Atkinson Brenda (ed.), Jo Ractliffe: Artist’s Book, Johannesburg, David Krut, 2000→
Jo Ractliffe: The Borderlands, Mexico, RM, 2015
Jo Ractliffe: Selected Colour Works 1999-2005, Warren Siebrits Modern and Contemporary Art, Johannesburg, 2005→
As Terras do Fim do Mundo, Fotohof, Salzburg, 2012→
The Aftermath of Conflict: Jo Ractliffe’s Photographs of Angola and South Africa, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015
South African photographer.
Jo Ractliffe began her photographic practice in the early 1980s, a time of rising anti-apartheid protest, political tension, and uncertainty. She photographed her early series, such as Crossroads (1986) and Vissershok (1988), in the townships of Cape Town. These images provided the material for Nadir (1986-1988), whose meaningful title implies a low point. In this series, she created photomontages – scenes of apocalypse peopled by thought-provoking stray dogs – epitomizing her viewpoint on the violence of the national state of affairs at the time. J. Ractliffe often accompanies her work with detailed writing which conveys her intentions, conceptual framework, and some of her inspirations, such as the literature of Pablo Neruda and Ryszard Kapuściński, and the photographs of Robert Frank and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Her photobooks, as spaces for expanded expression, are highly praised.
After moving to Johannesburg in the 1990s, she made numerous road trips across South Africa, including to the West Coast, the Karoo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Her equipment was stolen in a burglary and, as she could not immediately afford to replace her cameras, she began working with the plastic toy cameras she had been collecting. She developed reShooting Diana (1990-1995), a series marking a moment of change in her life and that of the peoples and places she encountered via ordinary, antiheroic photographs imbued with humanism. These were printed as a fragmentary narrative strip (the installation comprises fifty photographs suspended from the ceiling), but J. Ractliffe often favours single frames, occasionally polyptychs, and precisely controlled black and white darkroom prints.
In a form of understated political activism, J. Ractliffe photographed a farm that had been the headquarters of a death squad during apartheid and found herself questioning what is unrepresentable. Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (drive-by shooting) (1999) searches for emblematic traces of the violence that occurred there, traces which elude the camera. In a second manifestation of the work, the photographic strip is filmed over video and sound footage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, relaying oral testimonies.
J. Ractliffe prefers to describe her primary subject-matter as space rather than landscape. She builds conscience into the work and incites critical awareness in the viewing of images. According great importance to education, she was the primary photography lecturer at Wits University from 1991 to 2017, has taught at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, and has been involved in various collaborative projects. Her documentary form deliberately avoids sensationalism, literalness and exhibitionism by seeking to foreground the fugitive. She first photographed in Angola in 2007, and said that she wanted to “shoot straight”, look carefully, make open-ended images. Terreno Ocupado (2007-8) looked at Luanda five years after the civil war had ended. As Terras do Fim do Mundo (2009-2010) traced the routes of the civil war and South Africa’s Border War. The images include roadside markers, minefields, mass graves and battle sites with great austerity. Memory and history, ecological destruction, structural instability, displacement, presence, and what is untold are central to her selection process.
J. Ractliffe considers that “we retain a certain belief in the truth of appearances; we conflate the real with its representation. I’m interested in the slippage between photography and the real, and in the notion of trace.”
Jo Ractliffe, Roadside stall on the way to Viana, 2007, from the series Terreno Ocupado, inkjet print, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Doll’s head, 1995, from the series reShooting Diana, pigment print on cotton paper, 35 x 35 cm, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Butcher, 1995, from the series reShooting Diana, pigment print on cotton paper, 35 x 35 cm, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, The beach at Ilha, 2007, from the series Terreno Ocupado, 2007, digital silver gelatin print, 50 x 50 cm, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Video club, Roque Santeiro market, 2007, from the series Terreno Ocupado, hand-printed silver gelatin print, 36 x 45 cm, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, On the road to Cuito Cuanavale IV, 2009, de la série As Terras do Fim do Mundo, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Woodland near Cassinga (diptych), 2009, from the series As Terras do Fim do Mundo, 2 custom made platinum prints, 38.2 x 45,8 x 2.5 cm each, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Floor slab, temporary military base, Riemvasmaak, 2012, silver gelatin print, 45 x 56 cm, © Jo Ractliffe
Jo Ractliffe, Raising the flag, Riemvasmaak, 2013, from the series The Borderlands, 2013, silver gelatin print, 36 x 45 cm, © Jo Ractliffe