/ 27 March 2023

Tour the darkness of Roger Ballen’s Inside Out Centre in Joburg


Viewing a macabre photograph taken by photographer Roger Ballen leaves a stain on the mind. But it’s another experience to lunge into his twisted world of rats, ghostly beasts and psychological dioramas.

Ballen’s new Inside Out Centre in Johannesburg consists of two floors, which explore game hunting’s so-called golden age through artefacts and photographs before entering Ballen’s menagerie of wacky installations and unearthly images.

“A criteria for the space is the psychological impact. It stays there like a virus that mutates and transforms, you can’t get rid of it,” says Ballen.

‘End of the Game’

The centre opened to the public in March with the exhibition End of the Game, which focuses on the interactions between animals and people. It’s not a new subject for Ballen, and leans more towards wildlife than animals in chaotic domestic settings.

For his work to make sense, Ballen says we must start with the facts. The research and historical context behind End of the Game is on one floor and looks at the zeitgeist of the early 1900s when Westerners viewed Africa as a dreamworld for those with an appetite to hunt. These men included powerful people such as former UK prime minister Winston Churchill and former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who alone killed about 2 000 animals.

Roosevelt’s travels to Africa epitomised the luxury of safari travel, which added to the appeal of travelling to Africa for big game hunting. Hundreds of people carried equipment for the travellers, including tents, home comforts from the US, animal hide preservatives and a gold mounted rabbit’s foot for good luck.

Ballen is not a documentary photographer; he has captured images of claustrophobic places such as houses and rooms, as he did in his exhibitions Asylum of the Birds and Shadow Chambers.

Ballen and his team ask, “How do we explain the rapid rise and continued appeal of Africa’s big game hunting, which has led to the tragic, mass destruction of wildlife and the ecological crisis of the continent today?”

“Hunting was considered a luxury pursuit. What motivated people is they came to Africa for science, because they thought it was a homogenous continent, a geographic blank,” explains Amanda Ballen, the director of programmes at the Inside Out Centre.

Rifles, binoculars, telescopes and archival hunting photographs from these hunting conquests in Africa set you up to ponder Ballen’s work, which exhibits stuffed animals, a creepy merry-go-round adorned with skulls and a one-bedroom shack covered with his hand-drawn faces.

The photos show how hunting was considered an expression of power, masculinity and a gentleman’s sport. These men saw Africa as a pristine wild playground.

The body count of the animals hunted was evident in exported commodities such as ivory for piano keys and hunting artefacts, which perpetuated the fantasies of the African hunt.

The dungeon

Descend the main staircase of the centre to experience the convergence of the “Ballenesque” world and the old world of African hunting safaris. “Ballenesque” is the term most used to describe the aesthetic of Ballen’s images, which take the viewer to parts of their psyche most do not dare explore.  

His signature monochromatic photographs capture darkness, violence and catastrophe the human psyche is able to conjure, but tricky to confront. His latest exploration into colour photographs inject an element of humour into the underworld of our minds.

This lower level of the centre is described as “a dreamlike menagerie of objects: photographs and installations of real, taxidermied, and artificial animals, humans and hybrids engage in playful and bizarre scenes”.

Ballen also jokingly calls this area “the dungeon”.

Ballen’s new work such as Leopard Lady (2023), and photographs like Cat Catcher (1998) from his platteland era crescendo with the theme of End of the Game. It questions whether the relationship between people and animals is positive or negative, or if it can ever be positive.

“Animals pervade my spaces: cats, dogs, rats, chickens, snakes and more. Dead and alive, big and small, wild and tame. Wherever you look, there are animals,” says Ballen.

He says that you, as both the viewer and the hunted animals, cannot escape “it — “it” being the dark parts of the human condition that leads us to do ugly things and life itself. No matter where you are looking, it is going to get you, Ballen explains.

If you walk away from the Inside Out Centre with fear of nightmares, Ballen says, “That’s great news, that’s exactly what you needed!”

The Inside Out Centre is at 48 Jan Smuts Avenue, Forest Town, Johannesburg. For more information visit: insideoutcentreforthearts.com