Roger Ballen at the National Museum of African Art: Recap

Roger Ballen at African Art

Roger Ballen at African Art

Ambivalent is the word I would use to describe Roger Ballen talking about his art, which is appropriate as there is an ambivalence to his work as well.  Mr. Ballen, who was born in New York but has lived in South Africa for over 30 years has an interesting accent, at times resonant with the bass tones of New York, then mixed with that charming melange of lost Dutchman at high tea after 30 years in the bush that is the South Africa iteration.  In town in conjunction with the opening of his show, Line, Marks & Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen – which I think is pretty ballsy for the Smithsonian and a DC public institution, personally, dare I even say SERIOUSLY AMAZING – and I hope those ant-Christ people don’t get all over their congressmen for this.  All I have to say is stand down piss-ant-Christ people, these are some beautiful prints.

The film versus digital debate was alive and well.  In the galleries, my own informal poll, including my personal opinion, AND that of another couple I was eavesdropping upon, revealed that the silver gelatin prints were preferred, both in tonality, sharpness without the over crispness of the inkjet.  The inkjet just looked crunchy next to the silver gelatin, I am sorry, but that is how I feel.  Anyhoo, that said – it was pretty darn impressive.  I mean the conceit of the line as a theme to the show was a bit obvious and ordinary.  I would have preferred some more psycho dynamic structure – Mr. Ballen asserted that he was one of a dying breed aka film photographers, and I had to agree and felt very sad and lonely as a younger member of that dying breed and film becoming so precious.  And I just hate the digital process I am sorry. I miss the darkroom.  I am still fighting it, I admit.

Of film, Ballen asserted, ” The nice thing is you don’t know what happens to it, till you make a print of it.” Sensing a rapt audience, he continued, ” The film has it’s own life, it’s own chemistry, it’s own being.” And then he finished with, ” It can give you a life that you haven’t given it.”

He says his new work is a leap to an extended reality, and that the line tells you who you are so let’s start there, and then proceeds to riff on the line, molding it into the idea that it is some Odyssean journey of the unconscious, only he doesn’t say it quite like that, and he says it rather much longer.  The drawings to me are like his version of outsider art – he doesn’t really describe his relationships to his subjects and the collaborative quality of their encounter, and I do not ask (Impulse Control Success Story!) him if he just brings like a gallon of whiskey there to these locations  and they all hang out and see what happens, because I am pretty sure that is what happens. He appears a pretty closed book about the engagements he has with his subjects.

Speaking of books, it’s a quite lovely volume with excellent duotones, highly recommended.


4 thoughts on “Roger Ballen at the National Museum of African Art: Recap

  1. Hilarious. From the angle of your photo, I must have been one or two seats to your right. Roger’s work is intense, rooted deep in his psyche. While I found his work to be forceful, it’s not what I would be putting on my living room wall.

    Some random thoughts:

    It seemed odd that the sitting was so small–I assumed it would be a crowd.
    I wanted more time with questions (even if they would have been on the technical angles). I found the curator interests on cropping to be a bit weak. I wanted a wider discussion on his workflow, and how he has mastered this creative process. He is using the same camera setup, lens, etc. for over 20 years ! I can’t fathom being so original, that I wouldn’t beg for a new lens or new camera for two decades. I also wanted to know more about his use of flash–whether it was for the light or the shadow.

    Finally, I have two graduate degrees in theology. I didn’t perceive any ant-Christ themes, I found the work fascinating.

    All the best, Jack


    • Hi Jack,

      I would definitely put Roger’s work on my wall, perhaps not my bedroom wall, but there are a few of his prints that bring out my acquisitive nature. The sitting was small, and I think it is because we are not NYC and perhaps not a good word out among Ballen fans. Also there were several events earlier in the week so that might have diverted some. Yes, the curator’s comments were a bit weak. He seemed a nice enough fella but that comment “I know how to handle photographers.” sat in my craw, like this ridiculous archaic echelon making in the art world, as if photographers are empirically different in our foibles than any other artist. And the cropping question is really a bit of a time-waster. Loved Ballen’s response to that though! Sorry Cartier-Bresson.

      I would definitely stay with the same equipment for decades, but each to his own. I am not as interested in his technique as his psychological underpinnings: what drives him, what would be on his gravestone? what were his formative childhood experiences and how is that reflected in what he is doing? But I suspect that is the last thing Mr. B wants to go into.

      Did not mean that there were any anti-Christ messages in his work, just that people will project what they will into your work (helps to have an actual crucifixion in the work), and that Congress should pay a never-no-mind I think in most cases. Thanks for commenting, Jack.



      • Ha, yes I, too, wanted to know what it meant to “handle photographers.” After all, they are surely a mono-culture. Thank you for your blog. I neglected to offer a hello and appreciation for bringing Roger’s presentation to my attention in the first place.


      • I actually did ask him about what he meant by that, and his response was not illuminating. Glad the blog pointed out something interesting. I love connecting people with opportunities (I have a limited ability to do so) so I really appreciate your feedback.


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