09 Jun Young South Africa: Jenna Bass & Hannes Bernard of Jungle Jim
Among other achievements Jenna has made numerous music videos and short films and is currently working on a feature film, Love The One You Love, and a rap-musical mini-series.
Currently based in Amsterdam, Hannes runs a design and illustration consultancy between Cape Town, Saõ Paulo & Amsterdam.
In their spare time – which we’re finding hard to believe they have any of – they produce Jungle Jim, which Jenna edits and Hannes designs. The illustrated pulp-literary magazine showcases imagination-driven, genre-inspired stories by African writers. The ‘zine is described as:
Bizarre, provocative, thrilling and extreme, we seek stories that explore the collision between the visceral daring of pulp and the reality of living in Africa. Jungle Jim is a exploration not only of fantastic fiction, but of the boundaries of cultural mash-ups and cheap, creative DIY publishing.
The magazine is distributed internationally in print and digital formats, promoting new stories and pictures from across the continent and diaspora.
As part of our 2014 Young South Africa series, we asked Jenna and Hannes more about their mutual project, their individual work and their thoughts on South African creativity.
Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be where you are now in your careers.
Jenna: I originally studied to be a magician at Cape Town’s College of Magic – which was for about 7 years, before I was 18. From there, I moved onto making films, and I studied directing and writing – hoping to make feature films as my career. It’s been a bit more complicated than that, but I’ve set about getting there by working on different film related projects, in different roles, wherever possible those that matter to me, which will connect me with other interesting people and different aspects of life.
Hannes: I’m originally from Cape Town and studied an undergrad in visual communication design at Stellenbosch University. After working as senior designer at The President I moved to Amsterdam to complete a Masters in design at the Sandberg Instituut in 2011. Now I run a design and research consultancy called SulSolSal based in Amsterdam, Cape Town and São Paulo with my Brazilian partner.
How and why did you start Jungle Jim?
Jenna: Hannes and I were sharing an office in 2010, and we were both getting quite frustrated with the demands of our conventional work at the time – especially the way money was making our art slow, bureaucratic and compromised. So we started speaking about starting a magazine together where we had total independence, and would shake things up in some way. Quite idealistic but we decided to see where it led. We both loved pulp, and our local heritage found in fotoboekies, and Bitterkomix, and we felt that there wasn’t anything quite like this around anymore. We wanted to create something that we would want to read ourselves – something not only with words, but with pictures – that anyone could read and enjoy anywhere – and couldn’t put down – and would embrace what was seeming to be a bygone time of subversive, popular literature.
What do you want Jungle Jim’s message to be?
Jenna: That reading literature can be really fun – and challenging at the same time. Entertaining genre fiction doesn’t have to be dumbed-down and African literature can be about truly anything.
Hannes: Connect with the places that have shaped your environment today. We have a lot more in common with the rest of African than with the rest of the world, so let’s start there!
Who are your contributors?
Jenna: African writers from across the continent and diaspora. To date we’ve featured writing from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia, Sudan, Zambia, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, Lesotho, Egypt and Libya. We also have a small team of South African and international illustrators.
How do you decide on a theme?
Jenna: In the past, we haven’t had individual themes per issue – rather, we look at a balance of stories by country, style, genre, subject and tone, to give each issue its own independent personality. This was because one of the things we’re most proud of about the magazine is its diversity in the above respects. Only very recently we decided to experiment with themes, purely because they presented themselves – we had a number of submissions that seemed to go well together and we thought we’d try that out – so we’ve recently released a Colonialism themed issue (which we thought would be a good comeback after our hiatus in 2013), and shortly a ‘Bad Romance’ issue, and beyond that – a ‘Wild Women’ issue. Needless to say, none of these themes is straight-forward nor predictable – so they go very well with what we see Jungle Jim’s role is, in challenging the expected.
What makes the cut?
Jenna: We look at a lot of factors when selecting stories – first and foremost I think is originality – in subject and style and opinions, new takes on genres especially, and most importantly, imagination. We look for stories and writing that is visual – that lends itself to the kind of imagery we present in the magazine. We prefer strong narratives, which will grip readers and that use the power of storytelling. Of course we’re looking for new writers, and new territories to represent. The ‘quality’ of the writing is definitely very important, but we acknowledge the fact that for some of our contributors, English is a second language. Rather than exclude these authors, we look more at the quality of the storytelling, rather than the ‘correct-ness’ of their English prose. But being independent does mean that personal taste definitely comes into it – we have no one to answer to, so we’re essentially free to publish work that we care about.
What do you think are some of the defining characteristics of the South African creative industry now?
Jenna: Like the country itself, and even the separate fields in their own right, I struggle to really see South Africa’s creative industry as being cohesive. Things are certainly happening, but to a large extent they’re very separate, and it’s difficult to find blanket characterizations. If anything, I feel in some ways we’re at a creative ground zero. We’re still very influenced by our past (not in itself a bad thing), and by a filtered down version of western style – I think everyone can feel that there’s huge potential to make and to say things, but there’s also a complacency, or a hesitancy to push for something that is uniquely our own, even if it is controversial.
Hannes: The last 3 years in Europe and Latin America have given me a different view of the creative scene in SA. Maybe I’ve become an outsider looking in, but it seems the scene in SA is actually devolving somewhat. That’s not to say there is any lack of talent or amazing work, but I get the impression that a large part of it, at least within design and advertising, is still hung up on our Apartheid-era obsession with being regarded as a ‘first world’ country. It’s no secret that our young designers have consistently been pumping out Euro and American replicas. While this has obviously been quite lucrative for some, I think it’s totally reinforced a foreign aesthetic in SA. It’s simply not enough in 2014 to reproduce styles from the ‘West’ with a ‘touch of Africa’. When people in Europe discuss the ‘progress’ of the SA design scene, it’s in relation to how it has become a viable place to outsource design, advertising and production, since SA is now producing on a European or American ‘standard’ and I think this is massively problematic.
This is not limited to SA, and we’ve seen the same thing in Brazil, Argentina, China and across the so-called ‘developing’ world. At the same time we’ve also witnessed the design scene in Amsterdam, Belgium and France (and wider parts of Europe in general) referencing so-called ‘3rd world aesthetics’ more and more, as a total counter-force to the modernist discourse and aesthetic ‘rule’ of the 20th century. This is happening with a very clear and critical awareness of design history and ideological implications, since these are also subjects that are widely taught in European design schools. On the one hand it’s yet another case of neo-colonial re-appropriation which seems to still be the basis of so much European art and design today, but on the other it also highlights the ambitions of a society challenging the vanguard of design within its own definitions.
If we want to copy anything from the West, I think it should be the focus on critical design, contextual awareness and a fuck-you-attitude to what we think is interesting, urgent or even popular, instead of importing aesthetics simply because their euro-ness, celebrity or association with big brands give us some sense of global recognition. I think the ultimate defining characteristic of the creative industry in SA is the ability to radically redefine how we imagine, see and produce ‘Africa’, and we should take advantage of that as it will have greater global currency in the long run.
Are you excited/positive about the future of the industry here?
Jenna: Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be trying to work within it – but there are definitely a great many things that I am discouraged and fearful about, more than what is positive perhaps – but at the same time I feel privileged to be working in a conflict zone – because otherwise there would be very little exciting to be done.
Hannes: Despite my criticism, I am – precisely because I think we are faced with very real and obvious design problems on a daily basis. And luckily we don’t have the ideological design ‘baggage’ of Europe. As Jenna mentioned, we are truly at ground zero, and we should totally embrace that.
In your opinions, what are young creatives in SA doing right and what still needs work?
Jenna: I think the previous question about the creative industry covers this for me. Except that perhaps I would like to see more combinations of ideal and reality – it’s very tough to really look at the place we live, and honestly ask yourself what people need, and what will make a difference – because in many ways it’s not very pretty, and the answers are not what we want to hear. But art cannot exist, I think, without civil consciousness.
Hannes: Ditto. We should push local design problems, develop platforms for designers so that we can engage with local issues, and shift our focus from branding to critical design methodologies.
What have been some of your highlights – both in your personal work and for Jungle Jim?
Jenna: For me, it’s probably just the point when you’ve put something out there, whether it’s an issue of Jungle Jim, or a story, or a film – something that started off as an idea and has passed through all these processes of getting made – and then someone else gets it, and enjoys it. That’s always a good feeling. I’m always hugely touched by how proud our authors are of Jungle Jim, and having their work in the magazine – I think writers across Africa feel the need for something like JJ as much as we do.
Hannes: I think the general surprise that Jungle Jim, despite having no viable business model, has been massively successful in not only marketing our skills but helping build a wider network of people who have similar interests. Instead of cracking our skulls developing concepts or work that benefits other people/brands, we get approached by people who relate to what we are interested in.
What have been some of the challenges?
Jenna: Jungle Jim is a side-project for both of us, so it’s very tough trying to run it reliably, in the midst of the many other projects we usually each have going on at any given time. Running the magazine essentially is, or should be, a full-time job, and we already have about three full-time jobs each. So that makes things difficult. Distribution is also challenging, as the aspect of pulp publishing we have yet to adequately embrace is the huge quantities and thus wide accessibility. We’d love to make the magazine available more widely across Cape Town, South Africa and the rest of the continent… but we’re working on it.
Hannes: Definitely the logistics – despite the rapid development across Africa, arranging pan-African distribution is still a major headache. This problem is twofold – not only are we dealing with countries that are mostly insulated for whatever reasons (geography, language, socio-economics etc), but major services, like Paypal or Amazon, that have allowed Jungle Jim to be ‘international’ are simply not interested in places like Nigeria right now. On the other hand, this means there is massive gap in the market for such services in the future.
What are you currently working on?
Jenna: I’m finishing off my feature film, LOVE THE ONE YOU LOVE, which is set in Cape Town, and follows a couple who suspect there’s conspiracy afoot to keep them in love. I’m working with the very awesome hip-hop collective DoodVenootSkap in Lavender Hill on a collaboratively workshopped rap-musical mini-series for CTV. And I’m developing and writing a couple of other film projects… amongst probably too many other things.
Hannes: We are busy developing some client projects in São Paulo, including a bicycle-based market for produce and design in the downtown area, as well as a short film on Izikhothane in SA, the Rolizinho’s in Brazil and the link between shopping and violence in the current global economic model. In October I will be heading to Cape Town with an exhibition and workshop-series of critical design and self-initiated projects by designers from The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Thailand, China and Brazil.
What are the best and worst things about being young and creative in South Africa now?
Jenna: I think the best thing is, as I said, working in a place that is effectively in a kind of crisis or flux, that gives you something to fight for, and to communicate – and forces you to really question everything. Also the fact that because we do have so far to go, we’re at a stage where anything goes. We have the responsibility to experiment and be really crazy… which is a good place to be. On the other side, things are not easy if you’re trying to make money out of being creative – but I think that’s what you signed up for, and if not, then it probably just makes you try harder, if it’s something you really have to be doing.
Hannes: The ability to define the industry from the ground up.
Jenna: Jungle Jim #24: The Bad Romance Edition – with stories from Kenya, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi!
Find Bad Romance at The Book Lounge, Clarke’s Books and Blank Books in Cape Town or online on Amazon Kindle from next week.