Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through February 9, 2014

First of all, hale and hallelujah that the shutdown has ended, and the Smithsonian is open again! As you can imagine, it was a long and horrible 17 days, with no exhibits to see.  I could feel my brain cells shrinking due to lack of intellectual stimulation.

I went to the Mall several times over the last few weeks to gaze at the buildings and pout.  Happily, the Haupt Garden behind the Castle was open (not sure why, as it would have been easy enough to shut the gates), and I spent some time sitting there, taking in the fall flowers.  Still, no substitute for going to an actual exhibit.

Now, however, the Smithsonian is back in business, and my plan for the foreseeable future is to see as many shows as I possibly can, just in case we go through this insanity again in January.  Truly, this is no way to run a banana stand.

The first show I saw after the shutdown ended was a collection of Roger Ballen's work at the Museum of African Art.  Ballen is actually an American, who has lived and worked in South Africa for over 30 years.  It's difficult to describe his photographs; they're sort of collages, involving people, animals, objects and drawings of lines.  The picture above is typical of what you'll see.  In addition to over 50 photographs, there's also a video.

I had high hopes when I went over to the Museum, as I've found that I like contemporary African art very much.  Yinka Shonibare, for example, is my favorite artist.  I also very much enjoyed the Laila Essaydi show I saw a while ago.  This, however, was really bizarre.  I can't tell you what any of this was supposed to mean, or symbolize, as I could make neither hide nor hair out of it.  It was as if I was trying to have a conversation with someone speaking a language I couldn't understand.  I wanted to say to Ballen, "I just don't know what you mean."

Perhaps my exile from the museum world has made my brain sluggish, and I should have another look at this before it closes, in hopes of seeing something more in these photographs.  On the other hand, perhaps they're just weird.

Verdict: If you're a fan of Ballen, this is a great show, with examples of his many series of photographs, along with a video.  If surreal collages are not your cup of tea, you can safely give this a miss. 

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