“I fink u freeky and I like you a lot” is the chorus line of Die Antwoord’s new rap/rave hit. It also sums up the way many people feel about Roger Ballen‘s graphic photographs. These images have provided inspiration for many of Die Antwoord’s outlandish costumes and video backdrops, featuring prominently in the first hit single “Enter the Ninja.” Now they make up the set for the duo’s new “I Fink U Freeky” single video.
Admittedly, the word “freakish” would be politically incorrect to describe many of the people and places Ballen has photographed. A few years back, traveling through the “Platteland,” which are the rural lands of South Africa, Ballen came across white South Africans who he describes in a video interview as “not being able to cope as well.”
To be frank, these people appear in his depictions to be in some shape or form, dysfunctional. As a result, his third book Platteland (1994) created quite a stir at the time by showing a group of people that the Apartheid regime, which was in power at the time, would rather have kept hidden away. In this way, his work shares a documentary quality akin to that of Diane Arbus, but with a darker undertone and deeper satirical twist.
Born in New York City in 1950, Roger Ballen grew up around photography as his mother worked at Magnum Photos. Later he began taking photographs as a hobby, capturing images during his travels that he felt were revealing not only of the landscape but also to himself. Inspired by Jung’s theory of the hidden self, Ballen photographs explore the dark side or the shadow side of human life. A premise that inspired the look of Die Antwoord characters Ninja and Yolandi Visser.
Expanding on his early series of works that were “straight shots,” Ballen began constructing images by inserting drawings and paintings in to the spaces he photographs. In his Boardinghouse series he covered the walls of the rooms with scribbles and child-like drawings that seem disturbing as their ambiguity infuses the image with an unnerving tension. These graphic drawings provide the ideal backdrop for the South African singer duo who can only be described as “different.”
Much to my surprise, during Die Antwoord’s Saturday night performance at New York’s Irving Plaza, the back screen projection showed a film sequence by Miami-based artist duo FriendsWithYou. Known for their upbeat public art projects, including kids playground inflatables and sculptures, their work with Die Antwoord takes an interesting turn as the friendly bubbly character in the video is featured sucking on a giant “zoll.” Ninja is quoted as saying, “when I die, and go to heaven, it’s going to be designed by FriendsWithYou.”
Ordinarily, I’d say these cutesy, upbeat characters seem in direct contrast to Ballen’s dark characters, but now they appear transformed in to an anarchic subterfuge.
Looking at the dangling and eerily drooping faces hanging from the ceiling of Irving Plaza I have to remind myself that Ballen’s sees his camera as a recording instrument and that the images from which these drawings originate, are constructed and not real. The guy behind me breathes down my neck and I expect to find one of Ballen’s characters ready to hit me over the head with a spade. But instead it’s a lanky skater-kid pumping his fist in the air chanting “Fok Julle Naaiers.” I wonder if he know what that means in Afrikaans?