“A lot of people think that I succumb to this ditsy blonde role,” discloses performance artist Jana ‘Babez’ Terblanche. We’re sitting in a chic coffee shop on Kloof Street in Cape Town in South Africa; her pink highlights are a vivid counterpoint to the starchy white walls and tablecloths.

“But actually, I’ve used it as a vehicle, to push things further. Almost to see how far people will accept it.”

Winner in 2014 of the Simon Gerson Prize for outstanding student work at her alma mater, the University of Cape Town, Terblanche has created a striking portfolio that “interrogates the strains on the modern female body, using the breakdown of female archetypes to shift the way that we think about female agency and desire.”

It is fizzing pop culture unbottled and forensically analyzed, repurposed for a fluid feminist agenda. Her preoccupation with the icons that populate the macabre landscape of celebrity glitz and media voyeurism – Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton – has its roots in formative years spent in sparsely-populated mining towns in Namibia, where her only access to a cultural elsewhere was the radio.

“I’m South African, I’ve spent most of my adult life here, but my childhood seems disconnected from everything else,” she says.

“I also feel almost like my childhood was another life, another person. The first time I heard Britney Spears I was like, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t understand. I was in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, dreaming about an American reality, because I didn’t know what cities meant. So I actually had quite a warped interpretation of the outside world.”

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Her Namibia Series revisits these desert moonscapes where the well of her creativity was first mined; she appears in flowing chiffon against the spectacular umber backdrop of the Fish River Canyon. Her face is hidden – a recurring motif in many of her photographs.

“I cover the face because I want it to stand in for every woman,” she says. “I don’t want it to be personal.”

In Bride, her face is obscured by a mask of roses, swarming like bees; in Hollywood Cerise, she is covered head to toe in a magenta body stocking, her ponytail spilling out like an insistent yellow question mark.

Her work is luridly confrontational but archly self-aware, a good-humoured, interrogational pop feedback loop.

“Initially people thought I was joking,” she laughs. “What is this little girl doing, making art about Britney Spears? She’s walking around in a pink suit, what does that mean? It took a lot of perseverance to say I’m going to stick to my guns, and only if you carry on do people say, oh, she’s still doing this, there must be some merit to it.”

Jana ‘Babez’ Terblanche (Photo by Jody Brand)

There is plenty of a salty sort of grit too, and a fierce determination to expose misogyny and patriarchal oppression. Nightfall, a performance piece in which she strapped bricks to her feet and walked across Company’s Garden, a famous local heritage site, was inspired by the March 2017 brutal street-corner murder of sex worker Nokuphila Khumalo by the famous photographer and artist Zwelethu Mthethwa.

“After that incident, his work was still being sold in galleries,” she says. “I was so infuriated, I couldn’t believe this. Someone literally profiting off the back of a woman he had murdered. I was going mental. There has to be a point where publicity is bad, but no, there isn’t. So I did this work, in memory of her and in solidarity with sex workers.”

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The fallacy of neutral space, the idea that women can ever feel safe outside their own homes, is something she interrogates with passion.

“Space is not neutral at all. On a certain level, men navigate the world without having to be afraid,” she says.

“Walking on the way here, there were three guys in front of me. And I hate the fact that my mind immediately has to go to walking a bit slower – honestly, I had to stop around the corner. I consider this hyperawareness a form of repression that’s not spoken about.”

She talks about the common phenomenon of women feeling compelled to wear ear buds when on the street, just to deter unwanted attention.

“All the space in the world is male space. If there were women-only spaces, men would just get angry about it – men are so fragile. Isn’t that scary, that my mind went there? I thought about men, before I thought about the woman. God, that’s so messed up!”

Terblanche warns also of female complicity, of women who seek to appease male aggression.

“I’ve had so much kickback from women, and I’ve gotten very upset about it, thinking, wow, aren’t we supposed to stand together? But then I realized how strong internalized misogyny is. We’ve all been conditioned, and we have to unlearn these things.”

At its best, with its polaroid tang of glamor and grime, Terblanche’s work stands toe to toe with its clear influences – performance artists Marina Abramovic and Ana Mendieta, and the shape-shifting roleplay of photographer Cindy Sherman. It is provocative and playful, but with a dangerous, hidden razor’s edge.

“I’m always playing a version of myself. We are all playing versions of ourselves,” she says, as the busy Cape Town café characters come and go. “That’s what’s so exciting about performance art. You can be someone else tomorrow.” – Written by Alastair Hagger