Okwui Enwezor has written that in the work of South African photographer Jo Ractliffe, “to see…is to see beyond what the image reveals.” Ractliffe’s spare black-and-white photographs chronicle the aftermath of an extended conflict in Angola and map the terrain of a chaotic new world haunted by the dead. Her exhibition Someone Else’s Country, at the Peabody Essex Museum (through March 15, 2015), provides a rare opportunity to see through her subtle and uncompromising eyes.
Lyle Rexer: Those of us in the United States of a certain age are familiar with undeclared wars; that’s how Vietnam began for us. South Africa had its own undeclared war that marked a generation – Angola (and Namibia, too). Can you describe the impact of this war on you and why you were so committed to documenting it after the fact?
Jo Ractliffe: The war comprised such a complex and convoluted set of conflicts that all converged in Angola. But unlike Vietnam, South Africa’s involvement in the war was kept secret until the mid-1980s. To be honest, the war had little impact on me. Things shifted when I went to university and became much more engaged with what was happening politically. I was photographing in the townships around Cape Town – images of urban wastelands, resettlement camps and dogs that later grew into the series Nadir. But I didn’t ever think about actually going to Angola until much later, after meeting someone at an exhibition of those early 1980s works. He said the images reminded him of Luanda; he didn’t know that what informed those works about South Africa was an imaginary Angola. So of course I went to Luanda.
LR: The most obvious and striking feature of As Terras do Fim do Mundo is the absence of all but minimal evidence of previous traumatic events. The landscape doesn’t remember and can’t speak. What is your sense about photography’s role and limitations in acts of remembrance and cultural history?
JR: That’s the big question! In the book I talk about being “without language,” and it was hard to decipher what I was looking at. I think this work is as much about the act of looking as it is about what’s in the images. In places where there was once terrible violence or trauma, the place itself fails to signify in terms of the memory of what occurred there. The photograph mirrors this: it fails as witness. But perhaps it’s not about revealing what might be hidden as much as about marking absence, drawing attention to other things that disturb our perception and open up the possibility for other imaginings.
LR: Shifting to the other body of work, Terreno Ocupado, the translation of the title is “Occupied Land.” Was it unoccupied at some point in the past, or is Luanda the product of a country disrupted by 30 years of war?
JR: The title Terreno Ocupado came from a sign I saw on the outskirts of Luanda one day while driving to a newly opened luxury shopping center. It was erected in the middle of an overgrown vacant plot of land. I found it enigmatic in its contradictoriness: clearly it wasn’t occupied, and there was no trace of a previous occupation, like broken down buildings or rubble. But you’re right: in 1975 when the war began, Luanda’s population was around 250,000; now it’s over 5 million. Hopefully the title speaks to that condition as well – the disruptions of war, but also the new economic and cultural occupations that are occurring in its aftermath – it’s a boom town, one of the wealthiest in Africa and among the most expensive in the world.
LR: Finally, tell me about the decision to shoot black-and-white film. Wouldn’t a documentarist these days be whirring away with a full digital kit?
JR: The truth is I’ve never worked with a digital camera; I get a bit overwhelmed by all that technology and feel more in control working with a manual film camera. And I like that process of delay and ritual that working with film involves; it helps me think about things. It was wonderful to get back into the darkroom and disappear into the world of those images again.