Inside Out Centre for the Arts: Explore Joburg’s new cultural hub

Roger Ballen’s cultural centre becomes a new cornerstone of the city’s creative community and highlights it as a burgeoning hub of literature and art

By Petra Mason

Johannesburg features as a central character in just-published literary offerings by two great South African writers, Niq Mhlongo’s The City Is Mine and Ivan Vladislavić’s The Near North. “No other South African city gets that kind of cred”, wrote Marianne Thamm in the Daily Maverick recently. Celebrated in literature and song, the legendary City of Gold boasts a wealth of highly respected international and local experts, academics, professors, scientists, artists and thinkers working in conservation, performance art, geology, astronomy, photography, installation, sculpture, drawing, painting, and film. Among them is artist-photographer Roger Ballen, founder of the city’s new privately funded culture hub, the Inside Out Centre for the Arts.

The native New Yorker has lived in Jozi seemingly forever although his photographic work only gained critical mass in the 1990s. With the future-forward, legacy-affirming Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Forest Town, whose neighbours include the culture-centric Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Museum, Constitution Hill, the Four Seasons Hotel, Rosebank’s arts district, fashion designer Viviers Glasshouse and the 120-year-old Johannesburg Zoo.

This established part of an old Randlords Joburg neighbourhood is still inhabited by the leafy living relatives of the early mining town pioneers who planted the biggest urban forest in the world here, while digging out the gold below, 138 years ago.

With a PhD in Geology, Ballen landed in South Africa initially setting up shop as a mining entrepreneur and photographer. Geology enabled him to afford to explore the mysteries of the planet and to pursue his obscure, counter-culture interests. Endlessly fascinated by the intersection between art and psychology and the relationship between the human race and the natural world, his interests were reflected by his signature aesthetic, known as ‘Ballenesque’ best described by the writer, researcher and educator Amanda Ballen. The ‘Ballenesque’ style, coined by Robert Young, features intense portraits of marginalised subjects in surreal, claustrophobic settings. It juxtaposes random elements to evoke the subconscious and creates abstract, otherworldly scenes. The distinctive quality of his documentary fiction (from 2000 onward), has been said to reference the artistic genres of absurdist theatre, outsider art, art brut, naivism, photographic surrealism and the photographic grotesque.

American writer Susan Sontag’s critique slates his body of work titled ‘Platteland/Outland’ as “the most important sequence of portraits I’ve seen in years”. Sontag also wrote the seminal book Regarding the Pain of Others in which she delves into the ethical and political implications of photography, questioning whether the proliferation of graphic images desensitises us or fosters empathy.

Despite the noise, Ballen bashes on regardless, working with his subjects theatrically, setting the stage, lighting, shadows, textures, and scratch marks you can feel in your teeth, transforming and creating new, warped realities often starring unlikely muses.

Sophisticated and understated, the centre’s programming is unashamedly designed for a select cultured crowd, but the not-for-profit welcomes school visits and hosts scholarly walkabouts where visitors get to see how every corner, inside and out, is carefully considered. In collaboration with the centre, Artistic Director Marguerite Rossouw has made an unparalleled contribution to the Ballenesque aesthetic, creating installations and photographs. This is detailed in the Inside Out Centre for the Arts’ publication End of the Game, which references the centre’s installation of the same name. The title is a play on words and a nod to Peter Beard’s original book about the transformation of Africa, highlighting the eradication of endangered wild animals by humans.

Designed to look ‘inside out’, Ballen commissioned Joe Van Rooyen of JVR Architects to design this multifunctional structure. The name also reflects introspection, the design of the building inspired by the same aim. The use of raw concrete throughout the double-volume, naturally lit gallery and exhibition space allows for a distinct aesthetic and psychological perspective on the world. To visit this active hub for educational talks, panel discussions, presentations, and master classes on arts-related topics, be sure to book in advance. Joburg’s wealth of international and local experts and enthusiasts move quickly, and the venue’s capacity audience is typically sold out.

Exhibition viewing by appointment only, via the centre’s website. https://www.insideoutcentreforthearts.com


LION TALK https://www.insideoutcentreforthearts.com/event-details/lion-conservation-an-evening-with-dr-stephanie-klarmann

MUSIC EVENT https://www.insideoutcentreforthearts.com/event-details/string-duet-at-the-inside-out-centre-for-the-arts

Images: © Marguerite Rossouw

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