June 19, 2013
Photography is said to be the truest representation of reality. The ability to capture still and moving image inspired artists to document life, rather than embellish it. Filmmaker Dziga Vertov inspired the genre cinéma vérité or truthful cinema. Today, photography maintains a special claim to objective truth alongside news stories. Rarely is the hand of the artist acknowledged in the making of a photograph.
But it’s everywhere in the work of New York-born, South Africa-based photographer Roger Ballen. A new exhibit at the African Art Museum, curated by fellow artist Craig Allen Subler, takes 55 works from Ballen’s nearly half-decade career shooting in black and white to illustrate the ways in which the artist has utilized the tools of drawing, namely mark-making and line, to create his unique aesthetic world.
Spanning from his early portraits to later, denser works that reference theater as much as photography, the exhibit, “Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen,” shows just how thoroughly the concept of line infiltrates and structures his work across his entire career. Mangled hangers, clotheslines, stick figures drawn directly on the walls–the lines of Ballen’s photographs exist like totems, complete with their own psychic drama similar to Jackson Pollock’s early experiments with Jungian archetypes, or Pablo Picasso’s exploration of mythic figures like the minotaur. The exhibit moves roughly from portraiture to theater to a collaborative image-making that fuses the subject with line so completely that all that’s left is a peek of an arm or a disembodied head.
The artist, who spent nearly a year hitchhiking from Cairo to Cape Town as a young man, is also a geologist who claims citizenship in what he sees as the last generation of photographers working with black and white film. Though he has lived in South Africa for more than 30 years, his work maintains an outsider art aesthetic. Interior shots in the homes of rural South Africans, from his Platteland series, seem to exist at the precise moment chaos turns to order and vice versa: live animals exist alongside their more domesticated toy counterparts, white walls that are otherwise unadorned have smeared handprints or childish doodles scrawled right on the surface and people are typically in some state of undress.
In South Africa, the aesthetic has reached a certain counter culture cache embodied in the idea of Zef. Taken from the Afrikaans word for “common,” zef’s unofficial ambassador is the band Die Antwoord, which collaborated with Ballen on its video “I Fink U Freeky,” also included in the museum’s exhibit.
“They told me when they first saw [my] work that they stopped what they were doing for a year and went in a different direction,” says Ballen of the hip-hop-rave group who reached out to him to work on the video. He says their two styles organically fused and the whole video took only four and a half days to shoot.
When Ballen first saw the exhibit, he says it felt instantly right. “The exhibition is quite silent,” he says, pleased with the outcome. In fact, it’s almost eerily so. The aesthetic still hits just as hard when combined with the rambunctious music of Die Antwoord. Standing in the middle of the gallery space, surrounded by work from his entire career, Ballen says it’s exhilarating to confront himself, to look at what exactly has been guiding his work for so long. “It’s very gratifying,” he says. “Looking back at the work, you feel, well, at least I’ve preserved something through all those years. . .there is a line that runs through.”
“Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen” is on view at the African Art Museum through February 9, 2014. Ballen will be at the museum Thursday, June 20, for an artist talk.
One of the great joys of curating a traveling exhibition is the travel, of course. Recently, I was asked to give the introductory lecture at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History for “Elvis at 21,” an exhibition I co-curated for the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in 2010.
“Elvis” has been on road for more than three years. It opened at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and has traveled to 12 museums, including the Smtihsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Fort Worth is its final continental U.S. stop before it travels to the Australia’s National Portrait Gallery in Canberra for its international debut, December 6, 2013 through March 10, 2014.
Featuring a cache of photographs taken in 1956 by freelancer Alfred Wertheimer, the exhibit documents the meteoric rise of young Elvis in the year he swiveled from virtual unknown to media megastar. Television was the new celebrity-generating medium in mid-fifties America, and a series of electrifying TV performances between January 1956 and January 1957 accelerated the young performer’s launch to fame. The exhibition’s large format photographs reveal the excitement Elvis conveyed onstage and off: Wertheimer’s unlimited access chronicled a remarkably intimate record of a superstar “just before,” and Elvis’s innocence is entrancing—especially because viewers know the rest of the story.
Colleen Blair, senior vice president at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, was the key player in both securing the Elvis show and enticing me to speak. She persuasively argued that this exhibition would contribute to the museum’s transformation from an earlier identity as a children’s museum, to a broader-based, dynamic 21st century museum of history and culture. My talk about Elvis was geared to a Big Picture cultural approach, framing him as a messenger of enormous change in the years that ignited both the modern civil rights and feminist movements. By energizing the emerging youth culture and helping create a new consumer market fueled by radio, recordings and movies, Elvis represented an intrusion as shocking as Sputnik would be a year later. It was his popularity that helped catalyze a revolution in the entertainment industry, paving the way for rhythm and blues, gospel and rock into mainstream culture.
The museum itself is a knock-out. Designed by the acclaimed architectural firm Legorretta + Legorretta, it nurtures a “playful” spirit of discover and inspiration by using rich, bright interior colors and light that dazzles. Walking through the museum, visitors find such engaging features as a video wall, a waterfall, a planetarium, an Energy Gallery, and an IMAX theater.
Van A. Romans became the museum’s president in 2004. Within five years, he raised $80 million and opened the doors on this stunning new museum facility. It is a spectacular building that sits comfortably in a neighborhood with the Philip Johnson-designed Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Louis Kahn-designed Kimbell Art Museum.
Romans was the perfect fit for this museum. For more than 25 years, he had worked for the Walt Disney Company, including Disney Imagineering and pioneered the integration of the entertainment industry with the museum world. His mission in Fort Worth has been to inject energy and vitality into the museum experience by enhancing the “historical aspect of the exhibitions we offer and the stories we tell.” He speaks with enthusiasm and grace about the role of the 21st century museum, and his vision radiates throughout the building. “Our goal,” he has said, “is to inspire every person” that visits the museum.
A Smithsonian Affiliate, the museum joined the 176 other Smithsonian-affiliated museums and cultural organizations in February 2012. At the time, Van Romans predicted that this collaboration would “enhance the Museum’s potential to inspire learning and serve our community” by bringing such Smithsonian resources as exhibitions, staff participation, and programming to Fort Worth. For me, the turn-around is equally important: what this museum reminded me was what can be accomplished for today’s audiences if priority is given to inspiration and creativity: if you imagine it, it can be done.
June 18, 2013
Stoy Popovich never has ridden a kayak before, but that isn’t stopping him from building one.
As the National Museum of Natural History’s exhibit specialist, he creates displays and builds objects needed for the museum’s exhibitions, and when he learned the museum wanted a model of a traditional kayak used by Native hunters in Greenland, he jumped at the opportunity to piece one together.
“The project excited me because it was something new, something I’ve never done before,” he says.
The museum plans to suspend the completed kayak alongside Phoenix, its iconic model of a right whale for the reopening of “Living on an Ocean Planet,” an exhibition in the museum’s Ocean Hall about humanity’s evolving relationship with the world’s oceans. Greenland’s Inuit populations have built kayaks for thousands of years because their sleek, stealthy design makes them ideal for sneaking up on prey like seals, walruses and whales while navigating mazes of icy water.
While today the boats are most commonly used for recreation and competitions, some communities in northern Greenland continue to rely on them for hunting. Unlike popular plastic and synthetic models, Greenland’s traditional kayaks are made of a skeletal wooden frame lashed together with seal sinew and covered in sealskin. These materials make the boats light and pliable, so they are easy to cart around and capable of withstanding blows in tumultuous seas.
Popovich began the project in the winter by poking around online for instructional videos and booklets about traditional kayak building. He also consulted with Maligiaq Padilla, a Greenland National Kayaking Champion who made and donated a kayak to Smithsonian in 2005 (exhibit the kayak is problematic because it is susceptible to fluctuations in humidity).
With limited funds for the project, Popovich got creative, scavenging supplies from around his shop. For the frame, he found sheets of ash, a highly malleable wood; to tie everything together, he dug up some high tension string. He has yet to choose a fabric for the kayak’s exterior (sealskin wouldn’t be an option even if it were lying around the museum because of ethical concerns).
The materials may not be authentic, but the process certainly is. Northern Greenland doesn’t have too many trees, Popovich points out, so Native hunters spent centuries before global commerce building their kayaks from whatever wood washed ashore around their homes—usually conifers like cedar, which is harder to mold than ash but lighter and more durable.
“We’re following that tradition,” Popovich says. “This has been a grassroots, pick-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps, how-the-heck-do-I-do-this kind of endeavor.”
While an experienced builder would need less than a week to make a kayak, he has taken his time, working around other projects and making sure everything is done correctly. “Every step I stop and think, okay, what’s the best way to get through this?” he says.
So far, he has nearly completed the frame by setting the keel (the straight wooden piece that runs along the kayak’s underside), soaking and molding the ribs, shaping the gunnels (the uppermost side pieces) and lashing everything together with the high tension string. The frame is customized to Popovich’s own dimensions, as practiced in the Arctic to ensure a tight seal around the opening in the kayak to fit the person’s body to keep from water coming in and to ensure optimal control.
“These things are made by the person who’s going to be paddling it, because when you’re in it, you actually become part of the kayak. Your legs and your body work with the kayak to maneuver it,” he explains.
His next major step will be “skinning” it with whichever material he chooses.
William Fitzhugh, director of the museum’s Arctic Studies Center, says the kayak will contribute to an increased anthropological focus in the exhibit, where it will be on display with a full-scale mannequin riding it. The exhibition will emphasize how connected we are to the oceans, and how greatly we can effect them with pollution and over-fishing.
“The kayak is the perfect representation of sophisticated technology developed by people who lived in a very harsh environment. They developed a craft that would be suitable for sustaining their cultures over thousands of years,” Fitzhugh says. “It’s a very small, fragile thing, but it’s very adaptable. It was one of the most ingenious watercraft ever developed anywhere in the world.”
Popovich, who considers himself a wood specialist, has been building things for the Smithsonian in different jobs for more than 25 years. He still gets a deep satisfaction out of completing projects, though, and couldn’t hide a grin as he moved the kayak around the shop for photographs. “When it’s finished, it will be a beautiful thing,” he says.
Appalachia may be known for many things: its music, its industry, its culture, but what about its salamanders? It turns out, of the 550 known salamander species in the world, 77 can be found in this mountainous area, more than any other one region in the world. Many of them can only be found there. But this global hotspot of salamander diversity is in danger, according to the National Zoo; global warming, which dries salamanders’ naturally wet habitats, and water pollution are the two biggest threats. All of which is why the Zoo is bringing 10 different species to an upcoming exhibit, “Jewels of Appalachia,” even as observation in the field continues.
Salamanders are known to be a hardy bunch, having survived for more than 200 million years through three mass extinctions. But, because they have relatively long lifespans, it’s unclear if the rapid pace of climate change will leave them time to adapt.
June 17, 2013
Tuesday, June 18: Get Hands-On with Native American Dolls
Step aside, Raggedy Ann. An exhibit at the American Indian Museum is showcasing 23 colorful and detailed dolls representing the Plains and Plateau tribes and made by Native American artists. Come to the museum’s interactive cart and learn about how these dolls were traditionally used as toys and teaching tools. Free. 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. American Indian Museum.
Wednesday, June 19: Lemur Feeding
Feeling hungry? Come warm up your appetite at the lemur feeding at the National Zoo. Lemurs enjoy primarily a light diet of leaves and fruits, which are easily attainable for this tree-living species. Following this event are feeding demonstrations for the zoo’s Amazon fish, giant Pacific octopus, sea lions, black-crowned night herons, stingrays and crustaceans. Each feeding lasts approximate 15 to 20 minutes. Free. 10:30 a.m. for the lemur feeding. National Zoo.
Thursday, June 20: “Cujo”
Dog lovers, beware. The film adaptation of Stephen King’s K-9 horror novel Cujo, which will be shown at the Hirshhorn Thursday, is enough to make anyone think twice about buying that adorable puppy, or at least letting him run outside at the risk of catching rabies. The film will be shown as part of this year’s “Summer Camp: Pup Tense” film series, the theme of which is, you guessed it, canine horrors. Free. 8 p.m. Hirshhorn Museum Ring Auditorium.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.