Sound plays an important role in multi-disciplinary artist Thania Petersen’s video work. For instance, the ghoema drum, an instrument of resistance, is “a call to the people to walk”. Through sound, Petersen also imagines “a way for people to be liberated from how we define ourselves by the land we live on or the land we think we come from”.
“We are so obsessed by it. Land carries so much political power,” she explains over a way-too-generous breakfast with the multimedia artist in her light-filled dining room.
Her latest video Sawt is part of her solo show which opened at Whatiftheworld’s satellite gallery on the Twee Jonge Gezellen wine estate in Tulbagh in February. Its title is derived from the Arabic word meaning “sound” or “voice”. In the context of her ethnicity — “coloured” and more specifically Malay — finding a voice, being heard, is an integral part of the narrative of her practice as she retraces and rewrites the history of her people “for the sake of her three sons”.
Sawt, pronounced like the Afrikaans sout (salt), alludes to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent march in 1930 to protest the British colonial salt tax. The video opens with Petersen and one of her sons on a saltpan in India. Kneeling down, she collects salt until her fingers bleed. She places it in a fez and passes it to her son, who walks away from her until he disappears over the horizon.
“Returning to the mecca of the Dutch East India Company was like an act of collecting our heritage, collecting things that I need to heal to stop myself from passing down the intergenerational trauma that exists in our fractured communities, so that my children are empowered to lead themselves into their own future, healthy and unscathed by our past,” she says.
“I don’t want my kids to be prejudiced in any way. So I’m seeking ways of how to teach them about their identity but then also how to be part of a unified South Africa.
WATCH | Thania Petersen's Sawt:
In the video, her son reappears on the Cape coast as if he has crossed the Indian Ocean like her Indonesian ancestor Iman Abdullah ibn Abdus Salaam (known as Tuan Guru), a political prisoner brought to this foreign land by the Dutch.
As a teenager, Petersen also spent time in a foreign land while in exile in London with her father, musicologist Bienjamin Petersen. When she returned to South Africa in 2007, at the age of 27, she was confronted with an identity struggle as a “foreigner” in the new South Africa. This also raised the issue of her people’s deep-seated identity crisis and the lack of acknowledgement of their contributions to the country.
“The music score was done by my father and Tony Cedris using indigenous instruments as well as instruments that had come with our ancestors from the East.”
IDENTITY AND LAND
Identity is closely linked to our relationship with land. Nations, leaders, corporations, people still fight over land and the state of our environment is a clear sign of how we’ve abused the land. However, a new generation, new nomads with laptops and 5G appear to be shifting the dynamic. An outdoor sound installation titled Ziyarat (a form of pilgrimage to holy sites), which Petersen presented during the 2019 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, also challenges us to rethink how we define ourselves. For Petersen, spirituality provides a sense of home and we don’t require land or structures for this. Through the use of sound in Ziyarat she suggests more fluid ways of belonging.
“The reason I chose sound was to imagine a way for us to be liberated from how we define ourselves by the land we live on or the land we think we come from.”
As an artist and parent, Petersen is preserving history and passing it on — with a new lens — for the next generation.
“My family is the main reason why I started practising again. This yearning to readdress things, rewrite things, try to instill pride and dignity and to fight for this. Fight for what belongs to us, which is our history and heritage.
“I try so hard not to talk about colonialism, because as long as we talk about it, we are somehow enslaved by it. It is important to seek ways of moving forward. My main concern now is to try to create a narrative that is not dictated by Europe or colonialism and to try to always concentrate on the strengths and resilience.
“And pick up on a narrative that relates to the relationship between Africa and Asia, because there is a lot of awareness about trans-Atlantic movement through history and colonialism but there is little conversation about the Indian Ocean. If we could enliven that, retrace that, find it, bring it back … “
Through the accompanying prayer mat tapestry works in her show, Petersen also traces the history of Islam in the Cape and its grounding in Sufism. They also highlight the strong spiritual thread in her work.
“I believe people accomplish great things through having some sort of great faith or spiritual connection, no matter what that is. This is also what my work is about. Religion, spirituality — whatever you want to call it — is, in fact, our strength. It is where we are propelled to be the best we can be, to create our finest art, best architecture, paintings, temples, frescoes, pyramids. All of this is being eroded by nationalism.
“We need to reclaim our sages and our knowledge. It belongs to humanity. Storytelling is the most important thing, the fabric of society. We need to reclaim our stories.”