The LURE Guide To: Why you need to know Roger Ballen
FIND OUT WHERE YOU CAN SEE BALLEN FIRSTHAND AND WHY IT’S WORTH THE TRIP.
From Atlanta to Durban and beyond, Roger Ballen’s trademark black-and-white shots showcasing social outcasts appear in over 60 galleries and museums around the world.
LURE talked to gallerists at four spots housing some of his most compelling photography so you can gain some insights for your own deep dive into the surrealist photographer.
Location: 1255 Bay St. Toronto, Canada
What's there: Works spanning from the 1990s to 2016
Izzy Sulejmani's eponymous gallery only represents 15 artists, but he tells LURE he's particularly drawn to Ballen's work because it invokes something deeper — the images refuse to leave you.
It's all about Ballen's signature style, he says: A gaze he has in capturing a subject matter most would rather ignore or hide, like in Theatre of the Mind (2016), which was housed in a special exhibit at the Izzy.
"His photos provoke something in you to think: ‘What happened?' I can’t think of anyone who comes close to his work, to be honest," he says.
Sulejmani recalls a radio interview Ballen gave about a photo of a boy and a snake, in which the boy willingly allowed himself to be bitten, despite Ballen's warnings. The boy also wanted to bite the snake, which he did, once again, despite Ballen’s concern.
Though Ballen admitted he sympathized with the youngster, he asked the interviewer: "You didn't ask me how I felt about the snake."
That's "so Roger," Sulejmani chuckles.
Location: 1280 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, USA
What's there: Portraits from the 1980s to 1990s
The Roger Ballen Collection at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art displays many of the artist's photos that span from the late-1960s through the 1990s, like Old Men, Western Transvaal (1991).
Ballen's works that explore poverty and racism in South Africa form a "powerful complement" to High's other collections. The photos parallel themes in works on the American South, Sarah Kennel, a curator of photography at High, tells LURE.
She also marvels at Ballen’s fairly recent foray into what she calls the “theatrical, surrealist space," with installations utilizing flea market objects, everyday things and scribbles on walls.
“In this sense, he bears a kinship with other artists in our collection, including Clarence John Laughlin and Ralph Eugene Meatyard," says Kennel.
DURBAN ART GALLERY
Location: Durban City Hall, Smith Street 4001, Durban, South Africa
What’s there: Works from the 1990s to the 2009 Boarding House series
Thulani Makhaye, curator of the Durban Art Gallery, deems Ballen one of the most influential photographers of current times.
He spotlights the role Ballen’s played in adapting 21st-century black-and-white photography to his own style. The result is an even starker shift between reality and fantasy with multimedia – sculpture and installation, as well as still image, video and animation.
“The imagery that Ballen has presented requires the viewer to take more than one glance," he says, singling out Puppy between feet (1999), a print of which can be found at the Durban Art Gallery.
"The puppy is small, fragile and adorable, [and] the rough texture of the feet tell a story of hardship, struggle and thousand-mile walk in [an] uncomfortable pair of shoes,” he says.
Makhaye says Ballen has influenced a handful of artists on the African continent, including Zanele Muholi and Nandipha MnTambo, both of whom blur the line between viewer and the observed by turning the lens on themselves.
Location: Via Luigi Apollonio, 68, Brescia, Italy
What's there: Works from his series Shadow Chamber (2006)
The fusion of Ballen’s careers as a geologist and photographer is what really intrigues Massimo Minini, owner of his own gallery in Brescia, Italy.
Minini posits that Ballen the geologist influenced Ballen the photographer: He explored both the underbelly and the upper-belly of the earth. He met poor, white South Africans living near the mines he studied in the 1980s and 1990s and they became his subjects.
“He uncovered a world and, little by little, he brought that to another level,” says Minini, recalling how Ballen asked these forgotten people to express their fantasies and dreams.
"There’s this interaction he has with an environment or people, and it’s not something even he can measure.”
Watch LURE’s exclusive interview with Roger Ballen in his private studio. He describes Jean Dubuffet’s “Desnudus”, a painting which greatly inspired him, through his own eyes: