Spotlight: Roger Ballen’s world of contrasts

Subi Shah talks humanity, power and expression with Johannesburg-based artist Roger Ballen.
Roger Ballen smiles as he poses for a portrait sitting on a chair. PALOMA PALOMINO
A portrait of Roger Ballen. PALOMA PALOMINO

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of Brutalist architecture. I find it cold, uninviting, even defensive. But Roger Ballen’s newly opened Inside Out Centre for the Arts is different. Standing on Jan Smuts Avenue, in central Johannesburg, the raw concrete structure on which Ballen worked closely with renowned Brutalist architect Joe van Rooyen gives nothing away – in fact, even the entrance is concealed. Curiosity invites the outsider in.

The new gallery is a big deal here in Johannesburg, as there is little public funding for the arts in South Africa, with this space sponsored by Ballen’s foundation.

‘The thing is,’ artist and photographer Ballen says, ‘fine arts, sculpture and even graffiti in South Africa are overlooked, but that’s the same across the world, even in what you might call “developed” countries. Generally speaking, here in Africa most governments don’t see art as a priority because investment in the arts does not lead to votes.’

End of the Game is the gallery’s inaugural exhibition. It’s a collection of photographs, early film reels and installations that give a hint of Ballen’s dark, incisive wit.

Delirium, mirage, dreams and nightmares coexist and cannot be categorized as light or dark

Poorer districts in Johannesburg are subject to ‘load shedding’: intermittent power blackouts introduced for energy conservation. Wealthier residents harness solar power, but the gallery is partially lit by the sun as well as an electricity supply. I am greeted inside by ‘King of the Jungle’, a majestic taxidermy lion who appears to be roaring with laughter. Standing on his hind legs, he holds the severed heads of his hunters in what look like gift bags. Welcome to the party. Your hosts: Africa’s Big Game.

Born in the US in 1950, Ballen settled in Johannesburg in 1982, working in mining before quitting to become a full-time artist. He came to international recognition with ‘Platteland’, a collection of portraits of South Africa’s urban white poor, which exposed the failures of apartheid on its own terms.

He comes across as a thoughtful man, tall but unimposing, as he leads me around the space in easy silence. I am glad he says nothing much about what the installations are ‘about’, instead letting me think for myself. The multimedia exhibition includes other bizarre installations such as animals riding a merry-go-round, a cheetah posing as a fashion model, human mannequins desperately climbing ropes to try and escape the vengeful animals snapping at their heels. There are photographs and footage of recognizable faces. Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and King Edward all pose proudly with their slaughtered lions, elephants, rhinos, cheetahs and other creatures. The deepest shame seems to be in the horrified expression on each and every Black African’s face as they look on helplessly, commanded to carry hunters’ artillery and drag the carcasses back to camp.

I ask Ballen where he sources these strange, sometimes decaying props. ‘Scrapyards, markets, old fairgrounds, rubbish dumps, wherever I find them. You know, these animals were slaughtered mercilessly, just for fun. End of the Game gives them the last laugh, as power shifts from the hunter to the hunted.’

Ballen explains: ‘The centre has a dual purpose. One is to function as an educational space for lectures, workshops, discussion and the sharing and exploration of ideas. The other is to showcase local and international artists who are interested in the psychological and aesthetic aspects of issues faced by Africa, such as big game hunting.

‘A central challenge in my career has been to locate the animal in the human being and the human being in the animal. The photographs I have taken over the years represent the conflictual relationship between civilization and nature, where opposites attract and break apart in a world built not on logic, but on irrationality. Delirium, mirage, dreams and nightmares coexist and cannot be categorized as light or dark.’

The current generation of youth was born after the end of apartheid. Later that evening, I get talking to two brilliant young graduates who were excited about Inside Out. Both are fizzing about the burgeoning art scene in their city. One, Mpho, hopes to be showcased at the Inside Out Centre, while his friend Junior wants to take an MA in Art History and become a gallery curator.

Says Mpho: ‘This is the start of what South Africa can be. Until now, we have not been able to show the world who we really are, to show that we are our parents’ children and we are proud to be Black Africans. Amandla Awethu!’ [Power to the people!]