Roger Ballen makes some pretty freaky art. You'll probably recognize his black and white photo of the thick-necked, large-eared twins from just about every single photo compilation book published over the past 20 years. And you'll also know his slightly disturbing scribblings from the video he directed for Die Antwoord's "I Fink You Freeky"—a project that came about eight years after Ninja and Yolandi first contacted the artist to tell him that they loved his work.
Recently Ballen released a book, also titled I Fink You Freeky, that features a bunch of his photographs of the South African duo posing in front of his artwork and installations. I got in touch with Roger to have a chat about the project and what it feels like to stop by Ninja and Yolandi's house for a bowl of pasta, only to discover that it's covered in a bunch of his own artwork.
VICE: Hey, Roger. How did this partnership with Die Antwoord begin?
Roger Ballen: I think it was in 2005 that Yolandi emailed me and said she loved my work and wanted to collaborate somehow. I said, “I don’t know you, I’m not really doing video and I’m in Johannesburg," because they were in Cape Town at the time.
In 2010, some people started writing to me and calling me, asking if I'd seen this band that had gone viral who were using my images and drawings, and what I thought about it. I looked the band up and saw that it was Yolandi and Ninja.
Were you OK with them using all your images without permission?
For every one photography fan, there are 10,000 music fans, which means that having Die Antwoord spread the Roger Ballen aesthetic makes my audience that much wider. We got in touch again and discussed how we were going to continue our collaboration. I'd been working on a book called Asylum of the Birds, going to this boarding house of itinerants where birds fly freely and people come and go, sleep and live their lives alongside these birds. I showed them some of the pictures, which they loved, and together we chose images from that series and from archives of my earlier work to inspire scenes for a film.
Oh yeah—the video for "I Fink U Freeky." Tell me more.
It was a five-day shoot at a warehouse in Johannesburg. I made the installations. I walked around the streets looking for things that fit—old mattresses, pillows, thrown away dolls, garbage cans… things like that. Then, in one of the warehouse outhouses, we found a lion. I guess someone had left it in there—a real stuffed African jungle lion. That was good. They decided to be white Africans, and then I think it was Ninja who said the African boy should take the machete and beat the lion over the head with it. Or maybe I said that—I can’t remember, we worked really synchronistically. Anyway, it went well with the beat of the music.
Is it coincidental that you use white Africans in your work? Or some kind of political statement?
I never do political work—I leave that to politicians. I happen to be white and my psychological quest happens to deal with me discovering my interior, but circumstances have also led me to being known for my photographs of white Africans. When I first arrived here [in Johannesburg, from his native New York City] in the 1980s, I wasn’t allowed into the black areas, so I had easier access to whites. I now have enough pictures of black Africans that I could publish a big book on just that. But my work isn't about white Africans, it’s about the human condition.
What aspect of the human condition?
When I began photographing here, I would come to houses where parents would let their children draw on the walls and where strange objects would be left lying around. They were poor or indifferent, uneducated or chaotic. Life was about survival. They were sometimes violent, dangerous places, where it was life or death. When you walked into these places, you would think it was insanity. But if you believe in creativity and liberalism, why do you think this is insanity? Why is this insane? Why not let the grass grow?
True. Tell me more about your relationship with Ninja and Yolandi.
Well, they always call me Mr. Ballen. After the shoot and the success of the video, they called and said, "Mr. Ballen, would you and your wife like to come to dinner?" They live in Johannesburg now, just three miles away. We rang the bell, got through the usual security gates that houses have here, then walked into their place. It was dark at first, but when my eyes adjusted, I realized that every wall and ceiling in every room—the kid’s room, the kitchen, the bathroom, all the rooms—were covered in my drawings. At the dinner table, as we were eating, I looked up, and on the ceiling looking down at me was one of my cheetahs.
That sounds kind of creepy.
I really liked it. Maybe it’s a womb. We all want to return to the womb, really, don’t we?
I suppose. What did you eat at this dinner party?
Two books of Ballen’s works have recently been released through Prestel: Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen (June 2013) and I Fink U Freeky, in collaboration with Die Antwoord (September 2013).