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Terms and Conditions
Introduction
Welcome to TONGUES, provided by Voodoo Voodoo Ltd (“we”, “us”, “our”). Access to and use of this website (“TONGUES”) is provided by us on the basis of a number of important terms and conditions, which are set out in full below.
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Privacy & Cookies Policy
Introduction
The tongues.cc website is operated by Voodoo Voodoo Ltd (‘TONGUES’).
This privacy policy applies to TONGUES.
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If you have any questions about our privacy policy or our use of your information, please contact us at info@tongues.cc.

Jo Ractliffe

November 12 / 2021

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Cape Town-based photographer Jo Ractliffe’s approach to this art form is known to be rooted in the long-distance drive, the road as much her medium through which to offer an interpretation of the world as the camera. From her early works in the 1980s to her essays on the consequences of the ‘Border War’ in Angola and South Africa, her photographic projects have consistently entailed lengthy journeys in the landscape. In 2015 Ractliffe sustained an injury that, in her words, altered my life and the way I see things. In the years since, she has moved away from the narrative sequence of the photo essay, revisiting an earlier interest in juxtaposition and montage. Combining new photographs with previously unpublished images from her archive, Ractliffe’s recent exhibitions, ‘Everything is Everything’ (2017), ‘Hay tiempo, no hay tiempo’ (2018) and ‘Signs of Life’ (2019), have explored the sometimes unexpected associations and meanings that emerge from the seemingly random assemblage of disparate images. ‘Being There’ (which was on show at Stevenson Cape Town from 9 September to 23 October 2021) came about during the lockdown of 2020. Like much of Ractliffe’s recent work, it looks at what endures in the periphery of loss.

 

Q >When was the first time you picked up a camera? And did you know early on that photography would be so central to your life?

A >I came to photography quite late actually. I was 21, already in my final year of art school, making horrible paintings and feeling rather despondent about my future as an artist. When the school organised an evening course in photography, I bought an old second hand Nikkormat camera and signed up. It was instant, exhilarating, like someone turning a light on inside my head. I knew I’d be doing this for the rest of my life.

Q >Tell us about the connection between road tripping and your photography practice.

A >For as long as I can remember, even when I was a little girl, the road has stirred something inside me — the prospect of its openness, that sense of possibility floating on the horizon. But its link to my photography probably goes back to when my father managed a brickworks up the West Coast in the late 1960s and I would take the long drive with him to work on the weekends. I think there was something about the way I apprehended landscape, space and time through the frame of the car window that I later connected with photographing. Also, most of my work takes place in the landscape so driving is inextricably linked to my working process. But the road is also interesting on a conceptual level. On the road, you’re always passing through; it’s the space between one place and the next, between past and future. It’s the ultimate non-place, but it’s never nowhere. You could say it’s something of a liminal or threshold space. So when it comes to my photography, which is mostly concerned with land, history and violence — particularly, the ways past violence manifests in the landscape of the present — the road is not simply the space of travel, it conditions my way of seeing.

Q >You’ve said the injury you sustained in 2015 “altered my life and the way I see things”. Tell us more about this: in its aftermath, how do you perceive things and live your life differently?

A >I have permanent damage to my spinal cord and although I’m much improved, my mobility is quite severely compromised. So I’ve had to relinquish my previous modes of working — those long journeys into the landscape. When I came out of hospital, I started going through my negative files and became quite curious about pictures I had taken for no apparent purpose: pictures made between projects, at the end of a roll of film or to test a camera. The first show after my injury, Everything is Everything was made up entirely of those kinds of images. It was not intended as anything more than an interim exercise while I was convalescing, but it was the start of a new way of working, which also took me back to an earlier interest in juxtaposition and montage, something I’d moved away from in favour of the extended photo-essay — like those on the aftermath of war in Angola. And the whole process of going back into my archive was very illuminating — and later provided much material for the book project, Photographs: 1980s to now.

So although I photograph only sporadically these days, it’s been liberating to juxtapose old and new images and to see what emerges when apparently disparate images from various sources and contexts come together. And Being There has extended my interest in juxtaposition and montage — in the photographs and the film — and more so, it comprises almost entirely new works, and that’s really gratifying.

Q >The photographs in ‘Being There’ are of footage frozen in time. Which films and imagery were you drawn to capture? What was it about a certain moment in time that will make you press the shutter button?

A >Being There was about finding a way to respond to what was happening in 2020, but the thinking behind it was prompted by an earlier question about how to photograph when one cannot be ‘in place’. At the time, I was thinking about the limitations of physical disability, but with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, this question took on new dimensions. Like so many people everywhere, I was confined to my house and my connection to family, friends and the world was via my computer screen. And despite the disembodied nature of such experience, it occurred to me that the screen offered a portal through which I could enter the world and engage photographically with this moment.

I looked at both documentary and feature films; for example, documentaries on the refugee crisis, the Chernobyl disaster, Antarctic exploration and the atom bomb. And also quite a wide range of fiction films, from westerns to science fiction and zombie films to road movies — films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991), Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1988) Emilio Fernández and Gabriel Figueroa’s and Rio Escondido (1947), Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

You talk about pressing the shutter; that process of setting up the camera and taking time to look at something slowly and carefully was central, even if it might seem simpler just to download images or make screengrabs. And the moments I looked for primarily were those that were either mysterious or somewhat ambiguous — images that could be read in multiple ways. For example, there’s an image of a couple stretching towards each other, as if coming into an embrace — or they could be falling, grasping at each other. I’ve also worked the contrast, tone, resolution and grain of the stills, all of which abstracts the image to some degree, fudges its reality and makes it difficult to discern exactly what’s going on. So they invite the viewer to project a narrative, to make links between images, and to be active in the process of making meaning.

Q >Your photographs appear in a video, on gallery walls, and in a book; in some instances accompanied with sound. How does the way in which visuals appear (including their context and the surface they’re on) affect their meaning, or the way they’re perceived?

A >That’s a great question! I’ve always wanted to take photographs off the wall — literally. From the beginning, I’ve tried to engage critically with photographic modes and convention in ways that you speak about — to look at how convention, mode and context, in themselves, frame meaning. So it’s about disturbing the surface of the image in a way; dislocating perception and introducing other ways of seeing.

Probably the most elaborate, and yet minimal project was End of Time, which grew out of an incident along the national road between Johannesburg and Cape Town. I was busy making a photographic inventory of the road: one image every hundred kilometres. It was an exercise in blandness. Except driving through the Karoo desert, almost halfway between the two cities, I came upon three donkeys lying alongside the road. They had been shot. And my abstract exercise was brought into sharp focus by that violent event. I mounted the exhibition in the Karoo village of Nieu-Bethesda, which also began with an actual journey — roughly eight hours of driving through the Karoo, depending on your starting point. I wanted to interrupt the journey — as mine had been — so I installed three billboards along the national road near the town, so that passing travellers would encounter the giant image of a donkey looking out from that landscape. And finally, once you got there, your journey was reflected back via the images on show: a long strip of 28 photographs of the road between Johannesburg and Cape Town and back, taken at 100-kilometre intervals. On the other side was a large, almost life size portrait of one of the dead donkeys.

Q >Tell us a bit about the collaborative process with composer Philip Miller and filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh in the creation of the film ‘Something this way comes’.

A >As a photographer, I usually work alone — in fact the only other true collaboration was also a film, One Year Later, made with Argentine filmmaker Sebastian Diaz Morales. In Something this way comes, Philip and I worked relatively independently of each other, but quite closely with Catherine — she was a bit like the hub of this project; it all came together through her. The work came about during the time of lockdown and was shaped by our response to events across the world at the time. We had the thought of something apocalyptic — hence the title, which comes from a line spoken by one of the three witches in Macbeth. But within that framework, we took our own paths. I wanted to make a road movie to the end of the world. I had amassed about 30 years of drives across four continents — most of which was shot through the car window so I assembled a cut-and-paste journey that moved from a war-torn city through a series of broken landscapes, coming to its end at the southernmost tip of Africa. Philip’s initial impetus was to work with bell sounds, inspired by a trip to Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival where the children wear costumes sewn with hundreds of little bells so the noise of their dancing will wake the dead. But our somewhat fragmentary and disjointed process was well suited to montage and assemblage, which underlined our approach to image and sound and indeed, the editing. So each of the parts are equally present in the final work and in that sense the work feels truly collaborative.

Q >What do you hope viewers of ‘Being There’ and ‘Something this way comes’ will walk away with?

A >This is always a difficult question for me because I tend to work in quite open-ended ways, where meaning is fluid, uncertain, contingent. And sometimes this makes for work that feels elusive to some viewers. But of course I want my work to resonate with people; I want to make that connection. And in this moment particularly, I would hope that people looking at these works might reflect on their own experience and find something meaningful in that.

 

Jo Ractliffe was born in 1961 in Cape Town and lives there. Her first US survey, Jo Ractliffe: Drives, took place at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2020/21. Other recent solo exhibitions include Signs of Life, Stevenson, Cape Town (2019); Hay Tiempo, No Hay Tiempo, Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo, as part of Hacer Noche, Oaxaca (2018); Everything is Everything, Stevenson, Johannesburg (2017); After War, Fondation A Stichting and Galerie de l’erg, Brussels (2015); The Aftermath of Conflict: Jo Ractliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015); Someone Else’s Country, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts (2014); and The Borderlands, Stevenson, Cape Town (2013). Her photo-books include Photographs: 1980s – Now (2020), Signs of Life (2019), Everything is Everything (2017), The Borderlands (2015), As Terras do Fim do Mundo (2010) and Terreno Ocupado (2008).

 

Images courtesy of Jo Ractliffe and STEVENSON gallery
© Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Photographs: 1980s – now was published by Steidl / The Walther Collection (2020).

Jo Ractliffe — Doll’s head, 1990–95. Series: reShooting Diana

Jo Ractliffe — Strawberry man, 1990–95. Series: reShooting Diana

Jo Ractliffe — Butcher, 1990–95. Series: reShooting Diana

Jo Ractliffe — N1: every hundred kilometres, 1996/9

Jo Ractliffe — N1: every hundred kilometres, 1996/9

Jo Ractliffe — N1: every hundred kilometres, 1996/9

Jo Ractliffe — Video club, Roque Santeiro market, 2007. Series: Terreno Ocupado

Jo Ractliffe — On the road to Cuito Cuanavale, 2009. Series: As Terras do Fim do Mundo

Jo Ractliffe — House on the hill, Riemvasmaak, 2012. Series: The Borderlands

Jo Ractliffe — Falsa Ilusion, Oaxaca, 2018. Series: Signs of Life

Jo Ractliffe — Piet Basson’s bible, Riemvasmaak, 2013. Series: Signs of Life

Jo Ractliffe — St Helena mermaid, 2018. Series: Signs of Life

Jo Ractliffe — Still #26, 2021. Series: Being There

Jo Ractliffe — Still #39, 2021. Series: Being There

Jo Ractliffe — Still #5, 1987. Series: Being There

Jo Ractliffe — End of Time, 1999 (exhibition billboard erected in Nieu-Bethesda, Karoo, South Africa)

Jo Ractliffe — Something this way comes, 2021 (film still)

Jo Ractliffe — Something this way comes, 2021 (film still)