/ 26 December 2023

Driven to protest for Palestine

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Decorating Baker Group taxis with messages in support of Palestine. Photos: Knut Otto, Reza Khota

There is a settled rhythm to the afternoons outside Herzlia High School, the independent Jewish day school in Vredehoek, Cape Town. It involves an agitation of parental cars and school-appointed marshals watching over a hubbub of uniformed students. 

But since the start of the Israel-Gaza war in October there have been complications, notably heavily armed private security. And, occasionally threading its way through the militarised suburban melee, there is a minibus taxi with “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea” displayed on its bodywork.

This taxi, which plies a route across the City Bowl into the CBD, is hard to miss. In the manner of cabinet ministers, it is wrapped in a black-and-white fishnet pattern keffiyeh of the design popularised by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It also prominently features watermelon slices, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

The vehicle is one of three taxis owned by the Baker Group that declare camaraderie with Palestinians at a time of escalating grief. Each features a unique design. 

One lists the names of 16 000 Gazans killed since the start of the conflict. Another features a pre-1948 landscape painting of Jerusalem overlaid with portraits of Palestinian journalists (such as twins Muna and Mohammed El-Kurd) and intellectuals (notably Edward Said).

The designs are by Cape Town artist Thania Petersen.

On 25 November, when Petersen launched this mobile intervention at the Castle of Good Hope as part of the Infecting the City public arts festival, she told filmmaker Dylan Valley: “I love the taxis, because the taxi system is the largest black-owned, black-run system in South Africa that isn’t reliant on white or Zionist money and support. What they symbolise is liberation.”

Taxis inject “misbehaviour” into the settled routine of urban life, added Petersen, with a mischievous laugh. “We need to misbehave sometimes. Now, more than ever, we can see the people who make the rules are not the right people.”

Curious to learn more about Petersen’s, motives, both as an artist and activist, I scheduled an interview.

Petersen recently moved into a new home in Plumstead. The skateboarders’ half-pipe in the substantial garden hints at a favoured pursuit of her three adolescent sons. Her grief and rage at what is happening in Gaza is partly informed by their presence.

“I look at my children and I think, ‘There are kids in Gaza who are the same age,’” says Petersen. “How are they living?” She describes being “overwhelmed with sadness”. Rather than wallow in her grief, she decided to revive a good idea from a previous edition of Infecting the City. 

In 2021, she wrapped a taxi owned by Ziyaad and Fatimah Dyason with a collage of motifs from her photos, films, tapestries and installations. The design featured Table Mountain, ghoema players, minstrels and the dental modification known as a “passion gap”. It also included a self-portrait from Petersen’s career-announcing photo series I am Royal.

For this series, started in 2014, Petersen wore elaborate garments and headdresses linked to her Indian Ocean Sufi heritage and posed in various resonant Cape sites, notably District Six and the Bo-Kaap. 

I am Royal asserted cultural identity and manifested pageantry as the twin pillars of her Cape-influenced art. 

Petersen has since refined this recipe to include key ingredients of colour, humour and consumerist maximalism.

She says her boys prompted her to make the series. They had just started school and she felt their heritage and culture was unrepresented. “There was nothing of us. 

I am Royal was a gift for my kids, so that they could know who they are in this space.”

Petersen worked with her husband, a skater turned photographer, on making the portraits. 

At the time she still ran the Cardamom Monkey, a bookshop and bric-a-brac store in Observatory. She showed artist Justin Davy her unpublished photos when he visited. Davy, who worked for dealer Elana Brundyn, asked if could show the work at the 2015 Cape Town Art Fair. 

I am Royal was an instant hit. The South African National Gallery acquired an edition. Major institutions in Holland and the US followed suit.

“I was over the moon. I was so happy about that because now it is for everyone’s children.”

Petersen was born in 1980 in Cape Town. When she was four years old, her activist father fled the country. 

“My aunt and uncle took me with on their honeymoon and, when we returned, Daddy wasn’t there anymore,” says Petersen, who grew up in Athlone. 

In 1989, she joined her father in London. Petersen completed her high schooling in rural Cornwall. Interested in photography and its ability to describe the malleable self, in 2001 she enrolled at Central Saint Martin College of Art, London. 

Much like Berni Searle, a Cape Town artist whom Petersen has come to greatly admire, she initially focused on sculpture. 

After a chance encounter with Zimbabwean artist George Mubayi she dropped out of college to practise stone sculpture in Chitungwiza for a year. More adventures followed, including a ceramics apprenticeship in South Korea.

When she returned to London, Petersen found work with the Notting Hill Carnival, an Afro-Caribbean street festival. She made props. The gig, which lasted seven years, was hugely impactful. Less so visually, says Petersen, than psychologically.

“I was the only one who was not seen as African, yet I was the only African within the group. It gave me an amazing understanding of who we are in Africa as a ‘Cape Malay’ community.”

Petersen doesn’t like the term “Cape Malay”. An observant Muslim, she is also ambiguous about the term “Cape Muslim” favoured by cultural historians such as Gabeba Baderoon. She prefers “Cape creole” as it doesn’t limit identity to a religion. 

“It is difficult,” she concedes. “I mean, I don’t know what to call myself, to be honest.”

Petersen’s heritage is complex but also decisively linked to the Indian Ocean. She prefers to accentuate her mother’s highborn ancestry than dwell on her father’s family history, which includes enslaved people.

“My mother is eighth-generation direct descendent of Tuan Guru,” she says in reference to the Indonesian-born Imam Abdullah Ibn Qadhu Abdus Salaam, who introduced Islam to South Africa. 

“I know I have to acknowledge victimhood but I also want to complicate our stories. I don’t always want to be seen as descendants of enslaved people. Of course, it is part of who we are.”

Petersen’s art and activism are twinned by their assertion of a creole identity that for too long was appropriated by others. “I can’t count the number of times people tell me I look like a Tretchikoff painting and ask to take my photo,” she says.

I ask Petersen what she thinks of Irma Stern, the aristocratic secular Jew who dedicated a substantial part of her career to painting Muslims across Africa.

“Oh god, she’s terrible,” Petersen responds. “She’s part of the problem.” 

Petersen rejects the implied passivity of Stern’s portraits, which she says render people as “ornaments in a landscape”. 

Much of the foregoing is narrated in Petersen’s impish way, where anger and attack are modulated by humour and gentle retreat. 

Her tone changes when I ask her about Gaza. She speaks deliberately and without revision. 

“I stand against apartheid. I stand against colonialism. I stand against the occupation of any land. I believe that Palestine should be free of Israel. I believe there should be a ceasefire and that indigenous people should be allowed to live on their land.” 

I ask if she favours a one- or two-state solution. Petersen sighs. I read it as wounded exhaustion. She hasn’t thought about it. “I don’t know what the answer is after such incredible violence and such a loss of trust.”

There is a strand of activist thinking that says criticism should also be propositional. Sometimes, though, a situation can be overwhelming, beyond magical thinking. All one can do is speak out, demand, criticise. 

What, I ask Petersen, makes her want to add her voice to the protests around Israel’s actions in Gaza and her longer-standing position of a free Palestine?

“I don’t know how to keep quiet,” she says. “I wish I knew how to because my anxiety is killing me.” 

Petersen refuses the description “activist”. “Everyone is saying this. I think I am just more visible because I am an artist.”

Famous or not, she says she would protest, regardless. It is part of her family DNA. It is her nature to be tjatjarag. 

“I am going to say what I want to say. Hopefully, I say the right thing. Sometimes I pray inside and ask my tongue not to betray my heart.”