Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
“I have never looked at landscape as something apart, to be viewed, in the distance, which is why I’ve always resented the term,” South African photographer Jo Ractliffe explains to me when I speak to her over email, as she is en route to Paris Photo. “When I look at landscape, or when I’m photographing, I’m equally aware of what’s happening outside, in front of me, but also what’s inside me - the ‘fact’ of a place as well as its affective resonance. So I’ve always thought of landscape as a kind of intermediary; it’s the measure of the world.”
When I visit Cape Town’s Stevenson Gallery, where Ractliffe’s latest body of work, Landscaping, is on view until 18 November 2023, it’s a bustling Friday afternoon in the city. But on entering the gallery I am transported to the remote reaches of South Africa’s western coast. Landscaping shares the visual hallmarks for which Ractliffe is known: stark, humanless, black-and-white analogue images of natural scenes. Yet, as I walk through the gallery, I sense something different in this new series.
— Jo Ractliffe
Over the course of her four-decade career, Ractliffe has consistently looked toward landscapes as political - often as sites of violence, and always foregrounding the notion of “place as artefact”’ as the exhibition text puts it. Often described as a “social photographer,” she has variously turned her lens to scenes in the wake of apartheid South Africa and post-civil war Angola. Her images offer a compelling understanding of how physical spaces may manifest or chronicle the lingering memory of state violence. "In much of my previous work landscape has been attached to other questions like violence, conflict and dispossession, for example,” Ractliffe says. “And for the most part, I have photographed in places of aftermath, where there is little trace of the events that took place there.”
With Landscaping, however, she takes on the question of landscape directly. Part of this perspective shift, she explains, is because of a spinal cord injury that has altered her physical capacities. To test her abilities, Ractliffe embarked on a trip that would form the genesis of this project - driving north from Cape Town through farmlands, fishing villages, old mining towns and swathes of coastal land laid waste to by diamond and copper mining while documenting along the way.
With limited physical mobility, the artist was forced to get inventive with her compositions. Initially, she resisted the inadequacy of the term “landscape”, feeling that it mediated distance and held too much avoidance. Eventually, she recounts, something clicked: the purpose of the project, she realised, would be to make landscape something active, “a doing thing.” In her artist’s statement, Ractliffe expands on this idea - referencing visual theorist WJT Mitchell, who argues in his 2002 book Landscape and Power that “landscape” ought to be considered a verb rather than a noun - in other words, that it affects and is affected by political and social practices.
As the exhibition text points out, language on landscape can easily fall into the trap of a colonial imaginary. Many of the locations Ractliffe photographs in this project are often described as unspoilt and quaint, rife with the frontier romanticism of shipwrecks, extractive fortune-seekers and pioneers. Or they’re alternately described as desolate or remote - when in fact they’ve long been inhabited. Remote from where, and for whom? Nowhere to be found, in such conventional narratives, is a record of the “slow violence” of the lived experiences of local communities who in many cases remain under-resourced and marginalised - and dispossessed of their land - following generations of resource extraction upon their natural environments.
Ractliffe also cites theorist Jill Bennett, who talks about a way of seeing that reflects upon “conditions of perception”. And so in considering our current theme, healing, I’ve been thinking lately about how we often conceive of healing simply in terms of removing a tension or solving a problem. But I’m more curious about what other, more complicated meanings the word might have. Rather than a simplification, how can healing imply the cohering of a multiplicity of lived experiences or histories? How might healing - when it comes to place, memory, art, or anything else - be framed in terms of active engagement rather than a particular endpoint?
Speaking with the newfound perspective of her spinal injury recovery, Ractliffe points out that “the most important thing about the word ‘healing’ is that it is a verb; it’s an ongoing process, not a state to be reached.” And so, once again, language and framing matter. Perhaps healing can mean bearing witness - a phrase, Ractliffe tells me, she “battled with for years because I thought it was the avoidance of a position. But I understand it differently [now]; to bear witness is to acknowledge the existence of something, to acknowledge someone else’s lived experience.”
Confluences: How Jo Ractliffe Sees Landscapes