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Roger Ballen's naked lunch
© Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen's naked lunch

Until early next year, the South African photography behemoth will be cast under the spotlight at the Halle Saint Pierre, the Mecca of Art Brut in Paris. This allowed PAM the opportunity to chat with the artist about his new projects. Be warned however; there are a lot of them to take in.

Roger Ballen has perched by humanity’s bedside for the last few decades, exploring its psyche through his highly disturbing, instinctive and liberal photographic style. Born in New York in 1950, Roger moved to South Africa in 1982 as a geologist in training . Shortly after, he sabotaged his early professional career in favor of a much riskier fantasy: to photograph a desperate and rural South Africa of the time. “When Roger Ballen photographs these South Africans; marginalized by fear, misery and isolation, he transforms the timezones of these very people who live in a world of repetitive and absurd gestures into another time where they become the leaders of a plastic universe that they have created,” explains Martine Lusardy, curator of the exhibition Le monde selon Roger Ballen (“The world according to Roger Ballen”), which is held at the Halle Saint Pierre until January 3, 2021. “Roger Ballen’s characters are captured in undefined window-less cellular spaces, covered in dirt and dust,; with only the omnipresent wall, defining a physical and mental framework. Bearing signs, drawings and graffiti, the stained wall records tales, beliefs and impossible escapes. Much like the animals, these worn objects – derisory or alluring – are elevated to the ranks of surreal protagonists in scenes where meaning is blurred […]. The absurd dominates all.”

The artist never ceases to pace through the heart of darkness, to dig deep within the most coveted human depths, to photograph close to the bone, and to reveal the isolation, the strangeness and a true madness – the real madness. From the Centre Pompidou to Tate Britain, via artwork created for the infamous duo Die Antwoord… The integrity and strength of his creative abilities have been celebrated for over three decades across the world. Whilst currently exhibiting in Paris, Ballen continues to work for his South African homeland: he is currently in the process of finalizing construction work for a new building; the “Roger Ballen Center for Visual Arts”, a foundation dedicated to African artists based in Johannesburg where he currently resides.

Roger, before discussing your latest display in Paris, could you please tell us about the progress made in the construction of your foundation, the “Roger Ballen Center for Visual Arts”? Where does this project currently stand?

The construction of the building was completed during lockdown. We are currently dealing with the final details, but the center is finally finished, and it is incredibly inspiring! It is located in Johannesburg, not far from where I live in fact. I hold no particular architectural skills, so I hired a project manager and the results are now in! I was able to make my own contribution too, in particular with the transformation of the initially planned shopping space into a video projection room, which we were lacking. Constructing this kind of building in South Africa can get really very expensive, but the work went incredibly well, within a trustworthy environment. This has motivated me to continue the adventure.

© Roger Ballen

Are you going to be responsible for the artistic programming of the foundation?

Not entirely. That said however, I can’t carry a project like this and then hand it over to someone and tell them “alright, do whatever you want – you have carte blanche.” This space will have to meet a criteria that is important to me. There will obviously be contemporary art; celebrating African culture as a whole but most importantly South African culture. I do not see myself as the official curator of the foundation, but I will play a role here for sure.

What kind of artists can the audience expect to see? Will there be requirements in order to be exhibited?

There will be a number of prerequisites. First of all, I think the work of guest artists will somehow be aligned with the aesthetics that I have been exploring for years. In terms of message and psychological depth, work on the subconscious and on mental landscapes are all decisive elements. I want to present work that is striking to people, that can brutally shake them up, head-on, without the need for being analyzed. I see too much work that lacks any substance, only influenced by CNN, Instagram or Time Magazine. The idea with this space is to present the exact opposite of that. Also, I want the work that we present to all deal with, directly or indirectly, African aesthetics. This is a tricky problem, as to date there are very few independent exhibition venues to take on this work. But the idea is to train and educate local audiences in raising these questions.

That’s a huge responsibility! How did you come to find this transmittent desire?

It was a real coincidence. I have been running my foundation since 2004, or 2005. This structure has allowed us to organize readings and interventions of international guests in the universities here. Over the years, I have also sponsored various competitions, exhibitions and publications. But Johannesburg is not Paris. Unlike the big cities of Europe, there are very few places here to host artists. These places of expression are extremely rare, and creative people find it difficult to exist here. When this property near my home became available, I bought it to house the foundation. It was the ideal location. You need a space. Even with the greatest ideas in the world, you are nothing without a space.

© Roger Ballen

Indeed, and I guess the fact that your exhibition takes place at the Halle Saint Pierre, an international mecca for Art Brut, was an invitation that you relished?

La Halle is a place I have frequented for years, and it is certainly my favorite museum in the world. I have always loved Art Brut. Primitive Arts have always been my thing, and I myself have worked a lot with social outsiders (cf. Roger’s superb project entitled Outland). At La Halle, I felt at home and in the right place. Especially since the collaboration with in-house curator Martine Lusardy went so well. I like the fact that the space offers a circular scenography, unlike most museum spaces worldwide, which are almost all rectangular. It took me a long time to grasp the architecture of this space – I found it enigmatic and disturbing, because it is difficult to link the different works all together. But we succeeded, and I am very happy with the install. This exhibit for me is an incredibly memorable one and I am delighted that it will now be extended until early 2021, so that the French public stuck at home during lockdown now have time to discover it.

With this exhibition, it seems that illustrations take more and more precedence in your work…

I have been drawing in my work since 2002. Over time, these illustrations, this drawn gesture has become totally prevalent. To the point that this aesthetic that some people call “Ballenesque” can no longer be separated from the drawing. Drawings which themselves have become more complex over the years. During lockdown I spent nine weeks doing canvas illustrations, every day except one. A real first for me since I started in 1973. And I was pretty happy with the results. I painted from late March to early June, every single day. Since June, until now I have only been doing photography.

You just finished a new and rather mysterious book entitled Roger The Rat, is that right?

Look, I just received the printed copy today [laughs]! The German publisher Hatje Cantz is handling this publication. I made a movie of it too. It’s a photobook about a man who thinks he is a rat. He looks and dresses like a rat, and behaves… in an absurd way.

© Roger Ballen

You also recently took on work in the music studio with Die Antwoord, whose latest album HOUSE OF ZEF you are featured on.

To be honest with you, it was a complete first for me, I had never done anything like this before. I had no idea what my voice might sound like but we were pretty happy with the result. We’ve cut a handful of other tracks, and I think they might be used later. Maybe alongside the release of their documentary.

A documentary about Die Antwoord?

Yes, and I’m the director. It’s a one-hour documentary film, which is almost completed now. We will release it when conditions are more favorable.

Roger is seventy years old. He still lives in Johannesburg. Nothing seems to be able to stop him: the new display of his works at the Halle Saint Pierre exhibition, Le Monde selon Roger Ballen (“The World according to Roger Ballen”) was extended until January 3rd, 2021. The catalog of this superb display is still available at Thames & Hudson editions.

His new photobook Roger the Rat, produced in Joburg between 2015 and 2020, is available from the excellent publisher Hatje Cantz.

The Roger Ballen Center for Visual Arts building is now finally completed. It is located in Johannesburg. This museum will open its doors as soon as the current pandemic allows for it.

The Roger Ballen-directed documentary film about Die Antwoord will be released in 2021.

© Roger Ballen