Maverick Life

SENSE OF RITUAL

Creative artist Juliana Venter is a true original keeping us in touch with ourselves and our environment

Creative artist Juliana Venter is a true original keeping us in touch with ourselves and our environment
Juliana Venter onstage with the Norwegian Paal Nilssen-Love band. (Photo: Supplied)

The vocalist and experimental performer Juliana Venter reveals she is an artist who believes it is art’s function to keep us in touch with a higher, fuller meaning to our otherwise mundane lives.

Multidisciplinary artist Juliana Venter now lives in Norway, but she remains deeply involved in South African film and music.

When did you first identify as a creative artist? 

I studied to be an opera singer with Dawie Couzyn from 1984 at the Johannesburg School for Art, Ballet and Music.

I was going to be an interpretive artist, which does not necessarily exclude being creative, but you are more bound to the rules of the composer or writer. I am glad I have a classical music background because it gave me a tremendous sense of discipline, focus and, of course, technique, as well as an ability to go into depth. 

Yet, in order to directly confront and engage with my background as an Afrikaner under the apartheid system, I found it much more important and interesting to be able to create original work in response to it. 

In a sense I was also lucky. I found myself in the midst of the big change in Hillbrow during the State of Emergency. My young mind was opened by meeting artists who were at the forefront of political and creative change – people such as the great actress Aletta Bezuidenhout, actor Marcel van Heerden and the director of the Market Theatre, Barney Simon. I spent half my youth in Jameson’s music club downtown in Johannesburg and the legendary jazz club Kippies. 

Those were wild and rebellious days. It certainly taught me not to trust any state or politician and to question authority. 

Juliana Venter w Paal Nilssen Love band pic by Petra

Juliana Venter, left, onstage with the Norwegian Paal Nilssen-Love band. While Venter lives in Norway, she remains inspired by South African music and art. (Photo: Petra)

Which artists in other disciplines have inspired you and why? 

Well, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Van Gogh, Rothko, Kandinsky, to name but a few.

Colour and light in art can be seen or experienced as music. Take the great influential French composer Olivier Messiaen. He made extraordinary music and was deeply inspired by colour and birdsong. He could recognise 700 different bird songs. 

“When I hear music, and equally when I read it, to see inwardly, in my mind’s eye, colours which move with the music, I sense these colours in an extremely vivid manner.”

This he used in his compositions Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–1958) and La fauvette des Jardins (1970), Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (1986) and Jardin du sommeil d’amour and his Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946–1948.)

He was interested in how colour relates to scales and chords: “What does a rose window in a cathedral do? It teaches through imagery, through symbolism, through all the characters that inhabit it – but what most catches the eye are its thousand spots of colour which ultimately dissolve into a single, very pure shade, so that someone looking on says only, ‘That window is blue’, or ‘That window is violet’. I had nothing more than this in mind,” he wrote.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), one of the greatest German poets and a natural scientist, also wrote extensively about colour. Similarly, I am obsessed with colour and nature in my work. 

I am obsessed with art films and the theatre of Christoph Schlingensief, Frank Castorf, Romeo Castellucci and Vegard Vinge for their ability to merge visual art, theatre, music and text in a revolutionary manner, and through this always confront the audience with their inner state and the world around them in the context of the current political climate in the most vibrant and original manner I have ever encountered.

What, to you, is art’s most important function? 

To keep us reflective of ourselves and our environment. To keep the human element alive and to sensitise the listener or viewer to their environment. To provoke, challenge, and magnify beauty and destruction. To keep us in touch with a higher, fuller meaning to our otherwise mundane lives.

We are in a time where we are being fed bread and circuses as an acceptable culture while we are in danger of completely losing deeper meaning. 

The ritual in performance is a central point for me as an artist, especially in a time where the digital age has removed us from this. If you look at indigenous groups across the world, singing, dancing, ritual and even voodoo formed an essential part of everyday life. This is the point of any art form to me. 

Local creatives that excite you?

Composers Andile Khumalo and Cara Stacey, bassist and composer Carlo Mombelli, jazz drummer Kesivan Naidoo and Khoisan artist and musician Garth Erasmus, composer and trumpeter Mandla Langeni and visual artist Nandipha Mntambo, to name just a few.

Which works, be it art, literature or music, do you keep returning to again and again, and why? 

It would be the works of South African poet and artist Wopko Jensma and visual artist Wayne Barker. I think they mirror each other in the way they dealt with our history.

The way in which Barker took Pierneef’s artworks, the symbolism of Afrikaner nationalism, and changed them, placing within them the nasty truth our collective consciousness tried to avoid.

These works are burnt deeply into me. I always love seeing his works. They are always vibrant, deep, multilayered and filled with humour. He is an artist that has truly understood, lived and reflected on our heritage and never ceases to explore its new horizons. 

Jensma’s poetry has helped me, in a sense, to remind myself where I come from as an immigrant. His poems might have been the first-ever Dadaist Afrikaans poems. He took the Afrikaans language, placing it with isiZulu or isiXhosa words or Portuguese or Dutch words, often portraying very sinister topics during apartheid. I have a duo album that will be released in autumn that consists – among many different styles – also of the Dadaist Wopko poem Kniediep in die Kak (Knee-deep in Shit). 

Iannis Xenakis is a composer I return to over and over because of the sense of ancient ritual in his music, as well as the fact that I have never ever heard anyone make such unusual music. And then there is Dizzy Gillespie – how on earth does one make music like that? 

What are your thoughts on the AI revolution? 

Is it a revolution? As Noam Chomsky wrote in the New York Times: “Let’s stop calling it artificial intelligence and call it what it is: plagiarism software. It doesn’t create anything, just copies existing works from artists and alters them sufficiently to escape copyright laws. It’s the largest theft of property ever since Native American lands by European settlers.”

Venter will release several albums this year – solo, duo as well as a collaboration with Norwegian drummer and composer Paal Nilssen-Love. She is also composing an opera with traditional South African instruments based on “a South African true story”. DM

Mick Raubenheimer is a freelance arts writer.

This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R35.

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