Roger Ballen (born 1950), is a world-renowned photographic artist working in Johannesburg, South Africa. His oeuvre, which spans five decades, began with documentary photography. However, it has evolved into the creation of a distinctive aesthetic commonly referred to as “Ballenesque” which integrates the mediums of film, installation, theatre, sculpture, painting and drawing. Outsiders, animals, found objects, wires and childlike drawings inhabit the unlocatable worlds presented in Ballen’s artworks. Ballen describes his works as existential psychodramas that touch the subconscious mind and evoke the underbelly of the human condition.
Ballen’s early documentary series – namely, Dorps (1986) and Platteland (1994) – capture the life of small towns and villages in unmodernised ‘hinterlands’ of apartheid South Africa. After 2000, the subjects of these photographs began to participate in theatrical scenarios bordering on the absurd. The ambiguity of fantasy and reality become more blurred in Boarding House (2009) and Asylum of the Birds (2014). Here, the artist’s unique aesthetic evolved as he began to replace human portraits with more abstract elements. As Ballen reflects, “I often question whether the face I see in the mirror is mine, and where my thoughts actually come from. ‘Reality’ is a word that has no meaning to me; it is unfathomable. I would rather express the enigma of this word than ponder its fundamental nature.”
As time has gone on, Ballen has further expanded the possibilities of the integration of mediums and, in so doing, enhanced the powers for psychological provocation. As one of his twenty-seven publications, The Theatre of the Apparitions (2016) series, exhibited at Biennale Arte 2022, exemplifies the synthesis of graphic and photographic elements. Initially inspired by the sight of hand-drawn carvings on blacked-out windows in an abandoned women’s prison, Ballen’s The Theatre of the Apparitions images are photographs of drawings that the artist made on windows inside a building in the Johannesburg inner-city metropolis. By inventing various techniques and by using novel materials, the artist created black dimensionless spaces onto which transient, ever-mutating ghost-like forms perform. For Ballen, these characters and the activities in which they engage, present the incomprehensible and primal scenes of our mental unconscious. Repressed, exiled or extruded to the peripheries of our awareness, these photographic scenarios surface from the deep parts of the psyche. Ballen has distilled such moments in these photographs. Moreover, the photographer has transformed this series (and many of his others) into award-winning films.
Ballen’s art-making process is equally complex. For him, “a photograph began before [he] started making it, deep down in some part of my mind. It formed before my consciousness about it formed. I never usually plan my photographs, yet relying on one’s dreams and imagination alone will not guarantee a successful image. My photographs come about as a result of hundreds of tiny decisions, just like the innumerable brush-strokes of a painting.” After approximately 50 years of shooting exclusively in black-and-white film, he has now adapted his style to colour. This artist has extended his vision through the establishment of his newly constructed Inside Out Centre for the Arts building in Johannesburg. At this venue, he aims to exhibit, educate and promote art related to the African continent. The centre will provide a powerful multimedia experience and will be open to the public in 2022.
All of Ballen’s work shares common goals. First is his own self-exploration and understanding, as he says, “My purpose in taking photographs has ultimately been about defining myself. It has been a fundamentally psychological and existential journey. If an artist is one who spends his life trying to define his being, I suppose I would have to call myself an artist.”
Further, he aims to facilitate the acceptance of the viewer’s ‘inner self’ by unveiling repressed psychological states of being. He achieves this by confronting the viewer with themes that are most profound to the human condition: chaos and order, madness or unruly states of being, the human relationship to the animal world, life and death and universal archetypes. For him, this process of revelation is instrumental to the awakening of social, political and even spiritual consciousness.