Roger Ballen’s Dark Darlings
Today's mainstream loves the dark aesthetic Roger Ballen has practiced for decades.
Snaggle-teeth protruding from filthy faces, asylum scribbles and animals shown in varied stages of mortality. Each shot of South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord’s cult music video “I Fink U Freeky” – 141-million YouTube hits and counting – reflects its director, Roger Ballen.
Ballen is one of the world’s most collected photographers. But his work only hit the mainstream when Die Antwoord's Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$ers married it with their equally infectious rap-rave beats.
As the story goes, Die Antwoord reached out to Ballen in 2005, but he wasn’t interested in collaborating. Only years later, when he found out the viral group was using his images and drawings in homage anyway, did a natural bond arise.
Despite being slow to pop-culture relevance, Ballen’s celebration of the weird has much in common with the dark aesthetic currently trending — everything from the ambient "doomgaze" of Nadja and the raucous “doom punk” of Coffin Carousel, to American teen sensation Billie Eilish's wildly successful and lurid videos detailing her inner demons and past struggles with self-harm and depression.
The 17-year-old’s 2019 debut, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” had 14 songs hit the Billboard Hot 100, making her the only female artist to achieve the feat.
The attraction of these dark darlings is likely because they hold a mirror to us. Thomas Gust, co-owner of Berlin photography bookstore Bildband, where Ballen has appeared for book signings, says his photos strike where it matters: “It’s really about the struggle of modern times.”
Just like today's biggest pop-culture acts, Ballen's work has always probed the psychology of society's lost souls. His decades-long career hit its stride in the 1980s, when he controversially documented white South Africans who weren't reaping the privileges of apartheid.
"Roger has the pulse of time in his art," says Gust of Ballen's work. “His installations are like a Baroque cabinet of curiosities, except with simple, everyday things and people.”
Ballen describes himself as an artistic outsider who probes the human condition. And that’s exactly why so many of today's artists want to work with him.
Fashion label Comme des Garcons sought him out for a collaboration and etched his ghoulish charcoal drawings onto the backs of white coats and blazers. Collective The Skateroom did the same by printing his images onto skateboards.
Even Rammstein is rumored to have contacted Ballen to do a video, Gust reveals.
But the trend of darkness from Ballen to Eilish isn't about exploring darkness because it's bad, but quite the opposite, explains Peggy Sue Amison, artistic director of East Wing, an exhibition space in Doha, Qatar.
"It’s the attic you don’t go into because you’re afraid," she tells LURE. "But if you go into its corners, you will have a deeper understanding of the world.”
One can see wisps of Ballen's style in everything from the informal graffiti style of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the shadowy, alternative worlds in Netflix's Stranger Things and Dark, or Jordan Peele's horror film Us.
Ballen's concepts of degeneration and "in-between worlds" are also similar in vein to other artists, notes Amison.
This style has been taken to more extremes by the likes of the late Lauren E. Simonutti, who kicked the medication that treated her mental illness, then created installations, and Antoine D’Agata, who uses drugs to create his chaotic works.
But both Amison and Gust stress that in the swirling mass of media that is pop culture, it's hard to pinpoint where one influence starts, and another begins.
“For sure, Roger is part of this larger universe,” Amison explains. “His works evoke the idea of the underworld, just as these other forms of media do," noting the action that happens in the lower-third of Ballen's frames. "It’s drawing your eyes downward, as if you’re headed down the [mine shaft] and into your subconscious.”
Watch LURE’s exclusive interview with Roger Ballen in his private studio. He describes through his eyes Jean Dubuffet’s “Desnudus,” a painting which greatly inspired him: