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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay

Ballen's Inside Out Centre for the Arts

Updated: Mar 4

Figure 1. The Inside Out Centre for the arts. 2024.

(Image courtesy of Ballen, graphic text by Lucelle Pillay)

If you've ever encountered the work of the American photographer, Roger Ballen, you would wonder about what goes on inside his mind. His dark and obscure outward expressions have often been described as disturbing. Ballen appears to take a deep-dive into the dark recesses of the human psyche, then brings his findings to the surface for the viewer. It is this psychological tension of the inner self and how it presents its outward form, that provide the conceptual underpinning of Ballen's 'Inside Out Centre for the Arts'. Upon first perusal you may observe an odd installation of objet, that range from taxidermied animals, human figures, masks, metal cages, rope, skins, bones, a vintage carousel and hospital cots. Almost like the remnants of an abandoned Freakshow, the objects have been meticulously arranged into scenes. Each 'scene' opens a three dimensional dialogue between Ballen's two dimensional drawings and photography. Hanging in the air is an element of spectacle, similar to a travelling circus or fair. I recalled that as a child, the performing animals made me feel wonder tinged with deep sadness, the clowns wore grotesque smiles which scared me. Ballen acts as the 'Ringmaster' who presents us with the theatrical contradictions of the mundane yet extraordinary, the frightful yet funny. Surprisingly, the eeriness of the centre is punctuated by humour, whether in the bazaar installations or from Ballen's walkthrough rhetoric, he tends not to take himself too seriously and asserts that he has 'no answers'. Perhaps he intends for the viewer to shift their position from enquiry to ponder on the layered complexities of human existence, their relationship with animals and themselves. Ballen as the 'Ringmaster' remains convivial yet aloof, engaging yet enigmatic, his art lives contently within these contradictions.

Figure 2. Print Publication Covers: Contempo and Camera & Image. 2024. Lucelle Pillay.

I first saw Ballen's work in the 2003(22-35) publication of 'Camera & Image' , I was completely drawn into his existential mindscapes in black and white. As an artist and student, I was aware that Ballen was using the medium of photography in new and refreshing ways. He combined, drawing, 3D space, human subjects and found objects to build complex visual narratives. I became intrigued by how his dark aesthetic triggered a myriad of introspective psychological responses and I wanted to incorporate some of his methods into my own work. I continued to follow Ballen's career trajectory and in 2006 I found a feature piece in 'Contempo: Art*Culture*Design' in which he stated that he was not political. This was in response to his controversial books, Dorps (1986) and Platteland (1994) which documented rural communities of poor white people within their meagre domiciles. The socio-political climate at this time in South Africa was highly charged with racial rebellion and fear, as President FW De Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. The toppling of white supremacy lurked on the horizon, the desperation to maintain the white status quo was palpable, with all races fearing violent outbreaks throughout the country. Ballen's portrayal of poor white people, abandoned on the periphery of society, was construed as calculated sensationalism. The 'white Afrikaner-dominated arts community' viewed Ballen as an American outsider who exploited his subjects and portrayed them as oddities. Ironically, white artists have been doing this to black subjects since colonial times under the guise of legitimised artistic agency. In response to a wave of bad reviews, Ballen maintained, 'I'm interested in the human condition, the psyche and the consciousness' (Contempo:65). Realising the impact of his craft, Ballen started to focus his energies toward artmaking and his narratives developed into more abstract forms. He has continued to live and work in Johannesburg, South Africa for the past 30 years. Ballen’s photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (Robert Koch Gallery website).

I met Roger Ballen briefly in 2014 at a talk about his book, 'Asylum of the Birds' at David Krut Publishing on Jan Smuts. I was eager to hear about his methods and processes, but soon realised that any expectation of linear, absolute explanations would not be met. Ballen was not a talker, he tentatively brushed against his personal approach to visual narratives but offered little else. It became obvious that the convoluted complexities of his work was beyond a clinical academic exposition. I was relieved that Ballen still remained the 'outsider', he appeared not to conform or bow down to the closed, exclusivity of the South African art market and their academia. At a book signing in Maboneng, we chatted about artistic marginalisation and working on the periphery of popular opinion. Ballen encouraged me to pursue my artistic endeavours and not to base my worth purely on how it is received in South Africa. He explained that good art takes on a life of its own and cannot be regulated by a small sector of society, not even by the artist himself. Ballen continued to stay in touch with me during my studies and various local exhibitions, offering kind advice and encouragement. When he recently extended and invitation to his, 'Inside Out Centre for the Arts' I was eager to see the space he had created.

Figure 3. Ballen hosting a walkthrough at the main gallery . 2024.

(Panoramic photo by Lucelle Pillay).

Figure 4. Visitors engaging with Ballen's lightboxes (drawings on glass).

(Photo-collage by Lucelle Pillay)

Ballen represented South Africa at the 59th Venice Biennale Arte 2022 titled “The Milk of Dreams”. He presented a photographic series of drawings that he made on windows inside a building in Johannesburg. Entitled, 'The Theatre of the Apparitions', Ballen drew inspiration from the hand-drawn carvings on blacked-out windows in an abandoned women’s prison in South Africa. Ballen applied mixed mediums in the form of spray-paints, epoxies, resins and emulsions. Ballen states, 'The photographs of these figures and the absurd activities in which they engage, present the unfathomable and primal scenes of our mental unconscious' (

Figure 5. Lucelle Pillay being 'Ballenesque' in front of installation at Entrance Gallery. 2024. (Photo by Kevin Leicher).

Figure 6. Installation with Lion and lying figure in front of Ballen's colour images. 2024.

(Photo by Lucelle Pillay).

Figure 7. Carousel Installation in Main Gallery. 2024. (Photo by Lucelle Pillay).

Figure 8. Installation with sleeping figure on cot with Lion (Main gallery). 2024.

(Photo by Lucelle Pillay).

Figure 9. Installation with hospital cots in recessed gallery space. 2024.

(Photo-collage by Lucelle Pillay)

If you are an artist, writer or merely foster a keen aesthetic awareness, and find yourself in the Forest Town district in Johannesburg, then make the Inside Out Centre for the Arts a 'must-see' destination. Forest Town is also the home of the Johannesburg Foundation of Contemporary Art, and the area is quick becoming an inclusive creative hub. Catch Ballen's current exhibition, 'End of the Game', as it promises to be an interesting and unusual experience.

Related YouTube Links:

I Fink you Freaky. Die Antwoord in collaboration with Roger Ballen.

Asylum of the Birds. Roger Ballen.

A Good Picture comes from Nowhere. Roger Ballen. Tate.


Camera & Image. 2003. Roger Ballen: Aesthetic & Existential. Vol 5: Issue: 6 (Feb/March), (22-35).

Contempo: Art*Culture*Design. 2006. Roger Ballen. Issue: 2 (June/July), (65-67).

Robert Koch Gallery ( (Accessed 03/04/2024).

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