Not everyone speaks the same language, but political oppression everywhere demands the same silence. Both Yoan Capote and Farideh Sakhaeifar have lived under regimes deemed revolutionary, in Cuba and Iran, and both find a place in their art for an official oration. Both, too, leave the podium silent and empty.
They fear most, though, that people are listening, echoing received words and accepting the enforced silence. They also look for ways around the silence through an art with its ear to the ground. The United States has begun talking to both regimes, but these artists distrust both parties in negotiations. They would rather picture people, places, and events in the streets of Havana and Tehran. A South African photographer, Jo Ratcliffe, even drags her countrymen back to Angola, to bear witness to the costs of war for others and themselves. Maybe serious political art always works that way—through concrete objects, everyday experience, a bit of indirection, and a healthy sense of humor.
As the United States and Cuba edge cautiously but inevitably toward diplomatic relations, they can count on at least one thing—a common humanity. Yoan Capote insists on it, give or take the human. He greets visitors with New Man, that promise of a Communist future, but it looks much like the old one, only in bronze. A spinal column with all its bends, it also looks as precarious as life, hanging from its support by a thin chain. More bronze without flesh takes the shape of a rib cage, more or less intact. It is Visceral, and so at its best is his art.
Actually, Capote calls the show "Collective Unconscious," like Carl Jung infiltrating a Soviet worker's collective. And bad dreams do keep lurking, as in another bronze, an unusually confining closet. Shorn of clothes, the heavy hangers have a serrated bottom edge, as if ripped apart and ready to rip someone else in turn. Confinement appears again in a tree limb, handcuffed and twisted into a circle that refuses to close. Mostly, though, the work is too extroverted for either a collective or the unconscious. Capote has his nightmares, but also smart one-liners and an eagerness not to please.
The nightmares include surgical scissors and an entire laboratory of flasks and vials out of the past. The scissors are themselves deformed, and Capote uses the glass as surfaces for prints of mass rallies, in public. Similar prints cover what look like sticks of dynamite. This is terrorism with a human face. Elsewhere a row of fists gives everything from a V for victory to the finger, and it is hard to say who gets to declare victory over whom. A drawing of trees interrupted by carpenter's levels represents Rule of Life, but real life will not play by the rules.
Capote's first New York show looked largely across the Gulf, to the United States. Here he looks more often to his native Cuba, and he is dubious about what he sees. A microphone stands unused behind two rough stones, both shaped into loudspeakers and one in chains. The revolution may have lost its voice, but its burden remains. A redoubled megaphone, joined at the short end, suggests a call to action that no one can deliver. I shall take the gallery's word for it that the most abstract sculpture dismantles the Cuban flag.
The artist sees openings for diplomacy, although his Diplomacy Lessons include chairs suitable for heads of state with a nose in the seat of each one. They are giving the nose to each party's behind. He gets in his digs at capitalism, too, with F'g Money—after The Garden of Earthly Delights, but with its cavorting lovers printed on cold cash. The gallery leaves one title untranslated, maybe because Otra Salida could mean another way out, a fresh departure, and a solution, but also another sale and another market. Capote is at his best, though, when he turns to home. He has become more visible in the United States, with a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and outdoor sculpture in East Hampton, but then so has Cuba.
The largest work, built from hinges on the scale of a monument, presents Castro as an empty mask—and doors lie scattered all around as if from an explosion. Knobs and locks nearby, from much the same derelict Havana doors, march up a wall toward a security camera. Plainly barriers have fallen, but something has become unhinged. Filling the gallery's two spaces may mean too many one-liners, and drawings add little more than the sculpture's Spanish titles. Still, Capote aims for the weight of those speakers—or even the unconscious. When he assaults Cuba's national symbols, he could be reaching instead for the universal.
For Farideh Sakhaeifar, the revolution is a dark place, give or take the erasures. She transfers a map of Tehran to plywood, in shades of black. Its four panels cover vast distances from the air, any one of the panels taller and wider than you. Sakhaeifar tempts one to pick out avenues and public squares, if only an American or a gallery-goer could. She practically obliges one to hunt down sites of 2009's abortive Arab spring, for she has cut them out, as if to mark them forever. To judge by the show's title, they are "Sacrosanct."
I failed, even with the aid of small monitors embedded in unstained but otherwise identical panels leaning against the facing wall. The videos show those same sites, placed right where they belong, but devoid of protest and awash in Middle Eastern light. Where the map looks tactile and three-dimensional, the bare plywood looks crude and blank. Together, they multiply erasures through censorship and time. They also suggest that the scariest thing about authority is how quickly it becomes invisible. Even before things return to normal, whatever that means, people buy in.
In a scary show about a scary history, Sakhaeifar fears most of all that people will forget. In a large photo collage, a sea of human faces has its own erasures, where signs once cried out to the Supreme Leader. It stands opposite a tall platform bearing only a foot pedal, as voices rise and die away. Its unseen speaker might be cuing the rally at will. Another pedal serves as sculpture, on a pedestal and under glass with patterns out of Islamic art. For Sakhaeifar, religion and tradition offer tools for manipulation and intimidation.
Elsewhere a noose drapes a statuette with a raised arm—for here, as with the gladiators of ancient Rome, those who are about to die salute you. It recalls the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his statue, in that premature moment of triumph in Iraq. For the artist, it recalls the toppling of other dictators as well, long past and future. In each case, she sees a people assuaged by violence as entertainment. As with the fall of Saddam, she also traces the origins of violence to America. Photos pair the destruction of Arab art by ISIS with rocket launches from NASA.
Maybe, although an accompanying video is suitably frightening. Other artists, too, have puzzled over responsibility, censorship, the destruction of art, and the fate of Tehran, but not all histories are alike. Sakhaeifar does best when she sticks to experience. Still, in a show on the theme of complicity, there is more than enough complicity to go around—not excluding her own. The artist is scariest of all in a series about making art. Her subjects stand in front of a white screen, as in a portrait studio, but they, too, have embraced more than they know.
As you might expect, Workers Are Taking Photographs is more ambiguous than its title. The white looks as innocent as blank canvas, and the photos allow individuals to stand on their own. Cords trailing off from each one mark these as selfies, and the factory or warehouse behind them marks this as life. Yet the screen is also confining, much as the everyday space of labor confines the laborer. Other disembodied hands holding the screens from behind make it murkier still who is in control. These are photographs of their own making, but just who is their maker?
Jo Ratcliffe brought her camera from South Africa to Angola five years after the end of its civil war. For her, though, the war will never let go. "The Aftermath of Conflict" offers hardly a hint of recovery. Its very first photograph attests to neglect, in tall grass reaching to the horizon and encroaching even on the viewer. A coarse and weathered sign in the middle distance marks out Terreno Ocupado, or occupied territory. Is it, too, a sign of neglect, in a field that no one cares to reclaim, or does it mean precisely what it says? Either way, it leaves unanswered who is occupied and who is the occupier, much like civil war.
Maybe a war like this one never could let go. It began almost from the moment of Angola's independence, in 1975, only to be caught up in a border war that had already raged nearly a decade. More South African troops entered soon enough on one side, while Cuba supported another that had already proclaimed its dominance. By the war's end in 2002, one and a half million had died, and another four million had been displaced. Both factions remained in place as well, in a state of suspicion. At the Met, a woman hurries past, her child in her arms, while a soldier looks on—his face reduced to a sun-drenched blur, as it surely was for her. Another woman looks out warily from a makeshift shelter, while a body in front of her, head unseen, reaches out to bar an uneasy way.
Terreno Ocupado gives its name to Ratcliffe's first series, where the grip of history extends as far back as 1482. A mural in a bank, its colonnade as stately as a memorial, still pays tribute to Portuguese colonization. Yet she herself refuses to let go. For a second series, As Terras do Fim do Mundo, she took South African soldiers back to the war zone that they must have hoped to leave behind. Apparently war can come to an end only with the end of the world or at the ends of the earth. A final series, The Borderlands, shifts to English as the venue shifts to within South Africa, where temporary quarters for those soldiers and an asbestos mine now lie abandoned except for an ass, but few have found a permanent space.
Then again, people may hate to let go, only to find that they have no other choice. Ratcliffe set out "to retrieve a place for memory," like David Goldblatt with memories of apartheid and Zwelethu Mthethwa with migrant workers, but not everyone is eager to remember. A man with a lawn mower tends ground in front of an actual memorial to the Agostinho Neto, the first president of Angola, but without acknowledging its presence—and anyway the memorial looks more like street art than official commemoration. Paintings of Neto, Fidel Castro, and Leonid Brezhnev have faded to a ghostly white. Piles of dried fish look ominous enough, but on their way to consumption by a wealthy elite. Fallen branches take over a photograph of a wrecked ship, in the comic shape of a balloon dog.
Ratcliffe worked from 2007 to 2013, after not just the war had gone, but so, too, had its reporters and photojournalists. Yet there, too, her civil war photography has trouble letting go. This is serious stuff, and everything in her work says so. Graffiti in the distance reads GOD with Us, but she plainly knows better. The show may look more somber and less artful that it deserves as well, with just two dozen photographs converted to inkjet prints, in a large corner room of the Met's modern wing. Upcoming renovation, while the museum takes over the Whitney's former home as the Met Breuer, will, with luck, allow for a greater intimacy.
Still, the photos have genuine artistry and document genuine displacement. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, called a larger selection in 2014 "Someone Else's Country." Ratcliffe speaks of how war functioned as a "secret, unspoken location" for soldiers whom loved ones might never see again. Sometimes she mimes displacement by breaking a scene across adjacent photographs, although the results can feel that much stiffer. At her best, though, displacement converges with the rhythms of daily life, from the swirling carpet of fish to a game of "soccer" with shells and stones, as people slowly remember to forget. Black work clothes hang empty by a taxi stand, like still more ghosts, but work may yet resume.
Yoan Capote ran at Jack Shainman through July 10, 2015, Farideh Sakhaeifar at William Holman through July 10. Jo Ratcliffe ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 6, 2016. Related reviews consider Yoan Capote in 2011 and additional art from Tehran.