Review: Roger Ballen / Die Antwoord

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Roger Ballen“My photographs take you in some places you’ve never been before and which you’re scared of. They stare at you, go inside you, they breathe and their heart is beating. Look at them intensely and you will feel it,” says Roger Ballen.

The internationally acclaimed New York-born, South Africa-based photographer was approached in 2010 by Yo-Landi Vi$$er of cult band Die Antwoord, who proclaimed her mind “totally blown” by Ballen’s work.  The result was the now famous collaboration between Ballen and Ninja on Die Antwoord’s ‘I fink you freeky’ music video, and a Ballen photo of the zef rap pair gracing the front of the New York Times in January 2012.

This exhibition, at the Erdmann Contemporary & The Photographers Gallery, shows a range of photos of Yo-Landi and Ninja by Roger Ballen, as well as photos from his Shadow Chamber and Outland series which were an inspiration to the band.

While Yo-Landi and Ninja were unable to attend the opening, Ballen – a surprisingly mild-mannered, middle-aged man in a sensible jumper – mingled shyly with the crowds.

The people drawn to see such an exhibition were an odd bunch: hipsters, art-lovers, Roger Ballen fans, Die Antwoord groupies, photographers, press and more, all craning to view Ballen’s dark and disturbing black and white photographs.

Most of the photos depict Yo-landi and Ninja in what appears to be the graffiti-strewn rooms of a ruined house, as though they themselves are graffiti come alive… or rather perhaps humans becoming graffiti. Props, including clothes, are minimal: a chair, a rabbit, a grubby child-sized mannequin. Ninja’s frown is all pervasive while Yo-Landi morphs confidently from empty shell to siren to crazy woman. In one, she stands wrapped in a cheap blanket, apparently lost in thought while live white rats form a fur collar around her neck, and a black rat perches on top of her head.

Depression and fear stream from the images.  I even heard one viewer referring, his voice full of admiration, to the series being “like a horror movie”. But there is also an underlying charm and even humour, particularly from Ninja, whose head sticks out of a trapdoor as though a pig’s head on a plate, or who sports a t-shirt with an impish grin on it, and holes for his nipples to become the eyes.

The photos were all shot during the production of Die Antwoord’s “I fink u freeky” music video which shows – an installation in itself – on a loop in the corner of the room.

Intense, shadowy, and utterly compelling, this exhibition challenges us to explore and accept our dark side.

Alina Preis and Daisy Ions

The Roger Ballen/ Die Antwoord exhibition runs until 27 October at the Erdmann Contemporary & The Photographers Gallery, 66 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town.

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