If you google ‘Jana Babez’ you’ll be bombarded with images of her posing (and exposing) for the camera with Lady Gaga. This photo of her with Gaga quickly replicated itself over the internet shortly after Jana was picked from the crowd as VIP onstage guest at the celebrity’s Cape Town show. In matric, 2008, Jana Terblanche was awarded 300 out of 300 for her final visual arts mark, placing her top in the Western Cape. A feat that, if you’ve ever written an art history exam or had to endeavour subjective marking for practical work, can be admired. Having just graduated from Michaelis in 2014, she continues to shock, inspire and perform. She’s a performance artist and social queen, a self-proclaimed ‘babez’ and Britney Spears fanatic. Her areas of interest include notions of feminism, social constructions of women and the role celebrities play in defining ideals. She might be a bit risqué and wild but to succeed as a performance artist, you need some of that.
Who are you and what are you doing?
I identify myself as a performance artist, Britney Spears superfan and wannabe Playboy Playmate. I use my body to expose complex power structures that restrain and strip the female body of agency. Although right now I’m waiting for my nails to dry.
Why did you decide to become an artist? And a performance artist?
You don’t just become Shia Labeouf, you are born Shia Labeouf. No, I’m joking, but I don’t think I ever really decided. I’ve always gravitated towards visual thinking. I remember winning a still life competition in Grade 7, and my bowl of oranges was printed in this obscure calendar. This was kind of an aha! moment for me, because here was something I was good at and could take seriously. Of course now I run around in a pink gimp suit so, so much for that. The immediacy of the body as a medium is what draws me towards performance art. It also feels intrinsically right to engage with the mistreatment of the female body, using my body. It’s like an f-you to the system that oppresses us *cue Christina Aguilera’s Cant Hold Us Down playing*.
What do you enjoy, or alternatively dislike, about it?
It works for me because I have quite an outgoing personality, but internally I’m grappling with a lot of issues. Performance art 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 it is you are pushing culture forward. There’s always that moment before each performance when I’m all dressed up and about to enter the public where my stomach is just an explosion of butterflies. It’s equal parts awful and amazing, but it’s what keeps me going back.
How would you describe your style of art, and what influences it?
The visual aesthetic of my work is situated at the intersection between high art and low art. In Babez’s world Cindy Sherman is god and Britney Spears her holy disciple. I use signifiers of disposable culture (such as glitter, fake flowers, millennial stereotypes, paparazzi shots and porn magazine cutouts etc) to express quite complex and universal issues; as if begging the audience to ask, “Is she being serious?”.
In Leave Me Breathless, as part of the Plastic Bride Series, I marry the eternal bride figure with the disposability of plastic, and in the tensions between the two, we uncover new meanings. Together these disparaging ideas begin to dismantle normative conceptions of identity. I made a porn magazine titled Babez for my Michaelis graduate exhibition catalogue. I’m versatile, I can be your wifey, or your Playmate.
You spent some time living in London, how did this influence your art?
London, and particularly living East, were years of exploration for me while I grappled with the ramifications of independence. It’s all good and well to say you want no one to answer to, but the moment you have it can be a bit overwhelming. I went to some dark places, but also met some of the most beautiful creatures in the world that continue to inspire me. The biggest influence this period had on me, was just to learn to trust that I am capable of creating outside of comfort. It’s something I am still learning.
And now that you’re back in Cape Town, is this the city for you?
Cape Town is an incredible city, but there is still a lot of work to be done by all of us. There are very talented artists working here to expose conflicting dialogues and bubbling tensions. Hollywood Cerise (2013-present) is a character I created from my experiences being harassed on the streets of Cape Town. She is a tall, pink, faceless body with platinum blonde locks erupting over the top of her head. She is unable to walk and effectively interact with the public around her, thus becoming a metaphor for the disabled female body. At the same time she embodies the stereotype of the “slutty”, available, yet anonymous, woman men create to sanction their public provocations. This performance was prompted by a Cape Town experience, but is universally understood.
Hollywood Cerise (2013-present)
Was studying Fine Art at Michaelis what you expected it to be? Has your perception of the field changed since your first year? – And if so, how?
I’ve always lived and breathed the art, but my conception of what is considered art has changed immensely since I’ve been through art school. I would never have imagined me walking around in a plastic wedding dress, in Leave Me Breathless (2014), or taking the desert in nude mesh, in Don’t Desert Me (2014), to be considered art. I’ve also learnt that art can be fun and meaningful, and sometimes if something feels right, it’s probably because it is.
What’s the best piece of advice you received while studying?
Stick to your guns. People might not understand what you’re doing at first, but if you consistently push your aesthetic and solidify your concept they will catch up eventually. Plus by then you would have been there first.
Which of your creative projects are you most proud of?
Over the past few years while I’ve been pushing myself as a performance artist, I have grown attached to each of my characters and moments, but the most ambitious multimedia project I have conceived must be the Bride Series (2014). Bride Series centres around 3 separate performances in various Cape Town locations in full wedding dress regalia, but also extends to include prints, sculptures, installation, video and collage. I descended upon Rhodes Memorial, Llundudno Beach and Arderne Gardens in an elaborate lace-bodice bridal gown, with a hoop, sparkling diamond shoes, and a floral headpiece. The narrative consists of an anonymous, lonesome bride who carries no bouquet, but rather her head is engulfed by a bouquet covering her eyes. Her face is blanched perfectly white, she is effectively possessed by purity. The more she struggles, the weaker her strides become, the more her outfit strains against her body, but she doesn’t stop trying to complete some vague, unachievable task. She is a bride on a conveyer belt, lost and endlessly reproducible.
Bride Series had many secondary solutions in my final Michaelis Graduate Exhibition including a hanging dress installation and a video. So far I have only chosen one print from this series, titled They build you up to break you down (2014), because I felt it communicated the isolation and fragilty of the figure. I usually start with a simple female archetype, in this case the bride as a pure vessel, and see how I can subvert the original meaning. My performances do not provide a clear alternative to the pre-destined roles of a patriarchal society. Rather things are mirrored back to us to highlight their absurdity.
Why ‘Babez’? Is it an intentional move away from your birth name?
It was actually an accident! While I was living in London, I became completely obsessed with the word “Babes!” as a means of addressing people. It’s just so cute and sweet. So I wanted to change my name to that on Facebook, and of course they wouldn’t let me, but for some reason they let me have “Babez”. My friends joke with me that I sound Spanish now. Wtvr, babes.
What’s your obsession with Britney about? And your Barbie inspired logo?
I means she is Miss American Dream since she was 17, is that not enough? In all seriousness, I really believe Britney Spears is the perfect product of our time. She came into our consciousness as this sugary sweet, tanned angel supposedly unaware of her sexiness. We’ve watched the transition from good girl gone bad, to marriage, divorce and eventually succumbing to the pressures of stardom in a glorious, blockbuster hair shaving incident. I love Britney without irony, she is a pure deity. I find the intersection between South African culture and American popular media very engaging. We’ve all grown up watching some American television and listening to music from there etc. Thus, there exists this simultaneous uncomfortable relationship and disconnect between our two situations.
In my Miss American Dream (2014) performance series, that comprises of videos, prints and collages, I explore the performative nature of fame and breakdown using Britney’s 2007 escapades. I recreated many of her iconic breakdown looks e.g. with the pink wig, umbrella and her Starbucks. By manipulating and taking ownership of the performance of femininity we can begin to usurp the power that systems hold over the female body. This is not about denying yourself blonde hair, jewels and occasional insanity to avoid the perils of the patriarchy, but rather we 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. I chose it. Anyways Courtney Love did it first.
The Barbie logo is really just for a bit of fun and contradiction, because even after Andy Warhol people still don’t feel comfortable with fine artists taking on a pink, Pop aesthetic.
Miss American Dream Series (2014)
How do you perceive your role as a potential influencer, or trend setter?
I don’t really. I’m watching the growth of performance art in South Africa, and hopefully I can be a part of that.
What are your plans for 2015 and beyond?
Having just completed my Honours in Fine Art, I do have my eyes on a Masters degree, but maybe not just yet. I want to try find and grow my artistic voice away from art school, before I return. For the moment I am focused on getting my work out there and creating new dialogues by exhibiting as a part of group shows. I’ve also started some collaborative work that will begin to take form very soon.
Where can we stay updated with your work?
Mourning Series (2013)
Bride Series (2014)
Desert Series (2014)