- As Terr as do Fim do Mundo
In April 2011 the Walther Family Collection, based primarily in Neu-Ulm/ Burlafingen, Germany, opened its Chelsea venue in New York.1 The mission of the Walther Collection is to create a worldwide dialogue about contemporary photography, focusing in particular on young artists from Africa and Asia. For its first exhibition, the Walther Collection presented the photo exhibition As Terras do Fim do Mundo (The Lands of the Ends of the World), by the South African photographer Jo Ractliffe. It was her premiere solo show in the United States. Born in 1961 in Cape Town, Ractliffe lives in Johannesburg. In this exhibition nearly sixty platinum prints produced in South Africa exclusively for the Walther Collection document the "landscape of leftovers" created by Angola's civil war from 1975 to 2002.
For decades Angola has been the site of conflicts that have taken at least a hundred thousand lives. First Angolans fought for their independence from Portugal, achieving their goal on November 11, 1975; then a civil war raged until 1991 between two former liberation movements, the People's Movement for the Liberation and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. At the same time, the country served as a substitute platform for the Cold War; the first multiparty elections for president and national assembly were organized in 1992, but the result was never accepted, and guerrilla warfare dominated the country until the signing of the Luena memorandum of understanding in 2002. Moreover, the Angolan conflict became entangled with the second Congo civil war and the Namibian war of independence.
Angola is still far removed from our daily concerns in the West, and despite the long-standing civil war, only a few people may have kept in mind the images, spread over the news on TV or the Internet, of the toll it
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has taken: gun-carrying child soldiers, disabled veterans, homeless women and kids, ruined tanks and cities. For two years Ractliffe traveled around the deserted areas of Angola with former South African and Angolan soldiers — millions of people displaced by the war — and in the end she reached Luanda, the capital. She wanted to explore another facet of the drama, away from urban sites. She came back with a series of photographs that reveal to us what the TV and the newspapers did not report. Her determination to photograph such a tragedy shows her deep understanding of human conscience and consciousness. Through her landscapes Ractliffe delivers an unusual topographical survey of the Angolan paysage left over after the war, invoking indescribable stories in the viewer's imagination and relating her images to the archives of our collective memories.
With her photographs Ractliffe transforms the landscape into a major public art exhibition. She refashions for the viewer the beauty of a country without hiding the horror generated by violence and human madness. She found the right breathing spaces, which are necessary for creating a sense of balance in her photographs: a fragile zone where beauty and sadness are mixed and intertwined. Thus she offers the viewer what I call a space of empathy. The beauty of each image takes you to a tragic drama where there is no relief. It is more a way to endure mourning, a chant for compassion and reconciliation, a visual cry testifying against horror.
Ractliffe breaks down the stereotypes that usually define violence and war in Africa. In her images there are no people starving, no scraggly bodies exposed. Instead she uses a double language that reveals endless landscapes, lunar visions, and dense vegetation; at the same time, the markers of war are left over to remind us of the tragedy. The earth is suffering and will suffer for centuries because of the thousands of land mines dug into the landscapes and forests all over. The...