originated as a derogatory term for followers of Islam, through its new inscription in gold thread.
Ascending the stairs to the second floor, the mood of the exhibition shifts from mass cultural critique to quiet historical exploration. This may appear to be a sudden thematic shift, however, Petersen effectively draws links between the estrangement of Indonesia as a place of origin for many Capetonians, and an apparent present familiarity with a globalised consumerism.
In the photographic series Remnants I-IV the artist is photographed in Surat, India, at the mausoleums of the decision-makers of the Dutch East India Company, many of whom created the orders to send slaves and political prisoners from Indonesia to the Cape. An evocative image, Remnants III, Petersen appears enveloped by the site, and only her silk red train remains seen.
In the film Avarana (2016) Petersen revisits the Castle, the oldest European structure in the country, and for many, a symbol of the Dutch East India Company’s power in the region. The Castle’s Dolphin Pool is a dominant feature. Currently empty owing to its ongoing restoration, the Dolphin Pool is an intriguing space, particularly because of its relation to luxury and leisure swimming. The frivolity of this structure stand in opposition to the thousands of people who were brought across the sea to the Cape against their will. Veiled, in Avarana Petersen actively challenges ‘the gaze’, an invasive, judgmental voyeurism most often employed by men, but perpetuated by the assumption of Islam as ‘other’.
A stubborn remnant of the past, Jan van Riebeeck’s almond hedges are the subject of the 2015 photograph God save our hedge 1 (Botanical Imperialism Series). The image is an apt companion to Queen Colonaaiers and her weapons of mass destruction 1 of the same year. Surrounded by colonial foliage, Petersen appears at odds with her contexts. This power relation is swiftly turned around in the 2017 collage Bahasagalaramashari, in which Petersen, and who could be assumed to be her family, appear in harmony with their environment. Devised by Petersen herself Bahasagalaramashari is a Utopic concept, and provides a sense of hopefulness and power within the exhibition.
Where others might find discord, Petersen claims each aspect of her practice as logical extensions of a core, albeit multifaceted, theme: the contemporary woman in Islamic culture in Cape Town. Not confined to exploring one thematic avenue, the artist addresses how we, who she terms ‘nameless people’ (although some of us are no longer tied to Islam directly) find ways to cope with a liminal existence, in a society that values and promotes fixed positions.