Photo By Jo Ractliffe
Before we get to the meat and potatoes of Peabody Essex Museum’s two new exhibitions, let us declare that a trip on the commuter rail to Salem can take less time than getting from the depths of Somerville to Jamaica Plain, or from Dorchester to parts of Cambridge. This is important, because both Someone Else’s Country by Jo Ractliffe and The Woods by Candice Breitz are worthy of your patronage.
In a mezzanine gallery with hardwood floors, glossy banisters, and careful lighting, Someone Else’s Country features nearly forty black and white photos of post-war Angola. Barren roads, unmarked graves, and shantytowns are among the images Ractliffe captured in her four year project, but, unlike wartime photography, the images captured aren’t violent or harsh. Her subjects, both people and places, are transient, upended, recovering, and scarred. Often times the sparse compositions are serene, but the placards that bare descriptions of each work juxtapose the tranquility with the turbulent history. Accompanying a stunning landscape of a cliff, the note tells the tale of persons being thrown to their death during the 27-year war.
In a panel discussion with the artists this past Thursday, PEM curator Trevor Smith aptly remarked that both projects reach “beyond the level of media representations,” which is perhaps the only element — aside both being the works of South African women — that unites the simultaneous shows.
The Woods consists of three video installations featuring child actors of Hollywood, Bollywood, and Nollywood. Darkly comedic, Breitz’ project weaves together narratives of child stars and hopefuls as a way to examine how mainstream cinema impacts identity formation. Using children to parrot parents, managers, and movie stars — an assortment of contradictory quotes on fame from Shah Rukh Kham makes up the script for the Bollywood’s segment — Breitz illuminates the influence mass media has on shaping individual’s goals and dreams, and therefore society. It’s as engaging as it is unsettling.
In the panel conversation that preceded the opening of the galleries, Brietz discussed her focus on the film industry. “I think that for most people, an afternoon spent with culture means going to a stadium to watch a game, or going to the cinema to watch a movie,” she said. “I’m interested in what it is that that cultural experience offers and how this has come to be our mainstream—our primary form of gathering messages about ourselves, stories about ourselves which are shared and distributed.”
Looking around the room, she adds, “For most people, our culture is not a trip to a museum.”
SOMEONE ELSE’S COUNTRY + THE WOODS. PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM, EAST INDIA SQUARE, SALEM. ON VIEW THROUGH SPRING 2015. FOR ADMISSION AND MUSEUM HOURS, VISIT PEM.ORG