WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present IQRAA, Thania Petersen’s latest solo exhibition. ‘Iqraa’, in Arabic, means ‘to read’. The first word uttered by the angel Gabriel as he descends from a violated heaven, it is the governing word which informs Petersen’s solo show. We must ‘learn to read’, she says, interpret the world in a more beneficent and inclusive manner, because if we do not do so we will remain the victims of religious dogma.
At the heart of this wager is the artist’s fear of the threat posed by Wahabism, a political distortion of Islam in which love and grace, the foundation of the world’s great religions, is betrayed in the name of a nihilistic absolutism. For it is Wahabism which is the toxic core of the extremist Islamic movement – the Jihadists – for whom there is no God other than a vengeful and cruel one.
This aberrant God – the God of Wahabism – is shrouded in black. It has transformed its followers into a death cult. What deeply concerns Petersen is the damage this cult has wreaked, the intolerance and hate it enshrines. And it is against this destructive distortion of Islam that Petersen has set up her counter-faith in which art, once again, assumes its sacred purpose.
Contra Sarah Thornton, for Petersen art is not some coolly contemporary ‘religion for atheists’, but an act of divination that must reconcile the now blasted and conflicted realms of religion and secularism. The rarity of this strategy deserves our attention, for if Petersen is wary of the destructive impact of religious fundamentalism, she is as wary of the illusion, trenchant within neo-liberalism, that in this modern era we are somehow exempt from belief.
In choosing the Muslim prayer mat as the defining form of her works, Petersen reminds us of the power of ritual and daily prayer, without which it is difficult if not impossible to sustain any hope. Her artworks, therefore, are talismanic tropes for a continuing and abiding faith-in-life.
Petersen does not seek to convert others to Islam but asks us to urgently rethink its misappropriation and misrepresentation. If her works possess a political stridency, it is because they challenge the aberrant religious and cultural practices which emerged after the colonisation of the Arab world, an aberration which we in South Africa are well aware of, because it has become toxically evident that those who seek to right a wrong often find themselves repeating the very abuses they sought to overcome.
Decolonisation is not perforce the sanctified answer to colonisation. What is lost, and what Petersen has enshrined, is the value of a faith that precedes and exceeds imperial abuse. Her prayer mats not only challenge the lethal infiltration of Wahabism, they also champion its overcoming. ‘Iqraa’, then, is Petersen’s counter-cultural and counter-intuitive reading.
Text by Ashraf Jamal
Thania Petersen (b. 1980, CapeTown) is a multi-disciplinary artist, using photographic self-portraiture, and multi-sensory performance and installation to address the intricacies and complexities of “identity” in contemporary South Africa.