Photography: depth of field

Published in Financial Mail 16 March 2017

Photographer Roger Ballen talks about his foundation’s gift to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa ahead of its September opening in Cape Town.

There’s no shortage of good-news stories leading up to the opening of the eagerly awaited Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa) later this year. On the back of the Roger Ballen Foundation’s substantial financial donation to the museum, which will help ensure its long-term sustainability, works by Ballen and 14 other artists went under the hammer at the Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art Day Auction in London last week. Proceeds of the auction will go towards the Zeitz Mocaa endowment.

Those artists were El Anatsui, Yto Barrada, Peter Beard, Eamonn Doyle and Niall Sweeney, Frances Goodman, Kendell Geers, Antony Gormley, Rashid Johnson, Isaac Julien, Harland Miller, Athi-Patra Ruga, Yinka Shonibare (MBE) and Pascale Marthine Tayou.
Mark Coetzee, executive director and chief curator at Zeitz Mocaa confirmed that Christie’s auction raised £1,516,250 (about R24m).

Meanwhile the contribution by the Roger Ballen Foundation, which has been in existence for 10 years, will go towards the ongoing logistical, exhibition, programming and educational costs of a Centre for Photography that will bear the foundation’s name. US-born Ballen says it has been his “great desire” to contribute to the understanding of photography in SA, the country he calls home. He believes the goals of the foundation can complement those of Zeitz Mocaa. Linking with the museum is a wiser, more effective way to attain these goals.
“There has been a lot of goodwill, hard work and agreement on what the Centre for Photography should be doing, which is setting standards, showing work that deserves to be shown and teaching people the potential for more artistic photography,” he says. “It will have an educational and artistic purpose.”

It will also host temporary exhibitions by photographers from around the globe to expose local audiences and practitioners to the rich legacy of photography worldwide.

During the past three years, Ballen has completed eight books, a number of videos and — last year alone — 30 exhibitions. He has also contributed to an upcoming retrospective on his life in photography (spanning nearly 50 years) called Ballanesque, due to be published by Thames & Hudson in September.
“It’s been a long journey, and I’m still as keen as ever to do it. It keeps evolving into completely different terrain and zones; this is always challenging,” says Ballen. “I never produced my work for the market. It’s always been a personal journey. The topic is always in my psyche. It’s interesting to me because I’m right on the edge of myself.”
Ballen has donated one signed edition of all his work produced from 1968 to 1982 to the museum’s permanent collection, along with the promise of one signed edition of all new work from now until his death.

The newly appointed curator at large of photography, Azu Nwagbogu, says Ballen remains an inspiration to photographers seeking a unique visual language, and his contribution will ensure a professional platform for photographers from across Africa.
Evolution of an artist

Roger Ballen: I’ve always said if you can describe a picture in words it’s probably a bad photograph. It should have a sense of enigma about it. Picture: SUPPLIED

Roger Ballen: I’ve always said if you can describe a picture in words it’s probably a bad photograph. It should have a sense of enigma about it. Picture: SUPPLIED

Ballen, who describes himself as a psychological, existential photographer, says he doesn’t like to talk about the meaning of the work — “it could be multidimensional, it could be ugly, and it could be beautiful and disturbing. It is what it is. I’ve always said if you can describe a picture in words it’s probably a bad photograph. It should have a sense of enigma about it.”

The evolution of Ballen’s style of black-and-white photography can be tracked from the beginning of his Outland series, when drawings and objects were integrated into the pictures. “Dorps, and part of Outland, were about marginalised people, which had been done by others for decades. In 1997/1998, there was a sense of myself taking over the pictures, in a way. Before, the subject took over the pictures,” he says.
In about 2001/2002, portraiture had begun to disappear from his work, giving way to the kind of drawings that would become Ballen’s mark. His iconic Room of the Ninja Turtles is a case in point. “My pictures have a sense of decisiveness, power, meaning attached to the artworks. It’s very complicated photography. Unfortunately everybody thinks it’s as easy as this,” he says, pointing to a smartphone.

“I am first and foremost a photographer but I was amazed — I still am — at the huge audience for videos. A lot of my new books and series have had an accompanying video as a parallel artwork; they all contribute to my career.”

With more than 89m hits and counting since it was uploaded on YouTube in 2012, Ballen’s collaboration with rap group Die Antwoord, I Fink U Freeky, has brought him “into the zeitgeist of young people around the globe”.

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