Tucked away on a lower level in the Met’s contemporary art section, a surprising exhibition of Jo Ractliffe’s photographs of Angola and South Africa turns from photojournalism to abstraction. The name of the exhibition, The Aftermath of Conflict, suggests documentary photography, and while certainly there are expected images of families living in ruins and portraits of people who seem to be walking an almost necessary line between hope and desperation, the exhibition includes startling conceptual imagery. Those images should draw you into the space, even if you are, as one passerby suggested, “not interested in photography." They demonstrate that Ractliffe understands that the impact of war is to be found not only people and the sometimes desperate places they inhabit, but also in rituals of living that, when divorced from circumstance, assume a kind of stark beauty and haunting memory of what life requires to persist or even thrive. With the photographer’s camera focused tightly on imagery which is often trimmed of context, we are confronted with the unsettling truth that war, in its awful beauty, ravages not just distant lands, but lives closer to home as well. We only see the images as beautiful if we forget that war made them possible, putting us in the unenviable position of admiring destruction of the daily lives we, in other settings, would never want to lose. Ractliffe, in other words, gives us an impossible conundrum: the beauty we admire has come from violence and conflict, and yet we require that beauty to awaken us to the truth of the scene. This is nothing short of an indictment of our demands of the world, ones deeply out of touch from those who live in the exhibitions we drift past in galleries.
The Aftermath of Conflict is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 6, 2016.
Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.