In the mid-1980s, as a young photographer, Jo Ractliffe confronted a country turned into a police state.
The years preceding South Africa’s first free vote in 1994, which saw Nelson Mandela elected president, were disheartening and at times brutal.
Rather than capturing front-page acts of violence under the legalized racism known as apartheid, however, Ractliffe (South African, born 1961) found her creative voice by working indirectly—through allegories and aftermath. Ractliffe offered symbolic depictions of human character in pictures of common animals, particularly donkeys and dogs, as in her 1987 series of photolithographs Nadir (“the low point”): stray curs roaming or leaping in a postapocalyptic landscape. In other early landscape photographs, she showed what remained after neighborhoods and townships for people of color were razed in favor of the white minority.
This exhibition—the first survey ever organized of Ractliffe’s work—brings together more than 100 artworks from across her career. These include dreamlike photographs the artist made in the 1990s with one-dollar cameras while cruising the port city of Durban and on a cross-country road trip, as well as a second highway piece, the unsettling installation N1 Incident/End of Time (1997/99). Large-scale color prints, video installations, and documentary photographs made from around 2000 to as recently as 2018 round out this comprehensive look at the artist’s varied and haunting body of work.