National Museum of African Art: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen


Lines, Marks and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen was not at all what I expected to see when I walked into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. For starters, the artist and photographer Roger Ballen is an American born in New York in 1950. Ballen has experimented with black and white photography for nearly 50 years, 30 of which have been in South Africa where he works as a geologist and photographer. His creations are both strange and intriguing, prompting the viewer to ask – what is Ballen attempting to convey through his art?


Many of Ballen’s figures are posed within confined walls, almost as if on some bizarre display at a black and white carnival. The portraits seemed to ooze a sense of desperation and I wondered whether the people photographed were experiencing economic hardship or societal rejection. The photographs and line drawings screamed of strange things bubbling up from the subconscious.


I Fink U Freeky, a video collaboration between Ballen and rap-rave group Die Antwoord, played on loop in a room within the Ballen exhibit. To be honest, the song is still on repeat in my head and it’s been over a week since viewing. The images were definitely freeky and the viewer is faced with another, more foreign concept of what is “African art”. Here we have the work of an American whose main artistic focus is the “white” South African, most likely the Afrikaner.


The video was an array of marginalized characters shown at rapid speed throughout scenes conveying the taboo, gross, and just weird to the average Joe. For instance, rats ran freely overly the main vocalist, sporting all black contacts on a pale face shot in black and white.



This exhibit stretched the canon of “African art” and I appreciated the artistic craft of the photographer. I look forward to reading reviews of Roger Ballen’s work as well as discussions on how we define African art.

Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen was exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. For information on current exhibits, visit the National Museum of African Art’s website at

Photography by Ajua Hawkins.

Copyright 2014 Ajua Hawkins

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