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Published in the Sunday Times
A new year, a new pile of books to read. Here are some highlights to look forward to in 2018, as compiled by Michele Magwood.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (Headline)
Four siblings are told the exact date of their death by a psychic. The novel traces their lives over four decades in a story described as “a moving meditation on fate, faith, and the family ties that alternately hurt and heal”.
Under Glass by Claire Robertson (Umuzi)
The much-anticipated third novel from the award-winning author, set on a sugar estate in 19th-century Natal and chronicling the lives of the Chetwyn family. A deeply researched historical novel and an intriguing mystery, it is described as “a high-stakes narrative of deception and disguise”.
What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson (Little Brown)
A new essay collection from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist that examines the political climate and the mysteries of faith. She offers hope and a call to action.
Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele (Picador Africa)
A brilliant take on JM Coetzee’s classic that explores the weight of history and of conscience, by one of South Africa’s most compelling young authors.
Knucklebone by NR Brodie (Pan Macmillan)
Nechama Brodie is a welcome new voice on the krimi scene. This is a disturbing story set in Johannesburg that wrangles sangomas, disillusioned cops and animal poaching.
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Setting aside his popular detective Harry Hole, Nesbo takes on Shakespeare’s immortal story. “It’s a thriller about the struggle for power, set both in a gloomy, stormy crime noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid human mind,” he says.
Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Simon & Schuster)
Timely and darkly funny stories examining black identity in a supposedly post-racial era.
A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia (Umuzi)
A new novel from the award-winning Coovadia always creates a buzz. Here he imagines a futuristic South Africa, where Johannesburg has survived the end of the world because of the mining tunnels that run beneath it.
The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin (HarperCollins)
Has a book ever been as eagerly awaited as this? The sixth novel in the fantasy series on which the TV show Game of Thrones is based is due for release this year. But then, it was due last year too.
Tsk-Tsk: The story of a child at large by Suzan Hackney (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
In a style reminiscent of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Hackney writes of a childhood on the run, fighting to survive in a world of abandoned and abused children.
The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head by John Hunt (Umuzi)
Surely one of the best titles of the year, it’s the story of a boy growing up in Hillbrow in the ’60s and his friendship with an eccentric homeless person.
The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (Pan Macmillan)
The acclaimed Australian author leaves his familiar coastland settings and heads for the interior to the saltland next to the desert. A young runaway is on a desperate quest to find the only person who understands him. Described as “a rifle-shot of a novel – crisp, fast, shocking – an urgent masterpiece”.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Transworld)
The popular author’s new novel is based on the life of a female former Secret Service worker. Sure to be another runaway bestseller.
A Short History of Mozambique by Malyn Newitt (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
A comprehensive overview of 500 years of turbulent history, from its modern origins in the Indian Ocean trading system to the 15-year civil war that followed independence and its lingering after-effects.
Toy Boy by Leon van Nierop (Penguin)
Billed as an erotic coming-of-age tale and based on the life of a real person, this is the story of Tristan, a mysterious Johannesburg gigolo.
Homeland by Karin Brynard (Penguin)
The much-awaited English translation of Karin Brynard’s bestseller Tuisland. Captain Albertus Beeslaar is about to hand in his resignation when he is sent on one final assignment to Witdraai.
Brutal Legacy by Tracy Going (MF Books Joburg)
The shocking story of TV star Tracy Going’s abusive relationship that emerged when her battered face was splashed across the media in the late ’90s. She writes of her decline into depression and the healing she has finally found.
The Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni (Blackbird)
An entrancing novel that marries imagination with history, set in the time of Maqoma, the Xhosa chief at the forefront of fighting British colonialism in the Eastern Cape in the 19th century.
The Fatuous State Of Severity by Phumlani Pikoli (Pan Macmillan)
A fresh collection of short stories and illustrations that explore the experiences of a generation of young, urban South Africans coping with the tensions of social media, language and relationships of various kinds.
Born in Chains: the diary of an angry ‘born-free’ by Clinton Chauke (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Debut author Chauke shows how his generation is still affected by apartheid policies but writes with wit and a unique sense of humour about his life. It’s a story of hope and perseverance, and of succeeding against all the odds.
The Golddiggers: A Novel by Sue Nyathi (Pan Macmillan)
The Zimbabwean author recounts the experiences of her fellow compatriots trying to make a life in Jozi. The stories of these desperate immigrants is both heart-breaking and heartwarming.
Cringeworthy by Melissa Dahl (Penguin UK)
Subtitled “How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations” New York Magazine’s Dahl offers a thoughtful, original take on what it really means to feel awkward, relating all sorts of mortifying moments and how to turn them to your advantage.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (Grove Press)
One of the most talked-about books coming in 2018. Described as unsettling and powerful, it is an extraordinary debut novel about a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.”
The Madiba Appreciation Club: A Chef’s Story by Brett Ladds (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
A delightful memoir by Mandela’s former chef, spilling stories about meeting kings and queens, presidents, rock stars and even the Pope, as well as sharing Mandela’s favourite foods. – Michele Magwood, @michelemagwood
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Published in the Sunday Times
So much to read, so little time … here are some good places to start, with an emphasis on excellent local authors
Khwezi: The Remarkable Story Of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, Redi Thlabi (Jonathan Ball Publishers): One of the absolute must-read books of the year, it’s the harrowing tale of Khwezi, the rape trial and the consequences of President Jacob Zuma’s acquittal.
65 Years of Friendship, George Bizos (Umuzi): The human rights lawyer lovingly reflects on his friendship with Nelson Mandela.
Hasta la Gupta, Baby!, Zapiro (Jacana Media): The latest collection from the cartoonist/political analyst/agent provocateur.
Unpresidented, Paige Nick (B&N): Another hilarious satire from the columnist and writer — this time about No1.
Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany, John Maytham (Tafelberg): Random trivia collected by the talkshow host from his Rapid Fire insert on CapeTalk.
How to Steal a City: The Battle For Nelson Mandela Bay, Crispian Olver (Jonathan Ball Publishers): An insider’s account of the corruption and clean-up of the municipality.
Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would be King, Ray Hartley (Jonathan Ball Publishers): Hartley looks at how Ramaphosa has handled the key challenges he has faced in the unions, in business and in politics.
The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and out of Prison, Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg): The explosive book that has got the nation talking about Zuma’s shadow mafia state.
A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma, Ronnie Kasrils (Jacana Media): The revelatory history of the two men.
What Have We Done, JT Lawrence (Pulp Books): Dystopian thriller series set in Johannesburg in 2036 in which the heroine Kate has to save her loved ones from The Prophecy.
Spire, Fiona Snyckers (Clockwork Books): A box of frozen viruses is brought to Spire, a remote research station in Antarctica, and within days people are dying of diseases.
Bare Ground, Peter Harris (Picador Africa): The first novel from the Alan Paton winner is packed with political and corporate intrigue, with insights into the society we have become.
Bad Seeds, Jassy Mackenzie (Umuzi): Joburg private investigator Jade de Jong tracks down a saboteur in a race to prevent a nuclear disaster.
The Cull, Tony Park (Pan Macmillan): Former mercenary Sonja Kurzt is hired by a British tycoon to lead an elite anti-poaching squad to take down the kingpins, but the body count starts rising.
Tin Man, Sarah Winman (Tinder Press): Bestseller author of When God Was a Rabbit pens a delicate and tender novel of friendship and loss.
New Times, Rehana Rossouw (Jacana Media): As Mandela begins his second year as president, political reporter Ali Adams discovers that his party is veering off the path. She follows the scent of corruption.
Dikeledi, Achmat Dangor (Picador Africa): A family saga set in a time of forced removals and the creation of bantustans.
My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent (HarperCollins): It’s fraught, harrowing and divisive – some critics can’t stop raving about Tallent’s debut novel, others not so much.
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (Bloomsbury): The Man Booker prize-winning novel is an original literary experience. Abraham Lincoln visits his dead son Will in a graveyard filled with ghosts.
The Golden House, Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape): Nero Golden and sons move to the US under suspicious circumstances.
The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster): Prequel to the much-loved Practical Magic, this features the witchy family in 1950s New York.
Wolf Trap, Consuelo Roland (Jacana Media): Paolo Dante must save her adopted daughter from a criminal mastermind.
Did You See Melody?, Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton): Hannah transports the reader to a sunny Arizona spa where a cast of characters are all suspects in an old missing-child case.
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng (Little Brown): A hearty slice of American life in the Clinton era.
The Blessed Girl, Angela Makholwa (Pan Macmillan): Bontle Tau has to juggle her family and friends and all the men in her life wanting to give her emotional and financial support.
The Break, Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph): Amy’s husband decides he wants a break from their marriage and children, and to lose himself in South Asia.
Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King and Owen King (Hodder & Stoughton): The prolific writer and his son team up to tell the tale of a mysterious sleeping syndrome in a women’s prison.
Always Another Country, Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers): One of the most searing voices of contemporary South Africa, this is Msimang’s candid and personal account of her exile childhood in Zambia and Kenya, college years in North America, and returning to the country in the ’90s.
Dare Not Linger, Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa (Pan Macmillan): The remarkable story of Mandela’s presidency told in his own words is finished off by Mandla Langa.
I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press): The writer chronicles 17 of her own near misses with death.
The Fifth Mrs Brink, Karina M Szczurek (Jonathan Ball Publishers): A soul-baring memoir of Szczurek’s life before, with and after her marriage to André P Brink.
Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly (Doubleday): The astronaut’s gripping adventures of his year on the International Space Station in 2015.
Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions, David Attenborough (John Murray): The man who made nature cool gives a record of the voyages he did for the 1950s BBC show The Zoo Expeditions.
Outsiders, Lyndall Gordon (Little Brown): A profound investigation into the lives and works of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf.
I’ll Take the Sunny Side, Gordon Forbes (Bookstorm): Memoirs from the author of A Handful of Summers and Too Soon to Panic.
Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Yemisi Aribisala (Pan Macmillan): This down-to-earth collection from Aribisala, uses food as a lens to observe Nigerian society.
A Hat, a Kayak and Dreams of Dar, Terry Bell (face2face): In 1967 journo Bell and wife Barbara were living in exile in London when they decided to go back to Africa by paddling from England to Dar es Salaam in a 5m kayak.
Shisanyama: Braai Recipes from South Africa, Jan Braai (Bookstorm): Jan Braai’s first crowd-sourced cookbook.
The Sun and Her Flowers, Rupi Kaur (Simon & Schuster): The poet’s second collection is proving to be as popular as her first.
Way of the Wolf, Jordan Belfort (Hodder & Stoughton): The Wolf of Wall Street reveals his step-by-step playbook on making the sale.
The Curse of Teko Modise, Nikolaus Kirkinis (Jacana Media): How Modise overcame poverty to become “the General” and one of South Africa’s best footballers.
Collective Amnesia, Koleka Putuma (Uhlanga Press): A bestselling poetry collection that hits all of the emotions.
From Para to Dakar, Joey Evans (Tracey Macdonald Publishers): Evans shares how he faced the toughest challenges to fulfil his dream of competing in the 2017 Dakar Rally.
200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World, Geoff Blackwell, Ruth Hobday, Kieran Scott (Bookstorm): The women, from a variety of backgrounds, are asked the same five questions and their answers are inspiring.
Bare Ground by Peter Harris
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By Mila de Villiers
Roger Ballen. ©Alternative Print Workshop.
If you’re familiar with Die Antwoord, images of an anomalous Johannesburg, or raw photos of South Africa’s rural Afrikaans communities, you’ve probably come across Roger Ballen.
Ballen, whose photographic career spans over forty years, recently released Ballenesque, a monograph consisting of his oeuvre and previously unpublished images. ‘Ballenesque’ has become synonymous with his style which, over the past twenty years, has moved from being partly documentary to one that incorporates elements of drawing, painting, installation, and video.
As the photographic artist himself explains in his deep, measured voice: “This integration of medias has allowed me to create an aesthetic that is referred to as Ballenesque.”
I’m seated across Ballen in his large, well-lit office in Parktown, Johannesburg. The walls are adorned with framed images of his work. Stuffed animals, including a baboon, a serval and an aardvark, greet you once you enter the office space. He promises to acquaint me with the office rat (Stoffel).
As Ballen’s mother was involved with the Magnum Agency in New York, Ballen – who holds a PhD in geology – was introduced to photography at a young age, publishing his first book, Boyhood, at 28.
Boyhood consists of black and white images of boys, comprised mostly of a trip made from Cape Town to Cairo between 1973 and 1978.
Cover-Up, Indonesia, 1976.
Ballen describes Boyhood as “a trip into my own childhood. So all my pictures from those days had a psychological edge to them, an existential edge.”
Existentialism features heavily in Ballen’s work and he is renowned for having stated that “nothing” is the most profound word in the English language.
“Well, where do you come from, and where are you going?” Ballen reasons. “That’s the quandary everybody faces, that nothing can happen in a second from now. Then what?”
And does he think that’s a driving force for people?
“Ja,” the native New Yorker responds. ”That’s the death instinct. It’s the thing that drives everything on the planet.
“That’s the purpose of what I’m doing. It’s the most fundamental force in anything alive, it’s dealing with the survival instinct … the need to stay alive in a hostile environment, especially in nature.”
Froggy Boy, USA, 1977.
“Hostile environments” and “nature” reminds me of Dorps, Ballen’s photographic series of dorpies shot in and around rural South Africa – not quite as Ballenesque as his more recent work, yet still stark, gritty, and – in classic Ballen style – black and white. Did Ballen’s profession as geologist propel him to study rural South Africa?
Ballen came back to South Africa in 1982, after having completed his PhD in geology, and at that time “there wasn’t a place on the planet that was more advanced in mining, metallurgy, mineral exploration.
“It was an interesting country and the people here at the time were very hospitable to me and it felt like I could make a difference here, I guess.”
Old Man, Ottoshoop, 1983.
Ballen made a gradual move to shooting poor, marginalised Afrikaans communities in South Africa, as portrayed in Platteland.
Platteland was photographed between 1986 and 1994 – pivotal dates in our country’s history, with ’86 defined by the declaration of a state of emergency, and ’94 the advent of democracy.
How did an American geologist-cum-photographer “convince” armblankes to be subjects of his work during these turbulent years?
The conversation is interrupted by lively cooing from the speckled dove in a cage in the corner of his office, later introduced to me as Icarus.
“He likes you,” Ballen says, eyes drifting towards the dove, a look of affection crossing his face. “He’s listening, he’s saying ‘watch yourself there!’” [Cue hearty laughter.]
Photographing strangers can “happen quite spontaneously. You might find somebody in a shop and you talk to them and they invite you over for tea,” Ballen furthers.
Sgt F de Bruin, Dep of Prison Employees, OFS, 1992.
“I always have had a good relationship with the people that I have photographed over the years. I can hardly remember having a negative or hostile experience in anyway.
“Most importantly, I have always believed that the subject should benefit in some way from the experience whether it be my buying them food, clothing, or medicine, paying them for their work, or just listening and empathizing. Without any doubt, I feel that the people that I have worked with over the years have been much more hospitable towards me that many of the well-off people that I have encountered.
“I didn’t necessarily go there with somebody to make fun of people and cause issues; I’m still friendly with a lot of these people 30 years later. They message me, or call me. I can feel it in my pocket,” he says patting his trouser pocket in which his phone had just vibrated.
Photography isn’t just a matter of “finding somebody who you think has an interesting face and taking their picture,” he continues. “It’s very, very difficult and in fact it takes a great photograph that has some lasting power. For something to rise above the ‘normal’, to have some sort of effect on people’s subconscious mind, is very difficult.”
Man shaving on veranda, Western TVL, 1986.
The struggle to capture photos with lasting power is perpetuated by the billions of images we’re confronted with on a daily basis and an inability to “separate the more artistic level of photography from the more mundane,” Ballen states.
This begs the question whether social media platforms are nullifying or destroying photography.
“I use these things myself. I Instagram. It’s a means of exchanging information. The problem is the evaluation of these images.”
PSA, Kim K fans: you better stop reading here…
“The Kardashian woman takes a picture of her shoe on the floor and it gets two million hits. Or her cigarette that she just smoked and it gets five million hits. But the picture’s horrible. My dog could almost take the picture. But it had five million hits!” he incredulously declares.
“Monetary value, or the “like”-value, effects how you see the picture. It’s very confusing.”
Ballen is uncertain about whether this problem can be solved or addressed productively.
“You know I’m a geologist – see the rocks there?” he asks, pointing towards a collection of rocks aligned on the window sill, “that goes to a lab and the lab will tell you exactly if you want to know how much copper is in a block. Look at this picture,” he proceeds, indicating to one of his framed images, “is it good or bad? Do you like it? That one doesn’t like it. So you have this enormous subjectivity involved in this media. This is why it’s a confusing subject.”
Since 1997, the year in which Ballen’s Outland project was produced, his work has progressed into a style described as “documentary fiction”.
Ballen defines “documentary” as en external experience and regards “fiction” as something your imagination creates. The images in The Outland, Boarding House and Shadow Chamber feature Johannesburg’s “fringe” characters, often wearing masks, captured in confined spaces, drawings and marks etched on the walls. A sense of the abnormal and outlandish is created.
Since we, as humans, occupy space both physically and mentally, I’m curious to know whether Ballen intentionally shoots these peripheral people in confined spaces as means to capture the place where the mental “meets” the physical.
One Arm Goose, 2004. (L)
Cut Loose, 2005. (R)
“The first thing you have to realise is that whatever I’m saying, I’m saying visually,” the artist answers. “I’ve always stated that if I can talk about the picture in precising words, it’s probably a bad picture. That’s the first step. That’s what differentiates me from most South African photographers – I’m not a political photographer; I’m psychological.
“Dealing with aesthetics and, more importantly, trying to reach the subconscious mind and transform the subconscious mind of myself and expand the subconscious of myself and hopefully others… The issue is I’m not trying to do anything except make pictures that challenge Roger Ballen.”
His work certainly is psychological, but it isn’t his intention to elicit a certain response from audiences, questioning the meaning of “the response”.
“What is a response if somebody finds them disturbing and humorous at the same time? What is the response? What would you call that?
“They’re mindscapes,” he says of his photos.
“They’re real scapes and they’re mindscapes and the reason they have an effect on you is they have an ability to enter your mind and your mind doesn’t … your mind is unclear how to react to them.
“The pictures, to have to have an effect, have to break through your repression, unleash your repression, and reach some so-called “core place”. The issue is that the pictures have to have an ability to get at somebody and challenge people’s status; that’s my goal.”
Ballen explains that his photos present a part of your being which you’re unaccustomed to.
“‘Disturbing’ is not really the right word – they’re unleashing. They’re presenting a segment of yourself, which you’re not used to you. It’s like if you’re looking in a mirror, especially when you’re tired or you’re sick – you get a little bit of a shock, you know? And you say “Shit, is that me? I can’t believe it”.”
In the accompanying video for Outland, shot by local filmmaker Ben Jay Crossman, one of the “fringe” characters to feature in the work, a man named Stanley who catches and releases rats on a daily basis, tells Ballen how “Ben can’t believe his eyes with all these people around here.” Is this something people often comment on? Has he ever been asked if he attempts to “normalise” the “abnormal”?
Head Below Wires, 1999.
“I’m not very clear about normality at all. I’m not convinced about normality. I’m not convinced about abnormality, either. These terms you used – in a way to protect people’s subconscious minds, they classify abnormality and normality. And if somebody is abnormal they don’t have to deal with it in certain ways. Obviously I’m not talking about the extremes, there are a lot of people who have serious biological, physiological problems…”
Five Hands, 2006.
Ballen dislikes the claims that he’s appropriating or exploiting the people he photographs as, for the last 15 years, he’s “finally had a face in the picture. So when we talk about Roger Ballen’s work, like in the last 10 years almost, it’s always been about animals. What does he think? [This question is asked whilst indicating towards Icarus.] He likes it? He’s fed up with these comments. He’s thinking “why are you always talking about people?” We’re trying to use our own words to define his reality and you don’t understand his reality, you never will.”
Although Ballen does not like to use the word “inspiration”, he discloses that “if somebody pointed a gun to my head, I would probably say [Samuel] Beckett.” This in response to his work having been compared to Diane Arbus’s, something Ballen disputes; especially the type of work he did in Platteland.
“There was an aspect of people living in these places who were marginalised, living on the edge, who weren’t coping, who were strange … there was some correspondence between what Diane Arbus was doing and what I was doing. But at the beginning of Outland, about ’97, there was a real divergence between what she was doing and what I did. Outland was focused on human absurdity; Diane Arbus wasn’t interested in that. Roger Ballen Theatre started to come about; Diane Arbus wasn’t interested in that.”
Clockwise from top left: Altercation, 2012. Devour, 2013. Tommy, Samson and a Mask, 2000.
Ballen’s love of – and appreciation for – animals is evident in his work, and he has two books dedicated to animals, including Asylum of the Birds. Absentmindedly waving in the direction of the dove as I ask what it is about birds that intrigues him, he tells me “Icarus. His name’s Icarus.
“My first-grade teacher was obsessed by Greek mythology. In fact, the first book that I bought without my parents intervention was the Iliad and the Odyssey. My favorite character in Greek mythology was Zeus as he was the ultimate God. I remember climbing Mount Olympus and feeling his presence.
“Greek myths are really revealing,” Ballen continues. “They’re like dreams. There was something nice about being able to … reassuring to call a beautiful bird after something special about doing it. The name has a very strong, warm, positive feeling in my mind. To use the word is actually soothing in a way. Instead of calling him some pseudo-yuppie name.”
Smiling, he rhetorically states “He’s a nice bird, hey?”
Ballen owns “a lot” of birds, and has “some place where I keep about 300 owls. But not as pets. I like all animals.”
Rats, especially, feature prominently in his photos. Why does he finds this singular rodent so remarkable?
“I believe the rat is the most intelligent species on the planet based on their brain size. I own many as pets and am amazed at their ability to learn,” he responds.
“The rat lives everywhere on the planet, can eat almost anything, and is able to survive in the most difficult of environmental circumstances. In western cultures rats are looked down upon, but ultimately, they are a product of nature and no better or no worse than any other species.”
Besides rats, Ballen’s animal photography includes images of pigeons, snakes, pigs, and goats. Ballen attributes his photographing of these “ordinary” animals to the setting of his photos.
“All the pictures I take are on the inside … inside buildings. So you wouldn’t necessarily find a tiger or a rhinoceros inside some room in Johannesburg. That really would be a little bit strange. A lion inside a room … somebody asleep on top of a lion,” he replies, chortling.
His interest in taking pictures of animals and in animal psychologies started as a teen, he adds.
“I’ve always been interested in the animal side of the human behaviour and the primitive side of the mind and the relationship ultimately between humans and animals and how this relationship is distorted by contemporary life.”
Ballen critiques Disney, citing that one of the reoccurring motifs – “all the animals love the people, and the people love the animals, and they get along” – creates the wrong idea of the historic relationship between animals and humans.
Puppy Between Feet, 1999.
“There’s a fundamental fear of nature; this is part of the genes of the species. There’s fundamental dislike of nature. We need to control nature because of this genetic evolution of the species. So in fact there’s no real harmonious relationship between humans and nature.”
In the majority of his photos featuring animals, Ballen will have the person in the photo holding or cuddling the animal. To what extent does he “direct” a photo?
“Every picture is different, first of all. There’s always this relationship in my pictures between what could have been there, what is spontaneous, and what I could have put there. So you always have that so-called tension in a lot of the pictures.
“I always say the pictures are interactive, and that’s all you can say. And ultimately they’re pictures that Roger Ballen created; images that nobody else could create. So Roger Ballen is a Roger Ballen world, so yes, they’re all – they exist as pictures as a result of Roger Ballen. That’s it. That’s what they are. They don’t exist spontaneously. They don’t exist spontaneously because they’re ways of organising the world through a camera and through your mind.”
One can’t speak to Ballen without enquiring about his collaboration with Die Antwoord, considering he directed the music video for the zef-rap-rave duo’s 2012 hit, I Fink U Freeky.
Shack scene, Johannesburg, 2012.
Ballen’s aesthetic is palpable in the video. Think Ninja in a loincloth. Yo-Landi wearing black contact lenses. The walls covered with unsettling drawings and marks. And rats. Many, many rats.
Unfortunately Ballen can’t remember whether any of the rats were his own.
“That’s a really good question,” he replies, brow furrowed. “I think they were … I think they were my rats. But Yo-Landi had some rats at the time. I introduced her to rats.”
Zef culture, as popularised by Die Antwoord, and Ballen’s style wouldn’t necessarily be described as congruent; it was with their introduction to Ballen’s Outland that “they stopped doing whatever they were doing and reinvented themselves as Die Antwoord. It had a major effect on them,” Ballen explains.
“My aesthetic hit their subconscious mind in some way that they saw something in the work that inspired them to move in another direction. Yo-Landi contacted me, they wanted to show me their videos, they wanted to do a project with me.”
This correspondence went on for a number of years and when I Fink U Freeky was produced it went “totally viral. Totally viral.” (The video currently has over 107 million views. Sjoe.)
It’s surprising that Ballen’s art features in a music video, as his response to an interviewer enquiring what music one should listen to while perusing his work, was “no music”. Did he ever imagine that he would collaborate with musicians?
“I didn’t have many expectations, this happened all spontaneously. If music is used as a vehicle with somebody with more musical skills than myself to create a … Extending the reality of my imagery and my aesthetic, well that’s great. I’m happy … The most important thing I saw was the power of the video. Since then … I don’t know if you saw Asylum of the Birds?”
I answer in the affirmative.
“And The Outland video, and The Ballenesque video. I don’t think I’d ever have done that if it wasn’t for I Fink U Freeky. I didn’t realise how my imagery and what I’m doing could be transformed to moving image. This was a really important event in my career.”
In light of Ballen’s recent The Theatre of Apparitions video, one wonders whether he’s considering doing similar audiovisual work in the future.
Face Off, 2010.
“Definitely. I have a new project now,” is the enthusiastic response.
“It’s like this animated, well, it’s like a cartoon-figure I’ve been working with in the photographs. The photographs are animated. So this cartoonish type of character that’s involved in situations most people would not do, or can’t do. So it’s symbolic of liberation and mischievousness.”
Is he by any chance extending himself into this character with “free reigns”? Would he describe it as a liberating process?
“Ja … ja. I guess,” he thoughtfully replies, before candidly stating “I’m not that repressed.
“To me it’s more of a humorous activity. It’s a creative activity, the characters are liberating me in a way. It’s an enjoyable process.”
Compared to his past work, which is very much psychologically challenging, will he describe the experience of this project as more enjoyable?
“This animated series isn’t as complex as some of the others, but I enjoy them all. I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t enjoy them. Because I never really try to make pictures for other people, it’s always been my own personal goals. When it’s been satisfying … It’s gratifying that you know people ultimately must have responded to what I’ve done; it’s great as an artist – what more can an artist ask for, in a way. It’s pretty deafening if there’s no response.”
The Divided Self, 2016.
Five final questions
You’ve been living and working in the surrounds of Johannesburg since the 1970s. Could you describe Johannesburg, or what Johannesburg means to you?
Well, you know, I have a picture in the Apparitions book, it’s called Divided Self. Joburg, in a way, has that aspect to it. On one side it represents a social-political-cultural reality and on the other side is another social-political reality. And they don’t really harmonise really well. Back to what we were talking about, I would say Joburg is symbolic of the divide of itself.
As an artist you combine fact and fiction; as a reader, do you prefer to read fact or fiction?
I’m very multi-dimensional in terms of my history of reading and I’m quite well educated. Everything – theatre to fiction to philosophy; the poetry, the geology, economics. It’s really difficult because I have such a range of things I’ve been interested in over the years so I can’t really say if it’s fact or fiction, it’s a whole range of things. Is theatre fiction or is it fact? Theatre, by its nature, is almost totally documentary; partly fictional. I like things with interaction between fact and fiction.
Can you give me an example?
Well, you take something like [Joseph] Conrad’s work. He spent time on boats, travelling all over the world … He transformed it into his own world. It’s hard to know what was really the place, and what was his memory.
Yo-Landi Visser once described you as “the weirdest person I’ve ever met”. I think that’s such a compliment…
People make these comments, like “weirdest person”, “that picture is disturbing”. I’m happy; it’s great. I guess the worst thing they could say is that the work is boring.
Icarus’s lively cooing interrupts the conversation once more.
What do you think? [This question is posed to Icarus.] It’s the most he’s ever talked. He’s really enjoying what’s going on here. He’s really liking what we’re doing here. He really never does this much talking. He’s a quiet bird. We had these doves, these laughing doves, and the rest of the staff here … it was driving them crazy, so I took them out of the office.
Have you ever been accused of being boring?
No, I hate to disappoint you.