ID Parade: Me, myself and I

28 July 2015 - 02:00 By Jeremy Fox

We all have a story to tell. Sometimes that story is repressed for years before we are ready to tell it. Sometimes our stories are hidden because they are forgotten, or diminished. Thania Petersen has two bodies of work at the AVA Gallery this week that begin to tell her story.I am Royal and Barbie and Me explore cultural, political and religious identity while examining how history weaves itself into our present. It is also a personal scrutiny of her self.She says: "When I was studying at St Martin's College of Art in London, they asked us to do an exercise exploring and labelling our identity. All I could think of was koeksisters! That is when I started to think about where I am from."It was worth thinking about. Petersen is a direct descendant of Tuan Guru, an Indonesian prince who is the "father of Islam" in South Africa.I am Royal is a way of reclaiming the power of her ancestry. A series of photographs of the artist dressed in elaborate Indonesian robes in various locations across Cape Town challenges the viewer to address the complex and loaded question of identity in South Africa.Is Petersen confronting us, or engaging us?"Some people need to be confronted and some people need to be engaged. It depends on the viewer," she replies.It is a powerful approach in a society in which we are so often required to tick a box stating which lump of society we belong to yet so few of us fit into those boxes with any degree of comfort.I am Royal is Petersen's way of showing how clumsy and weak such labelling makes society when compared with the strength of personal identity."People feel uncomfortable in their homes because they don't always know where they come from," she explains."It is not right for people to label us without knowing us."Barbie and Me continues the search for self, but with the added conflict of living in a secular society as a Muslim woman.The opening piece is an explosion of pop colours surrounding the three most important possessions that Petersen remembers from her childhood. Her prayer book, her prayer bag and her Barbie.The work is a candid discussion about the tension the artist felt as a Muslim growing up in Cape Town. The tension between doing what you should do and doing what you want to do.I ask if she felt guilty about wanting to be Barbie when she was a child."I still feel guilty about wanting to be Barbie!"This is intensely personal work for Petersen, but it also speaks of universal themes.Don't miss Skattie Celebrates, one-night-only exhibition, featuring Thania Petersen on Thursday 6.30pm at the AVA Gallery, Church Street, Cape Town

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