A disturbing journey into the human psyche and trophy hunting
Stephanie Klarmann - Daily Maverick

Photographer and artist Roger Ballen’s latest exhibition The End of the Game is an immensely disturbing and provocative examination of the subjugation and commodification of wild animals through trophy hunting and captivity.


A disturbing journey into the human psyche and trophy hunting

 Role reversal: a lioness stands over the hunter. (Photo: Stephanie Klarmann)


Mexican poet and academic Cesar Cruz said that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. 

As I step inside American artist Roger Ballen’s latest exhibition at the Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Rosebank, Johannesburg, a lion holding two human heads roars at me. I’m a little taken aback by the role reversal and remind myself that any critical examination of the human psyche and our relationship to the natural world is likely to elicit some uncomfortable feelings. 

“A central challenge in my career has been to locate the animal in the human being and the human being in the animal” says Ballen. 

I tell myself that stepping into this absurd world of grotesque taxidermied animals serves a necessary purpose: a critical reflection of the damage we cause to the natural environment and its inhabitants. 


Installations like these poignantly elicit discomfort at the very notion of such role reversal and force viewers to question the wanton killing of animals for sport and fun. Just maybe, it might evoke questions of what it’s like on the other end of a hunting rifle. 

Ballen’s aim, inspired by Peter Beard’s The End of the Game, is to question and to reflect on the destructive forces that have decimated wildlife populations across Africa through excessive consumptive use, poaching and trophy hunting since the advent of Western civilisation on the continent. 

A step up at whose cost? (Photo: Stephanie Klarmann)

Roger Ballen trophy hunting

A sense of needless domination permeates this installation as a serval lies with a gin trap around its leg and rope
around its neck. (Photo: Stephanie Klarmann)

Looking at the ragged, lifeless trophies on display made me realise what a futile and egotistical activity trophy hunting is – the animals look stricken, shrunken and less than majestic. Why would anyone want that on display as a showcase of some “conquest” into Africa? In what ways are the dead creatures a sight to behold compared with the beauty of their living beings?

Each installation elicits a visceral reaction as the intensity of the displayed animals increases with each step through the gallery. 

Ballen’s depictions of wild animals with rope haphazardly wrapped around their necks is a metaphorical deep dive into our human need to control, tame and break nature in our favour. 

The commercial captive wildlife industry, encompassing captive facilities, live trade and trade in body parts and derivatives, is a very literal example of how we chain and subjugate wildlife for gain and vanity. 

And while the installations offer a critique of hunting during bygone colonial times, trophy hunting and consumptive use still abounds today. 

While venturing through the gallery, Ballen spoke openly about the continued excessive consumption we all engage in – from trophy hunting to the very small ways in which we engage with the world. 

A portrayal of vanity as a gnarled leopard drapes the shoulders of a mannequin. (Photo: Stephanie Klarmann)

A cub and serval lay caged and tied down by rope next to a resting man. The cage and thick rope wrapped
around their necks create a disturbing scene of subjugation. (Photo: Stephanie Klarmann)

It was a stark reminder of how urgently we need to consciously and compassionately live within this world. 

Depictions of dominance, like rope wrapped around the neck, skins, horns and heads adorning walls. What are the solutions to the destruction we have wrought? 

If Ballen’s End of the Game is anything to go by, the first and most important step we can each take is to look inwards and reassess the ways in which we contribute to the exploitation of the natural world. 

We cannot recoil any longer at the discomfort this confrontation evokes within us. 

Without it this writer worries that we will continue along a path of destroying what we ultimately need for our well-being and survival. In many ways it is also not about the impact on us alone, but asking the uncomfortable question if we are at ease with destroying the natural world, something inherently beautiful, invaluable and unique in its own right.

Roger Ballen trophy hunting

Chained: in many ways this image captures the commercial captive predator industry’s exploitation of wildlife. (Photo: Stephanie Klarmann)

The human psyche is filled with complexities we can barely begin to quantify and understand in depth, but there is something in trophy hunting that continues to leave this writer personally perplexed, an enjoyment or sense of pleasure I can’t seem to grasp. 

The diminished presence of each animal on display deeply troubles me still – in what ways did they offer sportsmanship and pleasure to the shooters? Their empty glass eyes will remain with me long after viewing the exhibition. 

But that’s the impact of striking art. 

An inescapable feeling of having your mind exposed, evoking emotions we try so hard to keep in check. End of the Game is a striking exhibition and one well worth attending.

“Good art affects the psyche faster than you can blink”. DM

Roger Ballen’s End of the Game exhibition is on at the Inside Out Centre for the Arts in Rosebank, Johannesburg from 28 March 2024 and will run for the remainder of the year.