ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: THANIA PETERSEN | The Royal Portfolio
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1 May2020

by Nicole Sorour

An Exploration Of Cape Malay Heritage.

As the world attempts to navigate the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, we wanted to share some insights into the work of some remarkable African artists whose pieces are displayed at The Silo Hotel. The Silo Hotel has over 300 pieces of contemporary African art. The Biden family have carefully curated the collection in collaboration with a number of local art galleries. The intention is that it should be in keeping with that of Zeitz MOCAA below.

Born in Cape Town in 1980, Thania Petersen is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work focus on photographic ‘self-portraits’, installations and multi-sensory based performance art. Her reference points include the history of African colonial imperialism, contemporary Westernised consumer culture, the legend and myths of Sufi Islamic religious ceremonies and her deeply held Cape Malay heritage.

From an intensely personal perspective as an Indonesian ‘Malay’ woman and mother, Petersen adopts various theatrical personas including a mythological Queen and a botanical Goddess. She reflects on her childhood growing up as a girl in a secular Muslim society. Her solo exhibitions ‘I Am Royal’ and ‘Located on an Oblique Slanting Line: Remnants’ are explored below, including her pieces ‘Saman’ and ‘Arches’ which hang in The Silo Hotel.

A Brief History of The Cape Malay

The brightly-painted Bo-Kaap (Above The Cape) District in Cape Town is home to the Cape Malay people. Rich in religious traditions, the Cape Malay culture has played a large role in creating the diverse and colourful Cape Town that we know and love today.

The Cape Malays, also known as the Cape Muslims, came to be in South Africa when they were brought as slaves by the Dutch. The Dutch imported slaves from numerous countries – they were for the most part, skilled artisans, political prisoners and exiles from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Having built some of the first Mosque’s in South Africa, the founders of the Cape Malay community were the first to bring Islam to the Cape. The Cape Malays were also responsible for the creation of the Afrikaans language which had evolved as a language of its own through a simplification of Dutch. It was in fact educated Muslims who were the first to write texts in Afrikaans.

The Cape Malay community’s first language is Afrikaans but English is widely spoken. Although they no longer speak Malay or other languages of their ancestors, there are still many Malay words and phrases used today, such as “trim-makaasi” meaning “thank-you” and “kanalah” meaning “please”.

Cape Malay cuisine has brought a wonderfully distinct flavour to the Cape. Adaptations of traditional foods such as Bobotie, Sosaties, Koeksisters and Cape Malay Curry are favourites in many South African homes. Dishes that are well worth discovering on any trip to Cape Town.

Click here to view Executive Chef Veronica Canha-Hibbert’s signature Cape Malay recipes – Cape Malay Beef Curry, Bobotie and Rotis.

I Am Royal

Thania Petersen hosted her first solo exhibition, I Am Royal, at the AVA Gallery (Cape Town) in which she explored her ancestral connections and traced the ancestry of the Cape Malay people, who were once considered slaves, back to royal routes existing in Malaysia. Petersen is a direct descendant of Tuan Guru, an Indonesian Prince in the late 1700s brought to South Africa by the Dutch as a political exile and imprisoned on Robben Island for many years. He was never enslaved and after his release opened the first mosque and school in Bo-Kaap where he lived. Petersen explores the universal themes of personal and historical identities by reconstructing herself in various guises often invoking ‘what remains from our ancestor’s rituals and history in our lives today’.

In another solo exhibition, Located on an Oblique Slanting Line: Remnants, at Everard Read (Cape Town) Petersen asks what it means to situate oneself upon a slash. Seated on the floor of a mausoleum in Surat, Petersen performs the Saman, a “dance of a thousand hands” that is associated with her Indonesian heritage and practised in South Africa in an altered form. “An oblique slanting line is the slash or stroke between two words such as “her/his” or “Spring/Summer”. Alternative concepts separated by a slash either exist simultaneously, thus displaying ambiguity, or present two options that provide a choice. A slash can be used for the sake of political correctness, to neutralise bias within language, or to avoid taking a position in a naming dispute. What would it mean to be located on an oblique slanting line?” – WHATIFTHEWOLRD Gallery.

Follow The Silo Hotel’s Instagram account to be notified when our next Artist Spotlight goes live! 

Artwork By Thania Petersen

Images courtesy of Thania Petersen and WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery.

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