There are few contemporary image-makers who capture the raw beauty of human existence as well as the Johannesburg-based photographer Roger Ballen. For four decades, Ballen has traversed rural and urban South Africa (before turning fully to art, he was a geologist and mineral speculator) gathering photos along the way that in many respects defined the disenfranchised underbelly of the Apartheid era on the wane. In his 1986 series, Dorps, for instance, Ballen made an unprecedented survey of the broken structures of colonialism in photos of small South African towns. Another early series, Platteland, from 1994, portrayed the increasingly isolated and destitute existence of white Afrikaners living in rural areas.
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Those stark reminders of colonial failings were pinpoint accurate to the times and garnered Ballen a critical and controversial reputation, both in South Africa and abroad. But his work since has moved away from overt political references to focus on a more inward-looking, though no less trenchant, study of the universal human condition. In his Outland and Shadow Chamber series from the early 2000s, Ballen’s poor, white South Africans have become his collaborators as much as they are his subjects. These images present a kind of surrealist theatre of the absurd where men, women and children strike spontaneous poses with the various objects—wires, metal springs, cardboard boxes, toys—and animals in their cell-like confines. In many of these black-and-white photos, the background walls are covered in rudimentary drawings, adding a further, almost primal layer to Ballen’s photographic “staging.” The standard comparison here is to the work of Lewis Hine or Diane Arbus, but critics are often just as quick to point out that Ballen’s images are neither straightforward nor exploitative. Rather, they are uncompromisingly authentic. In both the Outland and Shadow Chamber series, it’s as if the minds of his subjects have been freed from temporal circumstance, the chaos of their fragile if resilient mental states willingly turned inside out.
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Which brings us to “Boarding House,” the current exhibition at the Ontario College of Art and Design’s Professional Gallery. Curated by Charles Reeve, the show offers a tight overview of Ballen’s practice to date, featuring his most recent body of work set alongside a complementary selection of photos from previous series. The new photos are set in psychologically charged environments similar to earlier works, in this case a ramshackle boarding house on the outskirts of Johannesburg. But aside from a few of the images on view, Ballen’s living subjects have all but disappeared. At times a human form appears but it is a fleeting presence overshadowed by a tableaux of scattered detritus and figurative markings. It’s a compositional strategy that carries a double impact bringing the formal qualities of Ballen’s abstract image constructions to the fore while maintaining the twilight zone atmosphere of his longstanding subject matter. Think of them as echo chambers of existence. (100 McCaul St, Toronto ON)
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