WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town
06.02 – 16.03.2019
The very first thing that strikes me about Thania Petersen’s ‘IQRA’ exhibition is her unwavering versatility. Stopped short once by her piece Queen Colonaaiers and Her Weapons Of Mass Destruction 1 at Zeitz MOCAA, and yet again at the front steps of WHATIFTHEWORLD with In Defense of Our Memories, I am in awe of Thania’s willingness to approach and re-approach herself and her surroundings from every, necessary angle, her elemental deconstruction of identity politics in contemporary South Africa, coupled with her multidisciplinary artistry guarantees a revolutionary exhibition. ‘IQRA’ is no exception.
Iqra, or rather إقرا , means “to read” in Arabic. This is a plain task, given to us by Thania’s artistry in her first solo exhibition with WHATIFTHEWORLD. The inference is simple: our interpretation of the world we live in must be revisited with fresh, sincere and compassionate eyes. This is a necessary undertaking, since the prevailing views are instead ones of presumptuous bigotry, violence and contempt. In Ashraf Jamal’s preemptive text for the show, he describes the intent of ‘IQRA’ so as to highlight, “the artist’s fear of the threat posed by Wahabism, a political distortion of Islam in which love and grace, the foundation of the world’s great religions, is betrayed in the name of a nihilistic absolutism.” I’d like to add the effects of the media and our own, known ignorance choosing to highlight and perpetuate Wahabism; and the impact of these consequences on the practitioners of Islam in the wake of misconstruction of their faith. Choosing to focus on extremists when forming the reputation and representation of Islamic creed is damaging for a multitude of reasons; especially when considering how the sensationalism of violence is more catching than proof of the deviation of these extremists from the beliefs they allegedly act in the name of.
This, propelled by these groups’ commitment to violence and intolerance, has not only cost countless lives, but has also isolated Islamic faith in the midst. Here, I believe, Petersen turns our attention back to the root of her intent. With the prayer mats she’s used as the foundation of her exhibition, and arguably highlighting their being the foundation of Islam; we are prompted to return to the core of the religion itself. Since Petersen is, according to Jamal, “wary of the destructive impact of religious fundamentalism [as well as] the illusion, trenchant within neo-liberalism, that in this modern era we are somehow exempt from belief.” These prayer mats encapsulate and should remain a symbol of Islam. That, in the maelstrom of what is thought of the Muslim communities, and what is shown, and what the extremists are capable of, there still exists a devout and determined fealty to their faith. This is honoured in Iqraa, Al Hurra, Musallah, Of Birds and Trees and Flowers and Bees as well as What Falls From the Sky.
Each mat has been woven in with a seeping darkness; reminding the audience of the presence of Wahabism and its consequences, effects and surroundings. The colour pulls the focus; stalling the vibrance of each mat, a deep sorrow adding weight to the details of each design. Petersen’s clear capability and talent permeates every medium she comes into contact with, and her intentions are woven in as expertly as each thread. In Sentiment of What Comes and Goes I and In Sentiment of What Comes and Goes II, speak to the restless space that exists between the conversations we’re willing to have and those we are not when it comes to faith; the faceless objects in frame, and the inescapable sense of foreboding that carries the same onus of the inked frays of the prayer mats. Baqa, or rather, باقة , is the title of digital short that along with In Defense of Our Memories, rounds up the excellent exhibition. The short from 2016 depicts a sensory collection of moments and movements entombed by the synonymous fabrics of Islamic faith.
Contrasting this exhibition to her prior work, only emphasises the fact of her deft understanding and execution of the varying perspectives in the ongoing dialogue surrounding identity politics. With each new work Thania Petersen proves there isn’t a conversation she isn’t willing to have, or instigate as she evolves. ‘IQRA’ is as succinct as its intent is sacred and I look forward to what Petersen creates next.