Fighting For Love: An Interview Of New Media Artist, Young Polemicist And Kemetic Yogi, Tabita Rezaire

 

text by Keely Shinners

images by Tabita Rezaire

 

Tabita Rezaire could call herself many things––a Berlin-Biennale-exhibiting new media artist, a young polemicist, a Kemetic yoga teacher. Instead, Rezaire prefers to call herself a “healer-warrior.” Walking into her Yeoville flat, high on a sacred hill on the eastern side of Johannesburg, she offers me tea from her impressive apothecary of herbs, spices, and dried flowers. We sit down on her straight-from-2002 pink fuzzy love seat, chatting, listening to the new Frank Ocean album. She offers me Carmex for my chapped lips (Johannesburg is drying out my skin), and when she begins to talk about her artistic process as a process of healing, that powerful word, “healer,” lives up to the artist who utters it. Not in the exotifying sense of the "benevolent medicine woman," but clever, powerful, and without exoneration.

As we converse, Tabita is paying attention to my every word. She calls me out when I ask about “postcolonial digital space,” the flippant amnesia of such a loaded prefix. She questions why I would call her work “futuristic,” as if passing over the history and the cultural exigence that informs her art towards some vague, utopian “imagination of the future.” And she’s right. She’s a warrior. “You have to fight, fight, fight…” she insists, in order to “spread love and light.”

She says, “My work is a diagnostic.” Rezaire is in the business of identifying sicknesses we carry within us everywhere we go—our histories, our implicit and explicit prejudices, our language. She is able to see through the veils of the “free, open Internet” to its capitalist underbellies, using the very tools of the Internet to undermine it. Rezaire is calling us out on the spread of colonial viruses—on our computers, in our history books, in our words.

KEELY SHINNERS: So the info on your website says you are a “new media artist, intersectional preacher, health practitioner, tech-politics researcher, and Kemetic/Kundalini Yoga teacher. Can you tell me more about those practices and how they relate to each other?

TABITA REZAIRE: They are just different tools to serve the same mission on different plains: emotional, mental, spiritual, historical, political and technological. My work/life/purpose is searching for technologies to help us thrive and walk towards a state of soundness. It’s about healing.

SHINNERS: So you would say you’re more of a healer than an artist?

REZAIRE: That’s the same for me (maybe not in general). Both deal with feelings as raw material: their own, those of their people and those of their times. For a healer must be able to go through the wounds, their own first, and from that place surface with the powerful knowledge of pain, and grow out of/from it, then guide others to do so. It is transforming a state of unbalance into a more sustainable place, or maybe finding balance in discomfort. Both move energy, and can be truly transformative if the person, community, and times are ready. Ready to do the work it demands. I’ve used the term “healer-warrior,” cause healing is a battle with yourself and the world, you have to fight, fight, fight, to be able to love, love, love. Love yourself unconditionally and fight all that keeps you from loving yourself.  Once you love yourself you can start loving, respecting and caring for people, for communities, for life.

SHINNERS: On the question of health, do you see art as healing? In what way? Is it therapeutic for you, the audience, or both?

REZAIRE: To be honest, it sometimes gives me more anxiety than anything else. I guess that’s because of the industry, not the practice itself. My art practice is about sharing my own healing journey, spiritually and politically; trying to figure out shit or why I feel like shit. To heal, you first need to understand where it hurts and why. How to carry what must be carried. I guess that’s what I’m interested in. As you heal yourself, you heal generations before you and generations to come.

SHINNERS: So it stems from an illness?

REZAIRE: We are all dis-eased, and rightly so, as we’re children of toxic environments.

 

 

SHINNERS: What is E-Colonialism? Colonialism is centuries, centuries old, but the Internet is a whole new realm of possibility. How do the temporalities and functions of colonialism and the Internet overlap?

REZAIRE: I don’t think it is different temporalities. If we’re not living under colonialism per se, we’re living in its legacies, which are still omnipresent. The politics and architecture of the Internet came from the same heart; it’s the same narrative of exploitation being written over and over again, with the same people being exploited and the same people benefiting from it all. There’s this quote I love from Sardar who said back in 1995 “The West desperately needs new places to conquer. When they do not actually exist, they must be created. Enter cyberspace.” That‘s so deep. It’s not a domination based on land – which still exist for all the people whose lands are still occupied and plundered – but one based on people’s dependency and conditioning through the use of digital technologies. The Internet is molding us into global subjects, which reads to me as a newly designed colonial subject.

SHINNERS: Or a capitalist subject.

REZAIRE: Same story, the colonial enterprise is a capitalist one. E-colonialism controls our minds through our consumerist desires. We don’t realize we’re being manipulated, controlled, watched, monitored and exploited. We’ve become so trustful of demonic powers. Even if we know, we don’t care - or not enough to let go of the comfort and benefits it grants us (some of us). We accept, and worse, enjoy an abusive framework they’ve created for us. It’s scary.

SHINNERS: If you could rid of those powers, the Internet as a means of communicating globally could be a useful tool. Do you see a possibility of postcolonial digital space?

REZAIRE: I’m still waiting for that postcolonial life, as postcolonial societies have integrated ‘colonial’ hierarchies into their orders. Maybe the term decolonial offers more space, it’s a different practice, one that tries to unlink and disengage from Western authority. It asks: how do you become your own center? as opposed to existing within a “minority,” “periphery,” or “3rd world” rhetoric.

Decolonial Internet? I don’t know. The Internet is built on violence, literally. I’m currently making a work on the relationship between undersea cable layouts and colonial shipping routes. The history of our connectivity is entrenched in colonial history.

SHINNERS: There’s so much entrenchment.

REZAIRE: Yeah. Under the sea, lie so many traumas. It’s like a graveyard for so much history and loss, yet water is healing. The Internet is reproducing that duality, of erasing non-Western people and histories while providing space and tools for remembrance and celebration.

SHINNERS: How does spirituality relate to your art and healing practice?

REZAIRE: Spirituality is about connection. It’s about remembering how connected we were, we are, and how connected we can be. It nurtures a connection to yourself, your spiritual beings and ancestors, to the earth and the universe and helps build connections to each other in a meaningful way. That’s what spirituality is for me. That’s why it’s related to technology. Digital technology wants to connect us, but it doesn’t do it very well, because it comes from this Western anguish. We had the powers to connect (some still do), through telepathy, communicating with plants and ancestors, and channeling information through dreams or meditation. We have access to everything that has been and everything that will be. But we just shut down because of the way we live, think and feel or have been forced to. We’re disconnected. That’s the diagnostic. That’s the contradiction we live in, disconnection in our ultra-connected world. So, I strive for connection in my spirituality.

SHINNERS: Why do you use self-portraiture in a lot of your work?

REZAIRE: That’s not what I’m doing. Yes I use myself, but I’m just a channel to communicate and share information; a messenger. I’m working on a self-portrait series though…

SHINNERS: I’m really interested in the images you use in your work, like gifs of unicorns and galaxies and shit.

REZAIRE: I never used a unicorn.

SHINNERS: [Laughs.] You’re like, “Oh no, I would never do that.” You pair these images with what I think are really abstract concepts of decolonizing digital space, reimagination new space, architectures of power. Is your aesthetic a means of making your content more accessible?

REZAIRE: These might be abstract concepts for you, but they're very real. In terms of aesthetic, popular culture is also what I consume, so it feeds my imaginary, Im also interested in its function and power. People often ask me if it’s ironic. It’s not, but humorous yes.  Well I guess I use the language of the Internet to speak about the Internet so the content led to the form somehow.

SHINNERS: Looking at your stuff online, at first glance, you think, “Oh, this looks dope.” That’s superficial, obviously, but it draws you in. Then you start reading and you’re like, “Ok, now I have to confront my whiteness, my Westerness, here we go.” I didn’t feel like it was ironic. It was pulling you in.

REZAIRE: It’s a strategy, for sure.

SHINNERS: I was introduced to your work by reading A WHITE INSTITUTION’S GUIDE. I showed it to my friend this morning and she said it was like “guerrilla girls but less stale.” It seems like you’re doing the same thing, calling out the art world on its foundation of white heteropatriarchal bullshit. I’m interested in this because you’ve seen a lot of success, being in the Berlin Biennial this year, exhibiting in solo and group shows all over the world. How do you navigate being in that space all the time? Would you call yourself a “guerilla artist,” trying to subvert the institution?

REZAIRE: It’s hard. But I’m trying to move away from that inner conflict of constantly questioning what it means for me to be a part of an industry I despise? Or that despises me even more. Am I selling out? Am I a hypocrite? Does my work become meaningless? Is my mission co-opted? All those questions. At the same time, I need and want to sustain a practice. That’s very real.

SHINNERS: You have to survive.

REZAIRE: Yes, but beyond this, what I want to do and keep doing is making work. That’s my purpose. So, it’s about finding ways to sustain my practice. How will I be able to do what I want to do? Yes, the art world can help. Yes, white-centered institutions can help. Being part of an industry that is problematic as fuck helps me making work that I believe in, that’s the contradiction. For now, it’s about making it work for me, within boundaries that work for me. I spend too much time and energy being like, “I’m not making sense”… no I am making sense, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

Claudia Rankine, said something I liked about institutional recognition, although I may not fully agree with her: “it’s also for me the culture saying: We have an investment in dismantling white dominance in our culture. If you’re trying to do that, we’re going to help you. And that, to me, is encouraging.”

SHINNERS: A lot of your work seems futuristic. Is imagining a future something you’re thinking about in your work?

REZAIRE: What makes you say my work is futuristic?

SHINNERS: That’s a good question. I guess I fall into my own trap of saying that.

REZAIRE: I guess you think of the use of the Internet, but it’s super contemporary, entrenched in our everyday lives. So it’s not futuristic.

I’m working in the present for the restoration of our past, which will guide our future. My work is not about the future, I don’t believe in this type of temporal linearity anyway. The past, present and future are arbitrary; they can be remodeled, repeated, discarded.  I’m however interested in the way our past has been constructed and the effects of this construction on our collective consciousness. Similarly, what effects can the rewriting of our past have on our present and futures? The now is fundamental yet irrelevant, it’s always a negotiation between what has/might have/could have been and what could/may/will be? The now is frightening. How do you exist in the world? How can we deal now? How can we love each other now? How can we love ourselves now?

I’m definitely working for a shift that is constantly (re)occurring over and over. I’m part of a wide community of seed planters, I might not see the fruits of my work but the seeds will sprout, maybe not in this lifetime but that’s ok. Planting seeds, that’s what I’m about.  

 

Patron Saint Of The Impossible: An Interview Of South African Hip Artist Dope Saint Jude

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text by Keely Shinners

Who is Dope Saint Jude? For one thing, she is subversive: a self-produced black queer woman from South Africa who is breaking into the cis-male dominated hip hop scene. She is cool: tattoos, leather, glitter on her lips; she has guys on gold chains in her music videos, and next week she is flying to France for the second leg of her tour. She is revolutionary: using hip hop and mad aesthetics as a means to talk about queer visibility, the politics of the brown body, the radical act of self-empowerment. Dope Saint Jude drinks coffee with you, talks about going back to school to legitimize and expand her political consciousness. Days later, you are sharing a joint and dancing at a party for which the theme is “70s DISCO, BLACK EXCELLENCE, and INEVITABLE SHINE.” In essence, Dope Saint Jude resists clean definitions. She is multi-faceted and she expands to include narratives we don’t normally read together.

Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius and I sat down to talk about making art that is radical and dope, political and accessible, impossible and, as it turns out, possible for those with the courage to love themselves.

KEELY SHINNERS: Who is Dope Saint Jude? Is she a persona?

DOPE SAINT JUDE: Dope Saint Jude started out as a persona that embodies everything that I want to be: powerful, bold, unapologetic, zero fucks to give. But Catherine and the character Dope Saint Jude are slowly becoming one person. Dope Saint Jude is the epitome of everything I want to be. Performing as Dope Saint Jude, in itself, is such an incredible process. It’s changing my life. It’s changing the type of person I am. It’s made me more confident. Maybe I would have wanted to travel. Before, it was just a dream. Dope Saint Jude is worldly. As a girl coming from the Cape Flats, the prospect of traveling was a very far away idea. Now, it’s a part of my everyday life. Like, next week, I’m going to France.

SHINNERS: That’s amazing. 

SAINT JUDE: It’s also been such a cathartic and therapeutic process, performing as Dope Saint Jude. The persona is not just a persona. It’s become a tool transforming my reality. Even going back to school has informed me. I listen to my own music, which is about being bold, being excellent, and pushing the boundaries of your potential. So I listen to my music, and I think, “I have to live my best life. I have to study. I have to be excellent.” 

SHINNERS: The imagination is becoming a reality. That’s really hopeful for enacting change.

SAINT JUDE: It’s not just an empty persona that just exists for the performance. It’s actively transforming my reality and realities of everyone I work with. I place a very strong emphasis on collaboration. The whole spirit of Dope Saint Jude is not just limited to me. It’s not selfish. It’s growing. I’m working with other young creatives who are doing inspiring things. We’re motivated and inspired by each other. It’s an explosive thing.

SHINNERS: Young creatives in Cape Town are doing really amazing things. Talking to people, it seems that some people are really disillusioned by the art world in Cape Town, while others are really inspired. Where do you fall?

SAINT JUDE: I feel quite inspired by it, but I understand why people feel disillusioned. I reclaim space, don’t give any fucks, and make my own reality. If there’s no space for me to showcase, I’ll create my own. In that spirit, that’s why it’s important for us to create our own art, to collaborate, to create space when people don’t want us. Being a queer artist here in Cape Town, there’s not really a platform for me. I’ve made my name overseas. Unfortunately, that’s the reality. I can’t earn a living here. But I’m exciting about developing the art and music scene here.

SHINNERS: So you’re doing a little bit of both, going abroad and making your own space here? 

SAINT JUDE: Exactly. I think you have to do a little bit of both. We live in an international community now that we have the Internet. I meet you now, I might bump into you in a different country. That’s the lifestyle we live now. Or that some of us are afforded; not everyone is that privileged. You’re in the global sphere; you can’t contain yourself in Cape Town and South Africa. But at the same time, we’re in a weird space here. Everyone is looking for Cape Town artists, but there is no tightly-bound Cape Town art community. It’s a divide and conquer mentality. Everyone is doing their own thing separately, trying to make money, instead of us coming together and working as one. It’s because we’re poor. If we had money and resources, we would be able to create without having to make a living. When you have the luxury to make art for the sense of art, you can make money easily.

SHINNERS: And you can’t blame people for that.

 SAINT JUDE: So I’m trying to be in the middle. I also need to eat. I don’t come from a wealthy family. I come from a poor family. I need to make my own money.

SHINNERS: You’re from the Cape Flats? What is that like?

SAINT JUDE: It’s a historically colored area. I come from a mixed-race family. We aren’t very wealthy. For me, it’s a big deal to be able to do what I’m doing. Creating art as a black South African is a privilege. To even dream that kind of lifestyle, that you can make a living from art. “It’s not real work.” That’s what people say. It’s a luxury that I’m aware of.

SHINNERS: You got started on the Internet. What about having access to the Internet informed the work that you made?

SAINT JUDE:  I can’t talk about anything of these things without talking about the socioeconomic struggle in South Africa. My access to the Internet is because I was afforded the privilege of the Internet. My parents made sure I went to good schools in the age of the Internet becoming a big thing. I became an Internet-savvy person at a young age. A lot of artists in Cape Town are doing dope things, but they don’t have Internet access. They don’t know how to use the Internet the same way I do. So, how the Internet impacted my work… The Internet gave me information that I wouldn’t have had access to. As a queer person here, the queer community is very small and racially divided. Having access to the Internet made me feel like I was a part of a bigger community, something that I call Future Queer. It’s not just gay, lesbian, whatever. It’s fluidity; it’s anyone who redefines that way of thinking.

SHINNERS: On the flipside, as you’re putting out your work, you’re putting it out on Soundcloud and YouTube as opposed to looking for a label. Is the accessibility of the Internet important to you?

SAINT JUDE: Because of the stuff I’m creating and the climate in South Africa, which I think is quite conservative for queer people, you’re put in a box. I hate when people label me as a “queer artist.” I hate that type of thing. I feel like I’m accessible to a lot of different audiences. The Internet gave me the platform to be able to communicate that. I just say, this is who I am. Different people take away their own ideas. As soon as you associate yourself with any kind of institution – a label or whatever it is – you’re automatically branded and given a type of audience. I like that the Internet opens the audience to anyone. My music has interest from an academic audience, as well as a “black girl magic” audience because of the strong brown girl power messages in my music.

SHINNERS: You said that you don’t want people to put you in a box. Still, a lot of the interviews I read say, “Dope Saint Jude, a queer black artist.” To me, it seems fetishizing. Do you feel that way? How do you deal with that?

SAINT JUDE: I do! I don’t do “queer hip hop.” That’s part of my identity, and I’ll never deny my ties to the queer community. But saying you’re a “queer artist” is so limiting. Like, we don’t say, “He’s a white guitarist. You should listen to his music.” It’s bullshit. I feel like my music has so many different elements. I’m influenced by Dr. Dre and girls chilling in the hood, Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj stuff. But I’m also woke. Don’t limit me. That’s the thing the media is guilty of. We want to fetishize people. It’s too complex to comprehend, so you want to put it into a box. That’s why I’ve called my EP “Reimagine.” I’m constantly reimagining. I hate it when people do me the disservice of limiting me to one narrative. I have multiple narratives. Also, it feels racist when people do that. They limit your narrative to your struggle, and that’s all. No, I’m joyful. I smoke weed with my girls. We ride in the car and go to the beach and party.

SHINNERS: And the media spins it in a way that sounds like, “You will be edgy and cool if you know about this queer underground artist.”

SAINT JUDE: To an extent, it’s nice. I do exploit it. People want to box me into whatever, but that clickbait can open me up to a new audience. I have to deal with it. I also can’t be upset about it all the time. It’s important that I’m visible as a queer artist. There are so many young, black, queer people who are scared and insecure. For me to actively identify with that, it’s cool. But when big, big blogs do it, it upsets me.



SHINNERS: Being a self-made artist – making your own beats, collaborating with people who want to work with, making your own visuals – seems very important to you. What is the thought process behind doing everything on your own?

SAINT JUDE: One element is that I don’t want to be a rapper who raps over other people’s beats. I see myself as an artist. I want to be involved in the creation of every aspect of my art. I don’t exclusively want to work on my own beats, but it’s important that I use that language because it gives me power in the process. It’s important that I feel in control of my own process. And it just makes the art better, when you’re in control. As a woman, I don’t want guys making beats for me, telling me, “This is how you need to be on this beat. We would prefer it if you were sexier.” As soon as someone makes a beat for you, they feel like they can direct your process. I don’t like that. There are so many male rappers who do that. No one ever credits female rappers on producing and rapping themselves. It’s a powerful thing. Also, in terms of the visuals, it’s important for how I communicate as an artist. I don’t want videos that other people direct just because being hot in front of a car looks cool. If I want to be hot in front of a car, I must know why I’m doing that. I want things to be done in my terms. As a female artist, it’s revolutionary to be in control of your process. 

SHINNERS: What, to you, is the relationship between hip hop and activism? 

SAINT JUDE: Hip hop is really cool because it was the music of oppressed people. That’s where it comes from. It’s cool to explore different struggles in hip hop. Not only rapping about it. You don’t want to rap about problems all the time. It’s cool to communicate using hip hop visually and in terms of the sound. You can throw in things subliminally. It’s accessible. You can talk about things in a cool way. I like to exploit the cool. Young kids and teenagers watch my videos and aspire to that because of the look. But it’s a buy-in to get them into a revolutionary way of thinking. Hip hop is a really cool medium, but it has its limitations. Some people think hip hop and queerness don’t go together, because hip hop is historically quite patriarchal and leans on masculinity. But I think that hip hop is a tool for oppressed people, not just black men. There are other people who are entitled to use the music to express their joy and their pain and their power.

SHINNERS: How do you balance making music that is political, revolutionary, and confrontational towards people’s ideas about blackness and queerness while, at the same time, making music that is accessible?

SAINT JUDE: I think that the idea that the two can’t exist together is a fantasy. In the past, people imagined conscious music as music to sit and think, to blaze and go on a trip. And then there was Lil’ Wayne, turn up music. But I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. That’s something we need to debunk. Like, I find Kanye West’s music quite revolutionary, but it’s also cool to turn up to. It’s small things, like having good beats, that make is accessible, incorporating other facets of cool. For example, if you are a revolutionary thinker and artist, that doesn’t mean you don’t want to go to the club and smoke weed and drink. I want to talk about both sides. 

SHINNERS: We can have a multi-faceted idea.

SAINT JUDE: We’re not limited to one thing. I also like to utilize cool things visually, like fashion. Fashion is revolutionary, but it’s also cool. It’s nice to use that as a tool to bring people in. When teenagers see the fashion, when they see sexy people, they are drawn in. The listen to the music, and it can be informative.

SHINNERS: It can lead them to other avenues.

SAINT JUDE: There are so many things you can do. Shooting dope videos. Messing with the art design. Having interesting-looking people. And if you’re art is good, it’s cool anyway.

SHINNERS: You are a very powerful woman, both in your music and outside of it. But we have two conversations about power going on. We have the “dismantle power” conversation, and we have the “embrace your power” conversation. How do you navigate undoing power while championing your own power when making art?

SAINT JUDE: In embracing my own power, I’m dismantling other structures. My power is valid, and it’s just as important as yours. Also, it’s reimagining this idea of power. Me being powerful doesn’t mean the next person isn’t powerful. The patriarchy and white supremacy champion exclusive power. But the power that I’m embracing is power for all of us. It’s not limited to me and my experience. Also, I try not to focus too much on dismantling all of those structures. It’s draining for me. Why do that when I can empower myself? I happen to be a part of all these disenfranchised groups: black people, queer people, women. It’s exhausting to say, “Fight the patriarchy. Fight this and fuck that.” It’s exhausting on your spirit. I’d rather celebrate that pure joy then perpetuate that “Fuck you,” energy. It’s not helpful. It’s necessary to be angry, but I don’t want to cultivate that in myself. You grow so much from celebration. That’s the revolutionary act. Actually celebrating yourself. Self-love is a radical act.

SHINNERS: When you imagine self-love, what do you imagine?

SAINT JUDE: Small things. Not being hard on yourself for stupid things. Being your own best friend. Promoting yourself. Having you own back. It takes courage to believe you are worth something and that your voice is valid. It doesn’t matter if other people don’t like what you’re saying. The fact that you’re saying it is important. It starts even with just putting lotion on yourself everyday because you love yourself and you’re important to yourself. There’s no shame in buying yourself something nice to wear. For conscious hip hop people, we’ve been taught that it’s selfish to want to indulge and do nice things for ourselves. That’s counterproductive. We need to be kind and gentle to ourselves. Self-love is making your dreams a priority. It’s not far away, wishful thinking. Love yourself to make your happiness important. I think about where I come from. My grandmother cleaned houses and sewed things to make a living. My mom became a teacher. She loved her job, but a lot of women, particularly black women, spend their lives doing jobs that weren’t their first choice. At this point, self-love is allowing yourself to do things that make you happy. You don’t have to suffer. We’re not limited in that way. Structurally, some people are. I’m privileged enough to be able to do art. But self-love is opening your mind to that possibility, that you deserve it. Love yourself enough to work hard and transcend your circumstance.

SHINNERS: That goes back to what you were saying first. You imagined this persona that carried all these desires that seemed unattainable. Now, your life is catching up. 

SAINT JUDE: It’s all because of self-love. If I didn’t love myself, I would have been stuck working for some job that I hated. I didn’t think I deserved to travel or live the life I wanted to. People are in mental prisons. They can’t even imagine being happy. People are so used to suffering because we come from generations of suffering. We accept that as the norm. When you start to love yourself, you can start imagining that it could be a reality. Your life can be enjoyable.

SHINNERS: You just came to the US on tour. Why do you think your music speaks to an American audience?

SAINT JUDE: My point of reference as an artist in terms of pop culture in media is American. That makes me accessible; I can speak that language. Even the humor, the jokes, the sass. It’s informed by the American media I’ve been consuming my whole life. Also, I feel like the US and Europe have a more progressive queer community, and a more progressive art community. To an extent, I was very surprised. There’s a lot of Cape Town slang in my music. People still fuck with my music even though there’s a lot of shit they can’t understand. 

SHINNERS: In Catholicism, Saint Jude is the patron saint of the Impossible. What impossibilities – in work or in life – can you identify? How are you overcoming them?

SAINT JUDE: It’s such a fitting name. My mom named me Catherine Saint Jude because she had four boys, and I was the only girl. She thought it was gong to be impossible to have a girl. I’m glad I chose the second name my mom gave me as my performance name. Everything I’ve done is kind of impossible. Before I was Dope Saint Jude, I was a drag king. I started Cape Town’s first Drag King troupe. Put up a wall, and I will only see it as a challenge to overcome. I grew up in a strict Catholic home. I was super involved in the church. But I’ve felt excluded from the world because I like girls. Now, I’m reimaging and reworking my relationship with my creator. That’s an impossible thing to do, but I’m doing it. If I think about what Christianity is really about, it’s about embracing people who are different. Jesus would have been hanging out with me and my girls. 


You can download Dope Saint Jude's latest album, Reimagine, here. She will also be performing at Festival Les Escales in Saint-Nazaire, France with Iggy Pop headlining. Text, interview and photographs by Keely Shinners. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


The Substance of Ideas: An Interview with Photographer Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen captures an almost unimaginable world and is a legend in the world of photography. For the last thirty years, Ballen has extensively photographed the fascinating and sometimes violent existence of people living in small villages, or ‘dorps,’ which are found in clusters throughout rural South Africa. With a doctorate in geology, the photographer oscillates between a poet and an anthropologist, exploring a deeper, stranger, and darker side of the human condition. Upon leaving New York in the early 1970s, Ballen expatriated himself to South Africa. To date, he has exhibited his photographs internationally and some of his images have become iconic in the photographic canon. Back in March, Phaidon released the second edition of his seminal book "Outland," which brings together nearly thirty years of the photographer’s work. An exhibition of Ballen’s current series entitled “Asylum of the Birds” is now on view at Galerie Karstan Greve in Cologne, Germany. The new series is pushing even further into the metaphorical from the more literal portrait work of the photographer’s early career. In the late 1990s you can see a clear shift beginning to emerge. In the following interview, Ballen discusses the strange world he captures with his camera, the importance of substance in ideas, and his new photographic series. 

Autre: So, I guess my first question – to dive right in – is when did you pick up a camera and decide to venture into the subject matter you have been exploring for roughly twenty years? 

Roger Ballen: I got interested in photography as an adolescent. My first attempt to try to express myself with a camera came in 1968. When I graduated from high school, my family gave me a Nikon camera. I remember taking that camera and going out like a bullet out of a gun, trying to find a way to make pictures. I was trying to emulate some of the Magnum people who influenced me, created a basic foundation for my work—Kertész wasn’t a part of Magnum, but Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwit. It’s been a gradual, step-by-step process. I guess I’ve been doing pictures now for fifty years. It’s one step leading to the next step. But sometimes the steps are bigger and some are smaller. The crucial time probably came in about ’96, ’97 when I was doing the Outland book. I started to see myself as an artist as much as a photographer, expressing my aesthetic rather than necessarily expressing the aesthetic of the subject matter itself.

OK: Speaking of big steps, what prompted your move to South Africa?

RB: In 1973, my mother died, and I was quite restless. I liked traveling.  But life in ’73 isn’t what it is now. I’d been in a plane a few times in my life, so people did travel in the same way, but you lived a much more sedentary existence. So I was going to go away for three months and I ended up going for five years. I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town in ’74. I got here, I found it interesting, I met my future wife, and a few other things. Then, I ended up doing a trip from Istanbul to New Guinea by land. Then, I went back to the United States in ’77 to do a Ph. D. in the geological field at the Colorado School of Mines. I graduated there in ’81, and then I came back here. I found the country interesting, and my wife was from here. From the point of view of geology, the thing in which I had a profession, it was a great place to work.

OK: Discovering these areas where you shoot, were they difficult to stumble upon?

RB: From 1982-84 I worked exclusively in the countryside here. It wasn’t easy—the people in the towns here weren’t very well populated. You drove around trying to find subjects and peoples and places. Then, you’d have to get out of the car and talk to somebody. The key moment, and one of the most important moments in my career, came during the early ‘80s. It had a lot to do with these places not being very well-frequented by other people, and being haunting and cloudless. I used to drive around—I was in these places doing geology and photography at the same time. It was getting pretty boring sitting in the car with such a bright sun. You can probably find it in parts of California in the summertime. I then decided to knock on people’s doors, and I started to go inside. That was metaphorically and physically a big step. I found the motifs. I started using a flash. I found the subject matters. I started using a square format then. So this was the big step that happened in ’83, ’84 that created the foundation for the later work in so many ways.

OK: I’ve been a major fan of your work for a long time. Before I did this magazine, I studied photography. I remember growing up and looking at your books.

RB: That’s terrific. It’s always good to hear this. I’m on the bottom of the planet, here. One of the reasons I feel I’ve created a unique aesthetic is that I never really got that involved in the art world. I know the history of photography super well, art too. But it was really just a matter of myself relating to myself. I didn’t go to exhibitions. I was basically isolated.

OK: It reminds me a bit of William Eggleston. He wasn’t part of the art world. He wasn’t part of this world that was so ready to accept his work. He was from the South. So it seems when you’re too insular in that world, it’s difficult to develop a voice.

RB: It’s gotten more and more difficult, when there are trillions of pictures taken. I had a foot in two worlds. I had the pre-Internet world that I grew up in, the film world, and I developed that. I still use the same camera from 1982. I’m still using film—the same camera, the same format, everything. I go back to when I was younger—I travelled the world. Now, I go back to the same nail on the wall and try to knock it in deeper. People don’t have any patience. They want instantaneous results. The photograph itself is an instantaneous process—it’s not like chiseling away at a marble rock to make a sculpture. People don’t have a concentration.

OK: I think, eventually, it’s going to become a situation where there’s a direct delineation between everyone being a photographer and real photography. I think there’s going to be more of delineation between those two things. It’s going to be less saturated.

RB: Unfortunately, the problem is who judges. A lot of people in this business grew up in the newer generation and they tend to try to find new angles and edges that are basically technological, that are focused on just the idea rather than the substance of the idea. The substance of the idea, to me, is crucial to good art. You don’t hear about that too much. You don’t hear about metaphor, depth, indescribably parts of the psyche. It’s gimmick of the gimmick. That’s the problem—how we judge this stuff. How does something good in this situation, in this imagery, rise to the surface? It’s a real battle. I wouldn’t want to suggest to a friend of mine or my children to go into this battle without another profession.

OK: It’s a really interesting battle. And speaking of metaphor, I want to talk about how your work, in the beginning, was very literal, very portrait-oriented. In the ‘90s, it became much more poetic and metaphorical. What prompted that shift?

RB: It’s very hard to say. Maybe it was confidence. Maybe it was a step forward—one picture would build on the next picture would build on the next picture. I started to find my aim. It wasn’t that I saw some pictures and said, “I want to be like that.” It was really a step-by-step process. You can see that in the Outland book. If you look at the early Outland work in ’95, ’96, there’s less of a link to the plot of that work. It’s a lot more documentary and portraiture. And then beginning in ’97, there seems to be a “fear of the absurd” taking place. That’s where that break started to happen. I don’t know what lead to that break. I started to ask different questions. The central question was, is chaos more prominent in the human condition? I was asking a philosophical question, to myself in some way. Also, I guess if I had to say who influenced me—people always get it wrong. They think people like Diane Arbus or somebody like this. But it was actually Beckett. Beckett in the Outland period had the most influence in terms of what I was trying to achieve. I was trying to understand something absurd, trying to probe into the human condition, not necessarily probe into the social and political condition of poor whites in South Africa. 

OK: There’s a direct difference between what Arbus is doing and what you’re doing. It seems like there’s more of a vision; it’s less exploitative. What do you say to people that say your work is similar?

RB: If there is any link to Arbus at all, it stopped in ’97. And then beginning in early 2002, 2003, there’s zero. This word exploitative is pathetic. It’s actually pathetic. It shows an inability to understand anything about photography. What does anybody know about being the subjects? They could have gotten on their hands and knees and begged me to take their picture. They could have paid me to take their picture. What does anybody know about these subjects? You’re looking at a visual statement. You’re not watching a TV program on somebody talking about their life. It’s an instantaneous moment. Nobody else could have taken pictures like me. It’s transformative. You’re looking at a two-dimensional object on a piece of paper, and it’s giving you some insight into your own psyche, maybe some sort of insight into the deeper issues of human experience. Bringing up the word exploitative… I’ve always told people who ask me this question that the people who say are actually the most affected. Psychologically, in a deeper way, the pictures break through their repressions, and they come at me with a projection or some sort of defensive mechanism to blame me for the crack in their psyche.

OK: I love that. You’re creating a document that’s really important. Edward Curtis, that 30-year document of Native Americans—we wouldn’t have that if it wasn’t for someone setting up their camera and spending that time to explore that subject matter. 

RB: I agree. People basically drop their pants when they talk like that. I think you know what I mean. They see, on the front of the newspaper, somebody dead on the street and the mother lying over the dead person crying—on TV, CNN, or in the newspaper. Is that great? What are you talking about? It’s hopeless. The pictures I take get into their head—that’s the difference. They’re blanked out about it. Just like going into the supermarket—four hundred dead chickens sitting there, nobody blinks an eye. But someone sees my Asylum of the Birds movie, that’s horrible. Look at the chickens’ heads being chopped off. This is what we live in. We could go on and on about predictions. It’s not even worth talking about.

OK: Speaking of your new series, “Asylum of the Birds.” I want to talk about that exhibition. What can we expect from those photographs? What can we experience with those photographs? 

RB: With Asylum of the Birds, it’s a much more abstract way of seeing the world. They’re layered, multi-dimensional photographs. They have opposite meanings. There’s the relationship with the birds, which have metaphoric symbols—it has basically the archetypal metaphoric symbol to it. And then there are a lot of drawings, which are hard to put a finger on what each drawing means, how each drawing relates to another drawing, how the drawings relate to the animals and the objects in the pictures. They’re very hard photographs to put words to. They have multiple metaphors. They’re very visual in nature. They’re hard to condense into any one way of deciphering. For myself, I wouldn’t want to say this or that. I commonly say that the best pictures don’t have words. If I do have words, the picture is not a good picture. I’m quite sure about that. People want to put a meaning of something into a package. If they can’t put it into a package, they get insecure.

OK: A lot of people are afraid of their own psyche. It’s really difficult for people to step outside of that. 

RB: Very difficult.

OK: And maybe the world would be a better place if people did.

RB: I say that the only way we’ll have an improvement in this world—this goes back to what I learned at Berkeley 40 years ago—people have to break their own repression, come to terms with their own interior, and become more integrated in their identity. Important art helps people do this in some way. But I don’t think art is the seer of the problem. It’s such a worldwide epidemic problem, and perhaps always has been. We can’t say that the chances for peace are any greater now than they were one hundred years ago. We live in a dangerous world, basically. 

OK: Is there anything else you’re working on now? 

RB: I’m working on two projects right now. One is a project that I refer to as “Apparitions.” Have you seen the Asylum of the Birds book. Look at the last couple of pages, you’ll see some of those photos. They’re two-dimensional photographs. They look like drawings, but they’re taken with black and white photography.

 OK: I love the Die Antwoord music video, by the way. I love that they were able to bring your work to a younger audience. Do you think was successful?

RB: It’s hard to believe, we got like 65 million hits. It’s incredible. I can’t believe it sometimes. It really got in people’s heads. I think it really worked well because most music videos are mono-dimensional in meaning. I think this had a multiple-level meaning that was accessible to people. There’s something deeper in it, but also something humorous in it. And the music fit the visual. It just came together. Some things just work out that way and sometimes they don’t. 

OK: It’s not the heyday for music videos.

RB: It’s terrible; it’s like photographs.

OK: It’s disposable. It’s consumable, and then that’s it. 

RB: That’s what I’m saying. People’s attention span is much different than it used to be. I don’t know. At age 65, I stopped guessing about the future. I don’t know one day from the next. I just take it as it comes and do my best and focus on what I’m doing. I can do my best to produce interesting art. The work has to have its own life. One doesn’t know what’s effective in all sorts of ways. I’m really satisfied that I’ve followed this career all those years. It’s quite fulfilling to see the work evolving over time. It’s like a diary.

OK: It’s a very rare, unique, and beautiful body of work. I really appreciate it. 

RB: Thank you. I really appreciate your time and interest. Be well.


Roger Ballen "Asylum of the Birds" will be on view at Galerie Karsten Greve Köln until August 29, 2015. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper