Artists We Love: Thania Petersen

WORDS Malibongwe Tyilo PHOTOS Thania Petersen

Artist Thania Petersen’s photographs caught our eye at this year’s Cape Town Art Fair, where she showed with Brundyn+ gallery. We were as intrigued by her costumes as we were by the stories they told.

After spending nearly three years studying art at Central Saint Martins in London, Thania had to give up her studies because of a lack of funds. She moved on to a year’s sculptor’s apprenticeship in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe; then a year in South Korea doing ceramic sculpture; followed by a few more years of travel, including a stint in London as resident painter for props and costumes at the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street festival.

When she returned to Cape Town seven years ago, art took a back seat as she started a family, a book shop and a coffee shop.

“Then, about four months ago, I couldn’t do the business any more,” says the 35-year-old. “I yearned to go back to art. I got home and told my husband, and started working on this series immediately.

“The idea was something I’d been thinking about since my London days. We as a Cape Malay community have no sense of certain identity, because we were moved and mixed. We’re not what we were; we’re something completely different,” she explains when we enquire about the costumes and staged photographs that make up the series.

“So, after doing research, I decided to tell our story through costume. For example, my story in particular is that of Imam Abdullah Ibn Qadhu Abdus Salaam, known as Tuan Guru, who was my forefather. He wasn’t a slave; he was a prince in political exile. And until I did the research I didn’t know any of these things.”

The better-known story of the arrival of the Cape Malay is that of the Javanese people brought here by the Dutch East India Company as slaves in the 17th century from modern-day Indonesia. Through costume and photography, Thania seeks to trace her own royal lineage and tell another side of Cape Malay history.

“I stage Malay identity through apparel and props. I trace the historical trajectory of forced removals through landscape, from the point of entry, the sea, to further inland,” Thania explains the photographs that she staged at different locations to narrate the movement and the shifting clothing and culture of the Cape Malay people since their arrival in Cape Town more than 300 years ago.

Visit Thania Petersen’s I Am Royal exhibition at the AVA Gallery from 6 August 2015 until 12 September 2015.