Q & A with Rabéa Ballin

Interview by Nadia Al-Khalifah


Bās, currently on view in Art League Houston’s Front Gallery, is the fourth collaborative exhibition by artists Rabéa Ballin, Ann Johnson,Delita Martin, and Lovie Olivia. The show examines and transforms personal experiences  family histories, and cultural identities into a provoking visual play through the art of printmaking. Rabéa Ballin was generous enough to answer a few questions about her remarkable exhibition History Slept on: The Original Dime Piece, which explores idealized images of feminine beauty of the "Circassian" women. Known as the "purest" type of white person, Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful on earth and were regularly exhibited and became a mainstay of dime museums and P.T. Barnum's circus side shows.

Born in Germany, raised in southern Louisiana, Rabéa Ballin moved to Houston to pursue her MFA in drawing and painting at the University of Houston. She earned her BFA in Fine Artfrom McNeese State University. During her years at McNeese she returned to Germany to attend the Göthe Institute, subsequently studying Art History in Rome and Florence, Italy. Currently a professor of fine arts, Rabéa is living and working in Houston’s historical Third Ward community and exhibiting nationally. “I would describe my early upbringing and schooling as very multicultural. I was raised between Germany and the United States. When my father exited the military we settled in rural southern Louisiana.This culture shift has defined my life. I learned early on how to grease scalps and braid hair well enough to moonlight at my own mothers hair salon. These will always be the core elements of my subject matter.” www.rabeaballin.com

Rabéa Ballin in front of her work. (Photo taken by Sophie Asakura)

Rabéa Ballin in front of her work. (Photo taken by Sophie Asakura)

Q. After growing up in various places across the globe, including Germany, Italy and Louisiana,how has this multi-cultural upbringing affected the aesthetic of your work?

 A. Growing up in various places has made me more in tune with my surroundings. I am interested in those differences and what “feeling” different means. Changing and manipulating ones hair is a powerful way to either belong or stand out in a crowd. It is one of the few things we can actually manipulate on our bodies on a daily basis. I have always enjoyed how culture dictates bodily representation. Having been exposed to many cultures opens up doors for experimentation. The world feels much larger and the work keeps growing.

Q. Overtime your work has continued to explore the cultural meaningfulness of hair, why is that?

A. I would say that this is a response to my upbringing. My mother owned a hair salon and as I was growing up I was taught the ins & outs of hair care. I became rather good at braiding and soon took it up as a part time hobby (which I still do). Getting up close and personal to someone’s scalp reminded me of terrain and landscape. I decided to do a series of drawings with a zoomed in perspective.  At some point it became less about hair and more about formal elements. I think that my interest in under-represented parts of history – and how that affects hair is definitely connected. This was definitely the case with the Circassian women.

Photo by Nadia Al-Khalifah

Photo by Nadia Al-Khalifah

Q. Your current exhibition specifically focuses on the distinctive hairstyles of the“Circassian” women. What perked your interest about this and how have you responded to it in your work?

A. I became interested in these women after seeing some of the original 'cabinet cards' with the caption that read "Victorian Afro Hair". Upon further exploration I discovered this culture of women who were the complete opposite of this description. I discovered that they originated from the Caucus Mountain area in Russia and were considered to be of the purest Caucasian race. With their acclaimed purity also came their“enslavement”. The fact that I had never heard about these women prior to my research fueled my determination to tell their story.

Q. Also exhibited with your prints are hair oils and serums that the “Circassian” women were said to have used; where did you get them and do they actually work?

A. Yes, they actually work! I made the serums myself. When my mother was a teen she moved to Austria to become a hair dresser. She told me the story of how her boss at the time would scam women by making these setting lotions out of stale beer. She gave me a few simple ingredients and told me that it was used quite commonly in the past. Be warned- I am told it leaves a white residue. I found some antique bottles and a few replicas that I thought were reminiscent of the time period. I love typography and enjoyed researching Victorian Era advertising.  I used two original ads and created the others myself.

Photo by Sophie Asakura

Photo by Sophie Asakura

Q. The images of the women appear to be antique. How; if any, have you altered them?

A. Something amazing happened when I printed them out on the handmade paper I used. They just looked so beautiful- antique is a great description. I decided then not to manipulate them at all and focus more on interesting ways to display them. I chose specimen boxes for some since these women were in fact specimens meant to be stared at. I also wanted to place them in a special setting, one that gave them the respect I felt they deserved. I placed them in antique frames and such to portray them as distant relatives perhaps. Since I love to draw I also cut away their natural hair and decided to draw in my own.The other pieces are the result of some mono-printing experiments I did with toner and an acrylic painting medium.

Q. The Bās exhibition is special since it’s the third time you've exhibited your printmaking work with the same local female artists Ann Johnson, Delita Martin,and Lovie Olivia. What have you learned while working with them? Do you plan on collaborating works or ideas with them again?

A. Yes, I do plan on working with them again. I have learned to work as a collective rather than working alone-which I have been accustomed to. The conversation and dialogue that comes with working with talented women has proven to be a great blessing. Even though we don’t necessarily have the same approach or even theme, there has always been this organic fusion of imagery and thought that just works so well together. I love the professionalism in the exhibit and I can’t wait to see what we do next.

Left to Right: Rabéa Ballin, Lovie Olivia, Ann Johnson, and Delita Martin (Photo by Nadia Al-Khalifah)

Left to Right: Rabéa Ballin, Lovie Olivia, Ann Johnson, and Delita Martin (Photo by Nadia Al-Khalifah)

Q. You continue to push the boundaries of printmaking, what do you plan on experimenting with next in the future and why?

A. So far I have printed on pillows and now handmade paper - I would say that I will continue to explore alternative materials as opposed to traditional paper.  I like the idea of a more hands on approach, so collage is also something I will explore in the future. As far as subject matter goes… It will be up to me to find another quietly slept on part of history that has yet to be showcased.  The search has already begun…