In 1974, as photographer Roger Ballen prepared for an epic hitchhiking journey from Cairo all the way to Cape Town, he envisioned the African continent teeming with wild animals and big game. “To my surprise, this wasn’t the case,” he says. “I shall never forget the experience of seeing a rhinoceros running across the road with a spear in his blood-soaked side on a game drive in Ngorongoro Park.” The atrocities he witnessed stuck, prompting career-long rumination on the psychological relationships we share with the natural world—and how to capture this tension through photographs. His surreal, confrontational images birthed his very own neologism: Ballenesque.
Ballen eventually settled in Johannesburg, where in 2007 he launched the Roger Ballen Foundation (now the Inside Out Trust Foundation) to support education through the arts. This week, he pulled up the curtain on his most ambitious project yet, the Inside Out Centre for the Arts, his foundation’s years-in-the-making home for art that provokes introspection. The museum is a welcome addition to leafy Forest Town, a bustling suburb with a handful of other museums well on its path to becoming the South African city’s next cultural corridor.
The museum’s building is an attraction in its own right. Ballen gave local firm JVR Architects one prompt: translate Ballenesque into functional architecture. Embodying “form follows function,” the firm deftly envisioned a mysterious, Brutalist-inspired monolith clad in raw concrete and Tyrolean plasterwork. “I sometimes think the building looks like it was built ‘inside out,’” Ballen says. And much like his gripping images, the building abounds with sly contradictions. Visitors immediately descend on a grand, double-height entry bathed in natural light—a balm for the subject matter awaiting inside. Cleverly placed apertures, a nod to Ballen’s lens, let streams of soft light journey through the galleries as the day progresses.
Kicking off the exhibition lineup is “End of the Game,” a collection of historic images, artifacts, and films that grapple with the decimation of African wildlife and origins of the safari. “My personal belief is that the relationship between animals and humans is essentially adversarial and exploitative,” Ballen writes in the exhibition catalog. “Most societies try to deny this fact, but it’s clear to me that the destruction of the natural world continues unabated. I hope this show provides a sound basis for how art and contemporary issues can interact to create a deepened consciousness of the issues facing humanity.”
Ballen’s own works mingle with—and gain context from—archival pieces from the “Golden Age” of hunting expeditions by colonialists and powerful Western figureheads from the mid-19th century. Much like the museum’s name implies, the show delves deep into the psyche’s elusive recesses to bring repressed ideas about environmental calamity to the fore.