Helge Janssen Art on a limb

For Helge Janssen, cult status’ has meant an 18-year career on the margins of the artworld. He spoke to HAZEL FRIEDMAN

EVERY city has its cultural heroes, those living legends who define the times (and themselves) by defying the norms. Durban had Helg Janssen, DJ, designer, film-maker, performance artist and painter, tapping into the psyche of the city, the country and the self.
But Durban lost Janssen because it didn’t quite know what to do with him. Johannesburg has Janssen now. But it too will probably force him, along with other like- minded artists, into creative exile, because it has given him not a rough deal, but no deal at all.

“In South Africa, there’s a misperception that artists are dispensable. They receive no feedback and acknowledgement is usually awarded posthumously,“says Janssen.

He is well qualified to criticise. In the Seventies and early Eighties he was doing stuff which was unprecedented in Durban. His forays into 8mm film, fashion and performance produced works which did not merely rebel against convention, but functioned within their own idiosyncratic paradigms. This earned him cult status in the avante-garde club and theatre circles. But to the cultural establishment, he was a maverick, an artist to be emulated, perhaps, but never fully

In 1984, together with four others, he founded a multi-disciplinary dance and theatre company called Body of Despondent Artists. The founder of a fanzine called Facet, he became the fulcrum of Durban’s subculture. When his models alighted the stage in gear that would have elicited a gasp from Gaultier himself, “the cameras went beserk. They wouldn’t know what to focus on, so they’d do close-ups of the model’s boots, because those were the only fashion statements they understood.”

His ventures into street theatre provoked both cheers and jeers from bemused onlookers. And when he performed a demonic ritual demonstrating the evils of apartheid in the mid-1980s, he was condemned to hell by Christians and hailed as the disciple of American devil worshipper Anton Le Vey by satanic cult followers. It seemed no one could separate the message from the messenger. No one, insists Janssen, except himself.

All at once he is Pierrot, Pulcinello, androgyne and agent provocateur. Yet scrubbed clean of his kabuki-clown mask, he looks terribly fragile, his eyes unable to mask years of creative and emotional wear and tear.

“I grew up with a sense of separateness,” recalls the sailor’s son who rejected his parents “at the age of three. I built up a range of defense mechanisms in anticipation of rejection.“A one-time biology teacher, he attributes his finely tuned perceptions to time spent, literally, looking through a

During a three-year stint in Europe, he trained under his mentor, mime and performance artist Lindsay Kemp. “That was my turning point. Together with my encounters with contemporary art, that training made everything fall into place.”

Surprisingly, for tradition is hardly a word one associates with Janssen, his paintings are pretty, well, traditional. Painted in bright hues, their distinctiveness lies primarily in their surface design, and they constantly evoke the struggle of the white boy with the European sensibility and African spirit that neither travel nor time can exorcise.

He seems a little startled at my “traditional” observations. “I suppose I do work within the tradition of theatre. But I see myself as this wheel with a central core from which all creative spokes emanate. You can’t separate or eliminate one spoke, because then the whole wheel is thrown out of synch.”

But Janssen’s wheels seem now to be in circular rather than forward motion. Pauperdom has forced him to rely on the generosity of patrons. He seems neither ahead of nor inside his time. He talks a lot about synchronicity. But mostly he talks about a sense of separateness from the community that once hailed him. “There’s a horrible lack of continuity and interaction within the art world. That’s why people are working increasingly in isolation. They’re afraid their ideas will be appropriated and their creative contribution ignored.”

And that is tragic, indeed, particularly for an artist whose passion is a theatre of the senses, the body and the psyche.

Helge Janssen will hold One Night of Mayhem—performance art, paintings, fashion and film spanning his 18-year career—at the Odyssey Theatre, 8 Ameshoff Street, Braamfontein, from 8pm on December 3

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