“Everybody uses a taxi, you know?” artist Thania Petersen says, reflecting on her latest artwork, which covers a minibus taxi travelling the route from Hanover Park to Cape Town. It was launched as part of the (Un)infecting The City public arts festival in May to create accessible art viewed by many different people – particularly those excluded from the traditional art world.
“How we feel the city through the sound of taxis is something very unique to those who take it,” she says. This sentiment inspired her short film, Kassaram, which she developed into the Taxi Project. Images from the film are the material she transposed onto the taxi.
Petersen has been making art all her life. Her work takes on multiple forms as a mash-up of photography, performance, video and multimedia installations that reference Islam and its cultural and historical practice by Cape Creole people, interrogating her lineage. Through bright, striking imagery that draws on this heritage, her artworks – which have been exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally – subvert historical tropes and redefine symbols to create new meanings.
Created during the hard lockdown, Kassaram, a 12-minute film, draws on stereotypes about the Cape Creole community (which the apartheid government called “coloured” and “Cape Malay”), which she reinterprets to reflect the real roots of these diverse people.
“My great grandmother always referred to things as being a kassaram when they were out of place … It always implied things … being out of order, things being upside down and things being in a mess – which is what I feel the state of postapartheid South Africa is. I feel like it is one massive kassaram, where everything is not how it should be.”
Petersen continues her work of “self portraits” and plays various roles in the film, including a flower seller and a Cape Carnival performer. Loud and disturbing images of red lips appear with a “passion gap”, referring to the practice of removing front teeth. This is deliberate. In talking about stereotypes she says, “The toothless mouth is always associated with ugliness or with a person who is uneducated.”
“I hate the word ‘coloured’,” she says, “so I’m going to say the Cape Creole community. In South Africa, this community is often perceived as less educated, less refined or less sophisticated. This type of imagery is used to solidify those types of ideas, which is not the truth. When you interrogate what these symbols mean, then it is not in any way nonsensical.”
Petersen discovered one possible theory for why people on the Cape Flats pull out their teeth. It dates back to slavery when they would run away from their slave masters. “Because slave owners would brand enslaved people on their teeth … they would pull their teeth out when they ran away. And this in itself was an act of liberation,” she explains.
Other images, including the popular hertzoggie and tweegrevrietjie biscuits, also appear. The encrypted political reference here is a promise from Prime Minister JBM Hertzog during his 1929 election campaign to grant equal rights to “coloured” people in Cape Town in exchange for their vote. A biscuit, the hertzoggie, was made in his honour. When Hertzog went back on his promise, another iteration of a biscuit was created, called tweegevrietjie (two-faced) as a symbol of that hypocrisy.
“These are stories I came across during research, which I resonate with. We’re in a space now where we can choose how we want to represent ourselves. I use these images to re-establish a new way of seeing things. When we become associated with these images, we stand proud because we understand their meaning. We’re not embarrassed because it is actually so cool … Because we are cool.”
Talking about the importance of creating new definitions of identity, she says, “Do you know that your mothers, grandmothers and your great grandmothers encrypted your food with political messaging as a warning to you to be careful about trusting your government? This is what this means. This is who we are. Isn’t this so cool?
“At the end of the day, all I’m trying to promote is self-love, to instil a sense of self- love within the spaces that I believe love has been lost.”
Sound as systemic
The sound of the film is what made her think of taxis. The music morphs from Malay choirs into energetic Cape Klopse sounds and then changes again into the kind of distorted bass music that emanates from a loud taxi.
“I wanted to connect the sound of the taxi, particularly the sound system, and the way the music is played. It isn’t something that you listen to, but rather it’s something that you feel. It brings back these memories of sitting in a taxi. It was always quite a menacing feeling for me because I didn’t like the way it felt. It reverberates right through your body.
“It is because I had no choice but to use that taxi to get from A to B. This too is what I’m trying to reflect on – that some of us are left with no choice in how we live, what we see, where we go and how we go to places, because it comes down to access.”
A loaded symbol
As someone who doesn’t drive, Petersen has been using public transport in Cape Town her whole life. “For me, the taxi itself is a great symbol in our landscape of the inequalities that we experience in the city and in this country,” she says. After completing Kassaram, the idea had been brewing about how to make the work accessible to others.
The film is currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in the United States and also at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. “It’s at all these amazing institutions, but the people that I make my work for can’t access it. I felt really sad about that. So it only made sense to put it onto a taxi – which is used by thousands of people.
“The experience of people of colour in South Africa is often amplified by our lack of access. That is what separates us. Our lived experience is compromised due to our lack of access to social services, like decent education or healthcare.”
Petersen describes the process of getting her work onto a taxi as surprisingly easy. Her mother put her in touch with taxi-owner Ziyaad Dyason, who has been involved in the business for years and runs a fleet called Thembekile Shuttles with his wife, Fatimah. Petersen called him in April to share the idea.
“We had no communication about what the work was going to be about,” Fatimah says. “We were just going with it solely based on the fact that we knew Thania and in good faith. We were happy to do it.” The couple agreed on the work for no fee as a pilot project.
“When she told us that she wants to send her art out to communities that don’t have access to it, that’s what sold me. She has such a passion for art. And my husband is very passionate about transport, so it worked,” Fatimah says. Petersen liaised with Jay Pather, director of the Institute for the Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town, for funding.
Referencing imagery, symbols and iconography from Kassaram, Petersen created a new work that would fit, wrapped using vinyl, around the taxi. Unsure of what to expect, the couple were amazed and delighted by the outcome. By mid-May the taxi was ready to operate. Petersen also fitted a big screen into the taxi to show Kassaram to commuters.
“Thania’s ideas are so good, and she isn’t afraid. I love that confidence about her. I love the fact that she’s out there to give back. What other acclaimed artists out there are doing this? Do you think they’re going to give back to a local community like Hanover Park? They don’t even know where it is,” Fatimah says.
The artist is taking up a residency at Zeitz until October. The museum is set up as a multi-gallery workspace, allowing access to the public to visit and have a unique insight into the artist’s process. And, for now, the taxi will operate for the next six months around the city, but Petersen wants to take the idea further.
“The dream is to invite other artists to collaborate in this space. So that one day when people are standing at the taxi rank in Hanover park or in Mitchells Plain, Khayelitsha or Langa, they will be so spoilt for choice. They can get to a point where they can say, ‘Actually, I’m just going to wait two more minutes. I’m … in the mood for a performance today. I’ll wait for the theatre taxi to arrive.’ If they’re not in the mood for the theatre taxi, they can wait for the music taxi and so on. So it would be a constant extravaganza of the arts to the point where people can choose what they want to immerse themselves in. And I don’t see why this is not possible.”