Kinstler Conversation with Thania Petersen
By Maddie Klett
The following is a conversation with Cape Town, South Africa based artist TP Petersen. This interview took place in November 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Maddie Klett: What goes into making your work? Do you work with other people?
Thania Petersen: I work with artisans in South Africa, North Africa, and Asia. This year alone, I've worked with about a hundred artisans because I believe that it's very important to work collaboratively between the two continents, as a gesture. I believe crafting is a love language. Sewing. Mending. It's just beautiful. You cannot associate any bad with craft. I guess that's why people never took it seriously in the first place because it wasn't that provocative. It was just something that existed as part of our love language in our homes. It existed with us. So for me, it's very important that I work collaboratively and I work with artists in these different places.
MK: How long does a textile take to make?
TP: It is difficult to say how long the work takes because it depends how many artisans I work with at a time. The process is very long as you can imagine. But I would be lying if I gave you a timeframe on one piece.
MK: It takes as long as it needs to take.
TP: Yes. I've spent two years on a piece and then I've spent two months on a piece double the size. Also, because of the way light falls onto thread, it changes the colors and it's something you have to take into account. You cannot just buy thread and think, “oh, I like this color.” It's not so simple. I end up pulling things out, restarting, and sometimes it just takes on a life of its own.
MK: Sure. Because there are so many humans involved in making the work, it makes sense that there is no strict timelines. The tapestries are not made by machines. When you say the works take on lives of their own, how does that happen? Is there any kind of improvisation on the side of the artisans? What does that collaboration look like?
TP: Not so much. With all the artisans there's a very definite line because they don't feel comfortable. They want to know what they need to do, and they don't want to be left to decide things. Of course, their job is so labor intensive and the last thing they need is someone to say, “oh, what do you think?” They really don't want you to ask them that. So I've got a very strong relationship with the artisans that I work with and we know and understand our boundaries.
MK: Sure. There is a certain level of expertise that they contribute with their craftsmanship.
TP: Absolutely. We can really push embroidery in places that we both are perhaps uncomfortable with. For instance, I draw something and ask, “how will I get this texture?” And we experiment. That is where collaboration really comes into play, when we start experimenting. When we combine concept with technical skill. That is where the magic happens.
MK: How did you begin Drowned Bodies Never Die? The puzzle is the middle panel of a three-part tapestry.
TP: It is part of a triptych, but it actually is part of a much larger body of work. It's about the Indian Ocean and about the relationship between Africa and Asia. There is a lot of attention on the Atlantic, but no one really speaks about the Indian Ocean, about the histories, about the traumas, about the forced migration, the trade. And it's ancient.
We have a particular way of singing in the Cape, which was brought from Indonesia. It's a Sufi tradition. When I started tracing the movements and the migration of our music, it opened up this whole world which preceded colonization because our entire existence in South Africa starts, according to our textbooks, when Europeans arrived. This is the only reference we have growing up to who we are. The history of our music and the migration are much older—and it puts us into a world that is dominated by love but not violence.
Being from a minority group in South Africa, I am what they call a “Cape Malay” but we are kind of grappling with the description. We are sort of an Afro-Asian mix. We are Creole community, and in that sense we exist only in the Cape. We have practices and rituals, which have now become the fabric of the Cape. Yet we've always been othered because of our Asian heritage.
I started looking into the histories of Africa and Asia. Did you know how the first chicken was brought to Africa 5,000 years ago? From Indonesia. It's actually an Indonesian forest bird. I started becoming an investigator, because you cannot count on facts—facts are often not facts, if that makes sense. I started looking into the movement of our music. So this particular triptych was prompted by this journey towards music. Then I went further and I started finding all these people between Africa and Asia that had done the most incredible things. The people depicted on these textiles all existed before colonization. It challenges everything that we've been fed. In essence that is what the textile is about.
MK: Where are you getting ideas for the visuals you incorporate? How do you decide what you want the work to look like?
TP: With that particular triptych that is very much the Indian Ocean. It's also mythological and fictitious. There's this idea of what we’ve been told in a mythological realm by our parents, by our grandparents. (Ibn) Battuta is stitched in. He was a Moroccan voyager and he was incredible. Then there's another woman stitched in and she was an Indonesian queen. And if you look into that, you'll find this whole other history. Each character is supposed to provoke the viewer to dig deeper.
There are lemons. And the reason why I put them there is because we have a ritual, which was also brought from Indonesia but it traces itself back even further to other places across the Indian Ocean, where we collect lemon leaves. We smoke it with frankincense, we mix it with essential oils and then we hand it out to each other on a particular day… it just becomes a part of our lives. This is a ritual that was brought to South Africa three hundreds of years ago. And it's something we still do communally.
Although my work looks very pretty, it is embedded with symbols which are very violent, because that is what South Africa is. If you come to Cape Town, it is the most beautiful city you'll ever see. And then as you get to know it, it becomes the most violent place. Even in the space of art, we are often portrayed as orient and pretty, and the reality is very different. The work is meant to challenge all of those things. I often make my work very pretty on purpose, and when you start to understand the symbols and what they mean, you start realizing that it is actually embedded with violence.
There are these mouths with no front teeth, and that's a recurring symbol in my work. When the colonizers first came to South Africa, they would extract the four front teeth of the indigenous people as a way of erasing their language, because the Khoi San language is predominantly made up of click sounds. By extracting their front teeth, they tried to erase the language and make communication between people very difficult. Then later it became known as the “passion gap.” In prisons in South Africa today, they still extract their four front teeth, but they say it's for oral sex reasons. But the argument that I have is that our prisons are a hundred-percent people of color, so this violence that we live with is inextricably bound to the very first reason our teeth were pulled out. If you come to Cape Town, you will find that in my community, people still pull out their teeth. I don't even know why they pull out their teeth, but they still do it.
MK: It is interesting to hear that every piece comes from something historical that has endured into today. Like the lemons, it's tied to a sustaining scent. The songs, the teeth, all continue in some capacity.
TP: Yes. And then you have this particular flower, which is called the protea, which is also in the landscape of Drowned Bodies Never Die. This is made in the same shape and emblem of our rugby team. Our government appropriated all indigenous things like the flowers on our mountains, our springboks, our animals. And they started giving them African or European identities. And they did that through sports. This is why one should never undermine the power of art and sports to influence people's minds. Because now, if you come to South Africa and you ask to see a springbok, chances are they will think that you're talking about the rugby team and not the animal <laugh>.
They did the same with our language. Afrikaans was first a Creole language, which was created by the people of the Cape. And not long ago, a hundred years or something. It was the aparteid government that actually took the language, stopped us from talking our language, and then forced us to learn what they called pure Afrikaans. It's really complicated. So while this flower just looks like a flower in that landscape, it is actually the emblem of the rugby team, and if you then look into the politics around sports in South Africa, you start understanding why that flower is in that landscape.
MK: All are breadcrumbs for viewers to follow. I like discussing what it means for an artwork to become a jigsaw puzzle because people will be interacting with the textile in a much different way than seeing it hung on a wall. Why do you think Drowned Bodies Never Die makes a good puzzle?
TP: I love the idea of a puzzle. It reveals itself while you’re making it. I love that. It's quite a personal interaction with the work and you get to see things, really small little symbols and flowers, which you may not see when you're walking past the work. Especially for me, where every single symbol is so loaded with significance, I think it will intrigue people to understand what the work means.
MK: It is a great way for people to connect to how the work is made and how you conceptualize it. When I think about the labor that goes into embroidery, there’s some affinity (although not to the same extent) with the time to complete a puzzle. Both require close looking and work over time.
TP: Yes, I agree. Kids can also interact with it. It's the kind of thing that families would do together as well, which I love. It starts conversation around what the work means, why they chose that puzzle, what attracted them to it. It's like a relationship—you unpack it and then you build it and then you take it apart.
MK: Truly! We always end the interviews with this question: What is puzzling you today?
TP: Attempting to cook a vegan lunch for friends on a budget … an exceptionally puzzling and challenging task.