THE READER: Thania Petersen


The Cape Town-born Thania Petersen is a multi-disciplinary artist who focuses on photographic “self portraits”, installations and multi-sensory-based performance. A direct descendant of Tuan Guru  (an Indonesian Prince in the late 1700’s brought to South Africa by the Dutch as a political exile), Petersen explores the universal themes of personal and historical identities by reconstructing herself in various guises “of what remain from our ancestors rituals and past in our lives today”.

Petersen studied at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art in London as well as in Zimbabwe and South Korea. In 2015, Petersen was featured by Brundyn+ at the Cape Town Art Fair and with the AVA at Johannesburg Art Fair. I AM ROYAL marked her first solo exhibition at the AVA Gallery in August in the same year. Her next solo exhibition will be at the Everard Read’s Cape Town gallery next February.

What are you reading at the moment?

If reading was eating, I would have to describe myself as a grazer. I nibble all day long but never actually sit down and eat a full meal from beginning to end. I read many books at the same time at various times of the day — a little bit here and a little bit there.

At the moment I am carrying three books in my handbag which I read whenever I get a break in my day. The one I am most gripped by is The Pilgrimage by Iranian scholar Ali Shariati, the second one is Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, which I have just opened and the third book is a selection of Rumi’s Poems. Next to my bedside I have a pile of books which I go through depending on my mood. Tonight I’m reading the poetry by Wole Soyinka, the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and on my iPad I have an academic text I’m struggling to get through on the history of the Afrikaans language.

How do you decide what to read next?

What I am reading is usually directly linked to a project I am planning to do or something I am currently obsessing about like “how to make sushi” or some conspiracy theory on world domination or current consumerism, and always something on art.

thania-petersen-bookshelfWhat book has had the greatest impact on you?

Oooooooo, I’m not sure. I read Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh many, many years ago and it nearly put me off reading novels for the rest of my life. That left me scarred! I think since then I have only read three novels. One I highly recommend is The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. It’s the true story of the Persian Sufi poet Rumi and his friendship with his teacher Shams of Tabriz.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I have never been one to read fiction. As a child it must have been Roald Dahl’s BFG.

What’s your favourite book about art?

I have no idea how to answer that question. 85% of the books I have read in my life is art related — I really could not choose.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I loved Roald Dhal. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first book I ever completed by myself, I think aged 9. I was very proud of myself.

Your favourite magazine?

I mostly buy food magazines and find myself buying every supermarket monthly food mag — not glamorous but true. It’s just so easy to pick up at the counter and then know where to find all the ingredients afterwards — not that I actually make anything from these magazines but it seems like a practical and sensible thing to do every time! It’s like reading Metro everyday on the London Underground — you plan on going to all the gigs it informs you about but you never actually go.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Books are my absolute favourite gift to give! Today I gifted four people books: Making Art in Africa 1960-2010 edited by Polly Savage and three adult colouring in books. Yesterday I gave my friend an interior decorating book to inspire her as she is feeling overwhelmed and excited about a house she just bought and last week I gave my gallerist a book on a contemporary painter I’m currently enjoying, Barnaby Furnas.

Which book have you never been able to finish?

Almost every book I pick up. I use to own a bookstore / collectables shop in Obz and in my excitement of receiving new books weekly I would go from one to the other constantly before completing any — like tasting plates, everything is so enticing you skip to the next before you done with the one you eating. If books were lovers, I would be the most promiscuous of all lovers. Ha ha ha.

What book do you turn to for advice?

It depends what I am needing advice for. If it’s for health I tend to research alternative methods for treating ailments. If it’s guidance in life, I look towards religious and spiritual literature.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Almost exclusively paper books except for the occasional academic texts I download from the Internet which I would read on my iPad.

THE READER: Lerato Bereng

Born in Maseru, Lesotho, Lerato Bereng is a curator living and working in Johannesburg. In 2007 she received a Bachelor of Fine Art and in 2014 graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. She is currently an associate director at Stevenson gallery in Johannesburg and has been working there since 2011.  From 2007 to 2009 Bereng was selected as one of five young curators in CAPE’s Young curator’s Programme for which she curated “Thank You Driver“, an exhibition on mini-bus taxis as part of the Cape ’09 Biennale.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m Not Your Weekend Special edited by Bongani Madondo. I’ve been meaning to read it for the whole year and stillness would not be found. Finally reading it and I wanna be Brenda Fassie.

How do you decide what to read next?

I read quite spontaneously. Either a book will be recommended by a friend or colleague, or I will be interested in a particular thing and read books around that, or see something on someone’s shelf that catches my eye. Mostly I read on flights, stillness doesn’t often avail itself in Jozi.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I don’t have a single favourite anything but one that is gentle and memorable is a book called The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacquot de Boinod, which I discovered in a book sale pile years ago. The book is a dictionary of words that only exist in certain languages. For example the word “Mukamuka” is defined as Japanese for so angry one could throw up. I liked the idea of feelings that often transcend language but are universal. I certainly have been so angry I could throw up. This actually inspired an exhibition at some point. I have a thing for language and translation and the spaces between.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Tricky. I have many favourites for different days. An artist created one favourite of mine: Kemang Wa Lehulere has a character named The One Tall Enough to See The Morning, who features in his work – he made a drawing of him.

What’s your favourite book about art?

Oddly, I don’t have a favourite book about art. There are many that I find insightful or stimulating like Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It: The Compendium which is a collation of several DIY art works collected by Obrist of several years. I liked the approach of multiple versions of the same work / exhibition happening in people’s living rooms, project spaces etc. across the world.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Well we grew up hearing unwritten stories in Sesotho, and some of those like the story about “Tselane – a girl that was fooled by a sweet singing voice – are engrained in my memory. Roald Dahl’s Matilda had me captivated for a long time. Beverly Clearly’s series of books about a girl called Ramona taught me spunk at age 9.

Your favourite magazine?

I used to read Elle in my formative years, traded that for Art South Africa and Frieze when I first landed in the art world, and now I read whatever I come across. Chimurenga is still one of the gems.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

I bought my niece Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and gave my mom my copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a hospital read.

Which book have you never been able to finish?

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’ve had it for years, read it, but didn’t really read it and have had to re-read it a few times more.

What book do you turn to for advice?

My uncle Patrick Bereng wrote a book called Haboo. This tells the history of Lesotho’s royal family and its many branches. It is not really advice that I look for, but definitely a go-to-book to remember where I’m from when things get a little abstract.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Only paper books. A little old school of me, but weird not to turn a page or find an old receipt/note/flyer used as a book mark from 5 years ago.

Quiet chronicler of an anguished time


A year after Peter Clarke’s passing at the age of 84, the second edition of Listening to Distant Thunder serves as poignant and robust review of one South Africa’s foremost artists, celebrating his life and work.

South African Art historians Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs wrote the original edition over a period of seven years in close collaboration with the artist. The book was first published in 2011 (and with a print run of only 500) to coincide with the critically celebrated exhibition of the same title at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg that had been curated by Rankin and Hobbs.

With over 200 reproductions and photographs, a preface by Clarke (dated 2011), and the introduction (now rewritten poignantly in the past tense by Rankin and Hobbs in 2014), the re-released monograph, with its expanded distribution, serves to widen Clarke’s legacy and expand upon his life’s works. It will cement Clarke’s seminal position in the minds and hearts of those who followed his contributions while he was alive, and equally introduce him to younger generations who are now beginning to realise his contributions as the “quiet chronicler” in the history of South African art.

The book’s text flows effortlessly through historical facts and familiar memories imbued by Clarke himself, telling the story of an artist whose life, work and contribution to art spans over 60 years: a journey that is alive, personal and celebrated step-by-step.

We start with the origins of his family tree’s history – stretching back to the slavery of St Helena – and witness his early childhood in the Simon’s Town area. Illustrated examples of his first determined drawing and sketches, as well as family photographs, all serve to instil a lifelong investigation of the home, seascapes and people in their landscapes.

In 1956, Clarke – then a driven 27-year-old – decided he wanted to stop being a dockworker and become a fulltime artist. A move to Tesselaarsdal in the Overberg region near Caledon in the Cape fills prolific sketchbooks as he tirelessly observes his surrounds and the various peoples. As we chart the poetic foundations for his artistic language, we follow him into 1961 as the young man joins the printmaking department at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. Clarke then travelled abroad to study at the Rijksakademie in the Netherlands where he was exposed to the various techniques of printmaking. This period – the “Amsterdam experiments” – crucially includes the use of colour in printmaking that, until this point, had eluded him. Other ideas explored at this time included the use of colour reduction printing merged with an engraving technique – illustrating the beginning stages of what would go on to become his signature style.

We can see the undercurrent of upheaval in Anxiety, Clarke’s 1969 painting, which is imbued with the trauma of forced removals from Simon’s Town, and his relocation to Ocean View, a bleak and barren township. The work illustrates how his art delves into the sociopolitical experiences of ordinary South Africans, avoiding outright protest: his approach, by his own admission, is a strategic one. Poetic social reflections form a more subtle narrative – an indirect but powerful critique, nonetheless, of apartheid and its grievous consequences. The results reveal the true essence of Peter Clarke and his work – both a celebration of life and perseverance, and a deep sadness and struggle through the darkness in between. As the turbulent political climate escalated towards and into the 1980s, the metaphorical image of the bird – which recurs frequently in his artwork from this period – becomes a symbolic a source of freedom. Not bound to locations, flying above and beyond confinement and oppression, it is poignantly captured in the raw, seminal and widely reviewed Haunted Landscape.

As the chronology of the monograph progresses, there is the introduction of collage and handwritten text onto Clarke’s surfaces (which becomes another signature style of the artist) and the more apparent effects of apartheid are addressed and analysed. Illustrations of his Concertina and Fan series interplay with photographs of the artist himself as he reflects. A final photograph of Clarke sitting at the Ocean View Library, (which he financially supported and where he taught children art classes) reminds the viewer of his convictions and dedication to education and the future of South Africa’s youth. This book remains sensitive and aware of Clarke’s legacy into the very last sentence, where a final reference to his passing supersedes his final quotation:

Everything I produce is created firstly for myself and out of that urge generated by the agony and joy of my existence. But one is a part of people, an individual amoung a mass of individuals. So one’s artistic creation is meant not entirely for oneself and ones own indulgence. I am another person. I am also another person.

Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke is published by Fernwood Press.

THE READER: James Nilsen-Misra

After five years of working as a producer at the Handspring Puppet Company, James Nilsen-Misra recently opened his own studio at the Old Biscuit Mill, in Woodstock, Cape Town, to pursue a career in art, illustration and production design.

What are you reading at the moment?

Art and Homosexuality by Christopher Reed.  I really enjoy non-fiction, and in this work, Reed highlights just how modern the terms homosexuality and fine art are, unravelling these two “sibling’” ancestors. Also Ulysses by James Joyce. I love the complexity of this work, its distorted focus curving round that startles.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

Sins of Scripture. My premonitions were rather instantly sanctioned when I perused John Shelby Spong’s rather radical humanistic reading of ancient, so-called homophobic religious texts. Cleaving his way through a ludicrous Bible. It soon became strikingly clear that there really wasn’t much place for religious non-thinking faith in my world, despite the rugged influence in childhood.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee. Chuma Sopotela’s stage performance of the girl expounded to a full feature in my perturbed imagination as I paged in two gripping sittings. Sometimes a book takes over your life and you start living and breathing this new world so fully, people around you wonder if you’re OK.

What were your favourite books as a child?

What-a-Mess by Frank Muir about the wiry haired Afghan hound. Sprawling illustrations in line and colour by Joseph Wright play out unrelated events in the background. Theodor Geisel’s back-to-back rhyme in The Cat in the HatThe Twits by hilarious Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton’s captivating series The Famous Five.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Manshil Misra and I were married recently at the Centre for the Book, and duly presented our guests with books to take home. Basil Jones received What Animals Can Teach Us About Politics by Brian Massumi – apt for drawing parallels from War Horse to Handspring’s earlier political collaborations with Kentridge.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon. Crude, dark and ironic, this is a collection of newspaper clippings from a century ago. The writers often show their enjoyment in the telling of their subjects’ devastating misfortunes, making it kinda laugh-out-loud material. It reads a bit like a Twitter feed… random info in short titbits, yet the style is cohesive and it sits together well.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Its 4215 pages scare me, but I really love the abstract theme of memory, the questioning of art and the homosexual back-story.

Favourite art book?

Hjorvardur Arnason’s A History of Modern Art. The 1300 illustrations are an instantly accessible exhibition of work, right there on your desk. The layout makes for easy cross referencing too. Short and clear info about form, environments and motivations are great at kick-starting more in-depth research.

What book do you turn to for advice?

Debrett’s Guide for the Modern Gentleman, by Tom Bryant, is handy for mundanity. With everything from chopping an onion to climbing Mount Everest and from Greyhounds to email etiquette. That said, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman are good for the mind.

Your favourite magazine?

Artforum edited by Michelle Kuo. This image-filled publication with articles from an international writing pool makes for hours of contemplation. Though I’m probably a tad sentimental as I picked up a dozen free copies at the tail end of a New York Frieze.

What book would you give to the president to read?

Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton. This well-researched history is the history we were not taught at school. It is a remarkable survey of existence, persecution and contribution.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where?

I wish I could tell Eugene O’Neill what prize-winning successes his posthumously published plays were, internationally. I adore his realism and indelible character development and how he transforms ordinary events into epic tragedies. Keeping the invitation warm and personal, I’d have him over at my art studio. Throughout O’Neill’s life he had a “strong zen” for South Africa, after he watched Frank Fillis’s performative re-enactment of the Anglo Boer War in St Louis in 1904. He sailed to Durban in 1911, only to be denied entry, as he had no visible means of support.  So I’d love to show him this country.