Thania Petersen, Remnants 4, 2016, Hahnemuhle
Thania Petersen, Remnants 4, 2016, Hahnemuhle

The discovery of the Americas and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope are commonly considered turning points in Western civilisation, but long before these seismic traversals the Indian Ocean was the “cradle of globalisation.”

Like port cities the world over, Cape Town bears the signature of an intercultural and interracial mesh.

It is within this history that Thania Petersen has positioned her art. Her solo exhibition is an engagement with the myth and story of Malayness — as a cultural identity, a system of belief, and a way of life.

Petersen plays fast-and-loose with the notion of the “exotic” and the psychically more exacting awareness of cultural dislocation and re-appropriation. For Petersen there can be no finite sense of selfhood or home, for both realisations must be tempered with the imagination.

Petersen’s photographs are therefore the visualisation of a question, doubt, and dream. Flamingo reveals the artist in a series of self-consciously seductive poses, her i-Phone at the ready as she serialises herself. Kanala Walk — a spoof on the coastal shopping mall Canal Walk — deepens the ineradicable segue of the self-as-commodity within a greater sea of other commodities. Here we are in a globalised marketplace.

Petersen’s point is to giddily amplify the viral nexus of people and things, people as things — as products of an invasive and corrupting history. In an astonishing video work, shot at the Cape Town Castle, we see the artist, ghostlike, draped in a shimmering sea-blue cloak. The body within is indistinguishable — it is the fluidity of an unknowable form that moves us. Titled Avarana, from the Sanskrit, it addresses not the veils we wear but the veil of prejudice which allows us to judge and subtract the lives of others.

In a series shot in Surat, an ancient port city in India, Petersen gives us Remnants — also the name of the exhibition — images of the artist now visibly draped in shimmering red, the unending bolt of colour — a bloodline? An umbilical cord? — conjuring the artist’s fluid sense of an unresolved self.

Given that art that traffics in identity politics is ubiquitously mired in despair and protest, it is reassuring that Petersen, artist-as-performer, should give us a poetics of longing as well as an ironic spoof of that longing.

Remnants — Everard Read, Cape Town, until March 5.

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