JOHANNESBURG – Often depicted as an integral feature of the continent, African wildlife, from iconic big beasts to its vast array of species, continues to attract millions of foreign travelers every year.
But a new art exhibition in the heart of Johannesburg is questioning 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 the killing of elephants in the 18th century to feed 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 been at the forefront of destroying African wildlife for around 200 years.
The exhibition, which opened in March this year, is titled ‘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 ruin of its environment.
“Most people in the West had never been to Africa, so all they knew was what they saw in the movie posters and the films which portrayed Africa as a dark continent with savages and wild animals,” said Ballen.
Although hunting was practiced on the continent before the arrival of European colonists, the practice took on a different form, with the introduction of firearms, the commercial trade of materials like ivory and animal skins and the beginning of ‘trophy hunting’ of big game for sport.
The continent's wildlife continues to face threats today, as land is cleared for development or forests are cut down for fuel, squeezing natural habitats. Human-made climate change is also damaging the landscape, with parts of the continent suffering long periods of drought and other erratic weather including cyclones, heavy rainfall and dust storms.
Ballen used artefacts collected from metal scrap yards, hunting farms, pawn shops and roadsides on his local and international travels over a career of more than four decades to put together a collection of photographs, artworks and creative installations.
“It is about putting it together in an imaginative and creative way that still has an impact and challenges the viewer in all sorts of ways,” said Ballen.
The 73-year-old American-born photographer has lived and worked in Africa for more than 40 years and has developed a reputation for dark and abstract artworks, a consistency he appears to have kept with this most recent body of work.
One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is the documentary section which includes objects, texts, photographs and books documenting early years of hunting expeditions in Africa.
“That gives people sort of the objectification of the period that we are dealing with and when the destruction of game started in Africa," he said. “This is for the audience to discover and to come to terms with.”
Another display of early versions of weapons and ammunition used to kill bigger animals leads into the “Hunter’s Room” — a staged installation depicting archival photographs and items in a staged safari setting.
A hunter figure made from wax is the main character in the room, surrounded by his hunting memorabilia and collectibles.
Some of the photographs include archived pictures of former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt’s much publicized hunting expeditions in Kenya and Winston Churchill’s east African safari, both in the early 1900s.
A short film shown inside a curated cinema compiles clips from old Western movies depicting African wildlife, including video shot by European tourists who came to the continent for trophy hunting. Hunters can be seen on films towering victoriously over their trophies, mostly dead giraffes, elephants and rhino.
Others depict Indigenous Africans having conquered elephants, lions and leopards.
Trophy hunting is still legal in many countries across the continent, although it's typically regulated to ensure population numbers of animals can be sustained.
The exhibition continues to draw crowds to the Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Johannesburg since it opened, and it will remain 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 is scary, but it is very interesting," said visitor Shelley Drynan. “It is interesting to see how people feel about animals and how they interact with animals, how most people actually are hypocrites when it comes to their dealings with animals.”
Sarah Wilding, another visitor who said she was familiar with Ballen's earlier works, said her emotions were stirred by the exhibition's depiction of African wildlife and its destruction over many years.
“To just be here and feel the melancholy and the mystery," Wilding said, “is truly a fantastic experience.”