“You don’t just become Shia Labeouf, you are born Shia Labeouf.”

A statement like such doesn’t leave the lips of someone who takes themselves all too seriously. Billing herself as “part-time performance artist, part-time wannabe Playboy playmate”, Cape Town creative Jana ‘Babez’ Terblanche deals in the deadly serious issues of feminism and contemporary womanhood, yet applies a liberal daubing of frivolity by regularly examining these issues through the skewed lens of celebrity culture – the self-proclaimed Britney fanatic hails Miss Spears as “a pure deity”.

Babez’s work is equally paradoxical. As Hollywood Cerise, the artist is a faceless, peroxide blonde embodiment of ‘sluttiness’ – “I run around in a pink gimp suit”, Terblanche quips – and in Miss American Dream, she evokes Cindy Sherman in posed scenarios straight out of Britney’s troubled and heavily documented past. There is fun and frivolity, but seriousness is the backdrop upon which this unseriousness sits.

“By manipulating and taking ownership of the performance of femininity we can begin to usurp the power that systems hold over the female body”, she says of Britney’s ‘iconic breakdown looks’. “This is not about denying yourself blonde hair, jewels and occasional insanity to avoid the perils of the patriarchy, but rather to take these back and claim them as our own. If I want to be an erratic, disheveled, yet fabulous mess I can be because there is power in that.”

Miss They Say I’m Crazy (2014)
Miss They Say I’m Crazy (2014)

Whichever character Jana is playing, the intensity level is set to overdrive; the South African’s contradictory nature extends as far as her personality and internal conflicts. “I have quite an outgoing personality, but internally I’m grappling with a lot of issues”, admits Terblanche when pushed on the realities of performance art. “[It] gives me the opportunity to work through these concerns and engage with other people in a meaningful way, without necessarily having to verbalise or simplify what I am trying to express. Performance art is really not about liking it or disliking it – the more uncomfortable you feel, the more likely you are pushing culture forward.”

And pushing culture forward the Michaelis School of Fine Art graduate is: Jana Terblanche is active in creating art that is free from the spectre of ‘Africanness’. This is something that Nairobi film director Wanuri Kahiu has noted of the oft-inescapable weight of the continent: “maybe we’ve only seen one image of ourselves for so long that it’s all we know how to create.” In taking cues from globalised celebrity culture, Jana is capable of transcending perceived notions of African art. “I find the intersection between South African culture and American popular media very engaging”, she explains. “We’ve all grown up watching some American television and listening to music from there, thus there exists this simultaneous uncomfortable relationship and disconnect between our two situations.”

While the narratives of African art have so long been bound by about war, poverty and devastation, Terblanche’s steps outside, existing largely in the confines of self: the artist’s own issues and freedoms dictate the space in which she operates. Serious or not.

In Bound, the frivolities and juxtapositions are left behind the creative abandoning all brands of kitsch in a powerful piece that explores struggle and perseverance. “The use of stockings as a stand-in for rope is intentional – it’s a symbol of women’s oppression”, Jana explains of the material that binds her in a powerful performance. “It symbolises how female bodies are restrained and restricted from accessing power. Restraints on a female bod­y can also evoke sexual connotations. It’s a meditation on how women’s bodies are treated violently, but simultaneously sexualised. Even though women have more visibility now than ever before, it’s not enough. We have thousands of years of oppression embedded in our skin.”

Indeed, as Africa shifts its image of war and poverty, the issues it shares with the Western world will be left bare. “This performance was prompted by a Cape Town experience”, says Terblanche of an experience of harassment that informed her character, Hollywood Cerise, “but is universally understood.”

Unbound from the stereotypes that haunt African art, but bound by the same issues that tie down the world at large, Jana ‘Babez’ Terblanche fights a familiar fight from an unfamiliar standpoint: an artist for a new Africa.

From Miss Debutante, Babez Calendar 2017 © Jana Terblanche
From Miss Debutante, Babez Calendar 2017 – courtesy of Jana Terblanche

John Segar

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