Cape Town man uses tricks learnt in prison to create Khoisan art

2016-04-21 09:49
Khoisan-artwork artist Robert Petersen. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Khoisan-artwork artist Robert Petersen. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

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Cape Town – Robert Petersen was encouraged to break the rules as a youngster growing up on the Cape Flats during apartheid. He inevitably landed up in jail twice and joined the 26s gang for protection.

But he vowed to start a new life when he came out. He even turned away from a small scrap metal business he started when he realised some goods were the proceeds of crime.

Speaking to News24 on Wednesday, Petersen, 55, detailed his journey from prisoner to artist.

His Khoisan-inspired artwork has been on display, along with two other artists, at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town since February. It was the first time Khoi art had been displayed there. 

“I asked the Lord to give me some guidance to help me because I had debt on my shoulders,” Petersen smiled, a gang tattoo peeking out from his collar.

Unusual murals

“One day I just picked up stuff, marble and bricks, and I went home and looked at it for almost two or three weeks.”

In a flash of inspiration, it came to him to crush the materials into a powder and mix it with glue. “I saw in prison where they make papier mâché and mix it with soap.”

Some of Petersen's "smaller artworks" or tiles, which he says can add value to your house. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

The murals contained an unusual mix of crushed leaves, bricks, rock, marble, sawdust and mosaic tiles.

Someone advised him to use Khoi San figures in his murals. He worked from pictures he had seen. “I have never been in caves to see the artwork for myself. One day I would really like to see it.”

Petersen’s artwork had also remained hidden from view. 

“His art was lying in his backyard in Lavender Hill,” the Castle's project manager, Moeshfieka Botha, said in disbelief.

Just as the Khoisan passed on their stories, Petersen too was passing on his art skills to his nine-year-old grandson.

Petersen with one of his murals, inspired by Khoisan art in caves. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Khoi displaced by the Castle

“I would also like him to take the artwork further. And one day when I am not here, I know the artwork will be in safe hands,” he explained.

Petersen hoped to use some money from his sales to mentor kids in gang-ridden areas.

“They are sitting on corners and that is how the gangs recruit the youngsters. Our kids are talented but gangsterism today has taken over and the kids can’t see the bright side of where they can be one day.”

Botha said the Khoi art displays were part of a series projects taking place throughout the year to recognise the indigenous people displaced by the castle 350 years ago.


More of Robert Petersen's murals. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

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