IN Playpen, the Roger Ballen photographic retrospective, dark matter meets deep, brutal and uncomfortable honesty while seizing the content of childhood and locking it into the four gossamer walls of play.
This exhibition is Port Elizabeth’s entry onto the fringe of the National Arts Festival.
The NMMU school of music, art and design, in association with the Athenaeum, are presenting Playpen together with a supporting programme of exhibitions by local and emerging artists, both at the Athenaeum in Port Elizabeth and the Carinus Art Centre in Grahamstown.
“As we re-imagine the creative industries in Nelson Mandela Bay, we need to match an internal shift with external inspiration,” NMMU school of music art and design director Mary Duker said. “Ballen does just that – he makes us navel-gaze, forcing us to re-analyse normality and review societal engagements through a new lens.”
Playpen – curated by Christina Naurattel – comprises a unique selection of work spanning Ballen’s artistic career from 1979 to 2011.
“The exhibition shows images of children, toys, drawings and the spaces that surround them. Ballen approaches the photograph more like an artist than a photographer.
“He uses actual objects as signs, drawing lines of figures with a strictly pictorial nature, while he also pays particular attention to composition and aesthetic structures as applied in painting,” Naurattel said.
The exhibition is the first South African show to thematically explore Ballen’s images of children, toys, drawings and the spaces that surround them.
“There have been many themes that I have worked on over the years. These themes have somehow merged to form a consistent thread – for example how drawing and painting have evolved in my work and how humour is present with increasing frequency,” Ballen said.
“What is interesting about Playpen is how it shows the development of childhood from various perspectives. It shows the evolution not only of my relationship with the children, but also how my own style and interpretation have transformed over a long period of time.
“In that way, the exhibition is somewhat a retrospective, which ironically allows me to contemplate how my photography has changed but ultimately stayed the same, as it’s the same person – but not – who took those images.”
Ballen said he was excited to exhibit in the city for the first time. “Port Elizabeth is very much a frontier environment where people don’t get exposed to much photography, so this exhibition should advance peoples’ understanding of the medium. It is a great pleasure to be able to exhibit in the city.”
New York-born Ballen is working on the publication of his next book and also works with music duo, Die Antwoord, for whom he directed the music video for I Fink U Freeky.
The public opening of the exhibition at the Athenaeum will take place on Tuesday at 6pm. On the same night the NMMU photography department will showcase their Ballen-inspired reflective portraiture exhibition.
During the final week of the National Arts Festival, Ballen will offer a two-day master class on July 5 and 6. Contact Christiaan Kritzinger on email@example.com to secure space.
There is also a public walkabout with Ballen on July 6 from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. Booking is essential.