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.
May 13, 2013
Tuesday, May 14: Grand Challenges Share Fair
Even Smithsonian magazine can have a hard time keeping up with all the great research that Smithsonian scholars are doing around the world. From the stars to the seas, experts are hard at working fulfilling the institutional mission to increase and diffuse knowledge. To complete the second part, the Grand Challenges Share Fair offers everyone the chance to hear about some of the cutting edge research via a live webcast. Catch Kristofer Helgen of the Natural History Museum for his talk, “The Roosevelt Resurvey: Leveraging the Contributions of the Smithsonian and President Teddy Roosevelt for Wildlife Conservation Insight in Africa.” Or hear about the Deep Reef Observation Project from Carole Baldwin. Opening remarks from Secretary G. Wayne Clough begin at 1:00 p.m. Free. 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Webcast.
Wednesday, May 15: The Films of Nam June Paik
When the father of video art gets behind a camera, you can be sure the results will be engaging. Known for his playful embrace of new technologies, Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway” has long been a staple at the American Art Museum. Joined now by more than 60 additional works from the Korean-born artist for the exhibit “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary,” the map made of televisions serves as a sort of introductory manifesto. Curator John G. Hanhardt, who worked with Paik to bring his archive to the museum, will be on hand to discuss the films and Paik’s legacy. during Free. 6:30 p.m. American Art Museum.
Thursday, May 16: Take 5! Jazz Night
You’ve made it to Thursday, now relax with a little after-work concert courtesy the Night and Day Quintet. And should the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Cole Porter inspire you, ArtJamz will be there as usual with all the art supplies you need to create your own masterpiece in the Kogod Courtyard. Free. 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. American Art Museum.
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.
March 11, 2013
What do Batman’s batarang, Charlie’s golden ticket and a gremlin have in common? They’re all from famous Warner Bros. films and they’re all part of the American History Museum’s entertainment collection, as of March 8 when the studio’s chairman, Barry Meyer signed over the deed for 30 items from 13 different films. Highlights from the donation, which represents films spanning 63 years, include: stop-action puppets from Tim Burton’s 2005 film, The Corpse Bride, Halle Berry’s Catwoman suit from her 2004 movie, and prop candy bars and a golden ticket from the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp.
“All of these artifacts,” says curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, “will allow us to tell stories about Hollywood film, . . .one of America’s great industries.”
Joining objects like the Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Kermit the Frog, the items represent everything from Hollywood classics like Bette Davis’ 1942 film, Now, Voyager to the wizardry of sci-fi flicks like Gremlins 2: The New Batch from 1990.
“I think all of the items have a unique kind of perspective and a unique kind of position in this,” says Meyer, “but in a way the most beautiful and the most intricate items up there are those models from the Corpse Bride.” Calling the puppets, individual pieces of art that resonant as much off the screen as on, he adds, “but I love them all, including the gremlin!”
His studio marks its 90th anniversary this April and he says, in many ways, its “own story mirrors that of the entertainment industry with a number of firsts in the areas of film and television and home entertainment.” From early ventures merging sound and moving picture to pioneering days in the television industry, and even its patents in the development of DVD and other digital technologies, Warner Bros. has seen phenomenal changes to the film industry.
Through it all, Meyer says, “as these experiences move further into the digital realm. . .it’s really important to remember that every movie, every television show at its heart, at its core, tells a story.” And critical to bringing that story to life, he adds, are “the sets and the props that dress the sets, the costumes worn by the actors and the models used in pre-production and many other non-digital, very tangible items that help us tell the story that is the core of the movie.”
Talking about the ongoing relationship with the American History Museum, Meyer says, “Our partnership is a great way of reminding people that movies and televisions shows are an important part of our shared culture.”
February 22, 2013
Sometimes, the road to the Red Carpet is as fascinating as the journey to Oz—and with a more glittering prize behind the curtain. That’s certainly true of the 1972 film Cabaret, which won a colossal eight Oscars, including Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minnelli), and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey). The only big award it missed was Best Picture, which went to The Godfather.
Cabaret began its life as a Broadway show produced and directed by Hal Prince in 1966, but that stage musical was itself based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel, Goodbye to Berlin; a 1951 play, I Am a Camera, was also taken from this short novel. In part a fictionalized memoir, Goodbye to Berlin chronicled Isherwood’s bohemian experiences in 1930s Berlin as Weimar fell to the rise of Fascism; the “divinely decadent” Sally Bowles debuts here as a young Englishwoman (Jill Haworth), who sings in a local cabaret.
The play I Am a Camera fizzled, although it remains chiseled in Broadway history for New York critic Walter Kerr’s infamous review: “Me no Leica.” The key stage production came about in 1966 when Hal Prince collaborated with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb on the landmark Broadway musical, Cabaret.
Prince wanted to develop his idea of the “concept musical” with this show—he told his cast at the first rehearsal, a show was not only a spectacle that “promotes entertainment,” but should have a theme that “makes an important statement.” The devastating rise of Fascism would be an inescapable dramatic presence: designer Boris Aronson created a huge mirror that faced the audience and, in its reflection, incorporated these passive spectators into the horrific events unfolding onstage.
One key character introduced by Prince was the Master of Ceremonies. In the mid-1990s, curator Dwight Blocker Bowers of the American History Museum and I interviewed Hal Prince for an exhibition that we were working on, “Red, Hot, & Blue: A Smithsonian Salute to the American Musical.” Prince told us that this role was based on a dwarf emcee he had seen at a club in West Germany when he served in the U.S. Army after World War II. In Cabaret, the Emcee—portrayed with charming decadence by Joel Grey—symbolizes the precarious lives of people caught in the web of Nazism’s rise to power. The Emcee rules over a cast of characters at a dicey cabaret called the Kit Kat Klub, and his behavior becomes the crux of the show: uncontrolled and without any moral restraint, he represents the flip side of “freedom.”
Hal Prince’s desire to produce a break-through musical reflected his commitment to devising a socially responsible musical theater. Just as his stage production grew out of the social and political upheavals of the Sixties, the show’s identity as a postwar cautionary tale continued when the film Cabaret premiered in 1972, as reports of a Watergate burglary began appearing in the Washington Post.
Today, the film version of Cabaret is celebrating its 40th anniversary with the release of a fully-restored DVD. In the movie, Joel Grey reprized his Emcee role, and the film begins with him drawing you leeringly into his kaleidoscopic refuge at the Kit Kat Club–a subterranean haven where demi-monde figures cast shadows of in consequence while Nazi boots stomp nearby. (Later in the film, it’s clear that the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” doesn’t refer to them.)
In the film version, the role of Sally Bowles is played by Liza Minnelli, whose strengths as a singer and dancer are reflected in her Oscar-winning portrayal; in the film, Sally Bowles has become an American and is a good deal more talented than any actual Kit Kat Klub entertainer would ever have been. In addition to her show-stopping performance of the title song, Minnelli-Bowles sings such evocative Kander and Ebb works as “Maybe This Time” and, in a duet with Joel Grey, “The Money Song.” She also dazzles in the churning choreography Bob Fosse devised for her.
The Library of Congress selected Cabaret for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1995, deeming it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The newly-restored DVD was made possible after 1,000 feet of damaged film was repaired through the process of hand-painting with a computer stylus.
This restoration is being spotlighted at the National Museum of American History’s Warner Theatre over the Oscar weekend. With his donated Emcee costume displayed onstage, Joel Grey will be interviewed by entertainment curator Dwight Bowers on February 22. As the lights go down and the film begins, the theater will be filled with Grey’s legendary Emcee bidding everyone, “Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!/ Im Cabaret, Au Cabaret, To Cabaret!”
A regular contributor to Around the Mall, Amy Henderson covers the best of pop culture from her view at the National Portrait Gallery. She recently wrote about Bangs and other bouffant hairstyles and Downton Abbey.
January 14, 2013
What Django Unchained Got Wrong: A Review From National Museum of African American History and Culture Director Lonnie Bunch
For more than two centuries slavery dominated American life, the shadow of slavery shaped everything from politics to the economy, from Westward expansion to foreign policy, from culture to commerce and from religion to America’s sense of self. And yet, contemporary America has little understanding or tolerance for discussions about the enslavement of millions. In many ways, slavery is the last great unmentionable in American public discourse. So I was hopeful and interested when I learned that Quentin Tarantino was to tackle the subject of slavery in his movie Django Unchained.
At nearly three hours long, Django Unchained is as much about slavery as a spaghetti Western is about the realities of the American West. Slavery is little more than a backdrop, a plot device for Tarantino’s musings on violence, loss, individual and collective evil, sex and retribution. The notion of a black man (Jamie Foxx as Django) willing to risk all to regain the wife (Kerry Washington as Broomhilda) who was taken from him when she was sold like chattel is a powerfully compelling narrative, one that is ripe with historical accuracy, drama and pain. Unfortunately, the richness of this story is obscured by the Sam Peckinpah-like violence and by the overly broad characterizations that reduce the character’s humanity to caricature. I understand the power of satire and the fact that it is “just a movie,” but the story of slavery deserves a much more nuanced, realistic and respectful depiction.
There are, however, aspects of the film that successfully illuminate the dark corners of the enslavement of African Americans. Tarantino captures the manner in which violence was an everpresent aspect of slave life that helped to maintain and protect the institution of slavery. The scenes where Broomhilda is viciously whipped or where Django removes his shirt to reveal a lifetime of scars are the movie’s most accurate and most painful moments. Tarantino also exposes the sexual abuse and the lack of control that enslaved women had over their bodies: to the movie’s credit, it does not shy away from the realities of sex across the color line. While Leonardo DiCaprio’s over-the-top depiction of plantation owner Calvin Candie often brought inappropriate chuckles from the audience, DiCaprio does capture the unchecked and capricious use of power that was at the heart of the plantation system. And Candie’s overly friendly and unrealistic relationship with the black head of his household (Stephen, wonderfully created by Samuel L. Jackson), nevertheless, does reflect the status that some enslaved garnered from their proximity to the master.
Yet these moments are far too fleeting in a three-hour movie. One of the biggest disappointments is the depiction of enslaved women. I had been quite impressed with Tarantino’s direction of Jackie Brown, a movie that allowed Pam Grier to explore the limits and the strength of a woman caught in a difficult situation. So I hoped that the women in Django Unchained would have a depth and a sense of completeness that would enhance the film. Unfortunately, the enslaved women are either sexual partners or cowering individuals waiting to be rescued. During slavery, many women struggled to define and to defend themselves in circumstances that sought to strip them of their humanity. Women found ways to maintain a sense of family and a belief in the possibilities of future that they could only imagine. These women do not appear in Django Unchained.
Quentin Tarantino is a gifted filmmaker but this is a flawed presentation. My only hope is that this film opens the Hollywood door that would encourage others to create movies that are much more respectful and provide a more nuanced interpretation of America’s greatest sin, the institution of slavery–an institution whose impact and legacy still color who we are today.
Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, taught film history at the University of Massachusetts. The museum’s latest exhibition, “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation 1863 and the March on Washington 1963,” is on view through September 15, 2013, at the National Museum of American History.