JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Often portrayed as an integral feature of the continent, Africa’s wildlife, from iconic large beasts to its vast variety of species, continues to attract millions of foreign travelers each year.
But a new art exhibition in the heart of Johannesburg questions the relationship between humans and animals on the continent, which spans centuries and is often marked by the destruction and exploitation of African wildlife for commercial gain and recreational purposes.
From killing elephants in the 18th century to fuel the ivory trade to decimating the rhino population through hunting, artist and photographer Roger Ballen argues – through provocative installations and multimedia works – that humans have led the way for some 200 years. take in destroying African wildlife. years.
The exhibition, which opened in March this year, is entitled ‘End of the Game’. It explores how depictions of African wildlife, including in Hollywood films, were used to instill stereotypes about the continent that led to the demise of its environment.
“Most people in the West had never been to Africa, so all they knew was what they saw on the movie posters and the movies that portrayed Africa as a dark continent with savages and wild animals,” Ballen said.
Although hunting was practiced on the continent before the arrival of European settlers, the practice took on a different form, with the introduction of firearms, the commercial trade of materials such as ivory and animal skins, and the beginning of big game “trophy hunting” for sport.
The continent’s wildlife continues to be threatened today as land is cleared for development or forests are cleared for fuel, putting pressure on natural habitats. Human-induced climate change is also affecting the landscape, with parts of the continent experiencing long periods of drought and other erratic weather, including cyclones, heavy rainfall and dust storms.
Traveling locally and internationally over a career spanning more than four decades, Ballen used artifacts collected from scrap metal, hunting ranches, pawnshops, and roadsides to compile a collection of photographs, artwork, and creative installations.
“It’s about putting it together in an imaginative and creative way that still has an impact and challenges the viewer in all kinds of ways,” said Ballen.
The 73-year-old American-born photographer has lived and worked in Africa for over 40 years and has built a reputation for dark and abstract artwork, a consistency he seems to have maintained with this most recent body of work.
One of the most important parts of the exhibition is the documentary section with objects, texts, photographs and books documenting the early years of hunting expeditions in Africa.
“That gives people a kind of objectification of the time period we’re dealing with and when the destruction of wildlife in Africa started,” he said. “This is for the public to discover and interact with.”
Another exhibit of early versions of weapons and ammunition used to kill larger animals leads to the “Hunter’s Room” – a staged installation featuring archive photos and items in a staged safari setting.
A hunter figure made of wax is the main character in the room, surrounded by his hunting memorabilia and collectibles.
Some of the photos include archived photos from former US President Theodore Roosevelt’s highly publicized hunting expeditions in Kenya and Winston Churchill’s East African safari, both in the early 1900s.
A short film shown in a curated cinema collects excerpts from old Western films about African wildlife, including videos shot by European tourists who came to the continent for trophy hunting. Movies show hunters towering triumphantly over their trophies, usually dead giraffes, elephants and rhinoceroses.
Others show native Africans conquering elephants, lions and leopards.
Trophy hunting is still legal in many countries on the continent, although it is usually regulated to ensure that the population of animals can be maintained.
The exhibition has continued to draw crowds to Johannesburg’s Inside Out Center for the Arts since its opening and will be on display indefinitely, according to Ballen.
A typical Saturday morning at the gallery is a hive of activity.
“I don’t want to say it’s scary, but it’s very interesting,” said visitor Shelley Drynan. “It’s interesting to see how people think about animals and how they treat animals, how most people are actually hypocrites when it comes to how they interact with animals.”
Sarah Wilding, another visitor who said she was familiar with Ballen’s earlier works, said her emotions had been fueled by the depiction of the African wildlife and its destruction over many years.
“To just be here and feel the melancholy and the mystery,” said Wilding, “is really a fantastic experience.”