Roger Ballen - PlaypenUncanny interpretation of social life, childhood on show at Athenaeum.

IN Playpen, the expertly curated Roger Ballen Photographic retrospective, dark matter meets deep, brutal and uncomfortable honesty and seizes the content of childhood and locks it into the four gossamer walls of play.

This exhibition is Port Elizabeth’s bold entry onto the Fringe of the National Arts Festival 2013 – and a reason to visit the city and immerse oneself in its growing arts scene.

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) School of Music, Art and Design, in association with the Athenaeum, are presenting the exhibition 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 move into a space of reimagining the creative industries in Nelson Mandela Bay, we need to match an internal shift with external inspiration,” said Mary Duker, Director of the NMMU School of Music Art and Design. “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, and first shown at the North West University Gallery, where she is curator – comprises a unique selection of work spanning Ballen's artistic career from 1979-2011.

The exhibition is the first South African show to thematically explore Ballen’s images of children, toys, drawings and the spaces that surround them. “As time marches on 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,” said Ballen.

“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.”

Playpen is a revealing selection of Ballen’s photographs from previous series’, including Boyhood, Platteland, Outland, Shadow Chamber, Boarding House, as well as images from his latest body of work, Asylum. “Ballen is imagination-driven and uses stream of consciousness to capture a bizarre external reality which he re-presents in the dreamscape of his photography,” said Duker.

“Playpen lures us into walking down the pathways of childhood, stirring latent dreams and memories… and our imagination and youthful experiences, dark and magical.” Supporting the exhibition is the Athenaeum, a recently renovated gallery and multipurpose event and exhibition space located in a heritage building, in Central, Port Elizabeth.

“Bringing this incredible artist, and asking our local artists, including children themselves, to interpret and draw on Ballen’s lateral and subconscious thinking, style and expression means that we are encouraging not only the artists, but audiences to interrogate their environments in vastly different ways,” said Amy Shelver of Numb City Productions, Athenaeum administrators.

“The Athenaeum is focused on drawing this calibre of artist with a view to stretching the imagination of our post-industrial city audiences and artists in novel directions.” Ballen said he was excited to exhibit in the city for the first time: “It is important to show in smaller locations, to get people who don’t usually have the opportunity to view this level of art, seeing and experiencing something totally different. It is also to challenge people’s view of photography. 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 exhibit in the city.”

Roger Ballen was born in New York City in 1950 and he has lived and worked in Johannesburg since the 1970s. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and completed his doctorate in Mineral Economics in 1981. He has shot in black and white film for close on fifty years and considers it a “minimalist art form” which provides an abstract route to interpreting and transforming perceived ‘reality’.

Ballen’s photographs have been showcased around the world. His images have been included in collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA. In addition, Ballen has won many prestigious awards such as the Best Solo Exhibition at the Sani Festival in Greece in 2000, Best Photographic Book of the year at PhotoEspana in Spain 2001, Photographer of the Year at Rencontres d' Arles in 2002, and the Art Directors Club Award Photography in 2006.

He is currently working on the publication of his next book and also works closely with controversial music duo, Die Antwoord, for whom he directed the music video for I Fink U Freeky, now an acclaimed art video. The public opening of the exhibition at the Athenaeum will take place on June 18 at 6pm and will be opened by Ismail Mahomed, Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival and attended by the curator, Naurettl.

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 Roger Ballen will offer a two day Masterclass on July 5 and 6.

The cost of the class is R1000 and there are limited spaces available. Contact Christiaan Kritzinger on [email protected] to secure space. There is also a public walkabout with Roger Ballen on July 6 from 12.30pm to 1:30pm. Booking is essential.