'Still' - Berni Searle at Axis Gallery, New York
by Laurie Farrell
As a means of coming to terms with the 9/11 tragedy, many New York City residents and tourists alike have sought refuge in museums, galleries and other reflective spaces. Many local business owners and cultural organisations are looking for ways to meet the needs of the general public and stay afloat in the face of low attendance figures and financial support.
Axis Gallery, located on West 17th Street in Chelsea and in close proximity to the World Trade Center, has provided one such sanctuary from the aftermath of September 11. Berni Searle's first solo exhibition in New York City, initially scheduled to open on 9/11, opened to critical acclaim after a brief delay. Gary van Wyk and Lisa Brittan of Axis Gallery stated that while attendance figures were low, visitors found Searle's images and installations to be "healing, meditative and restorative for the time".
Focusing on works made between 1998 and 2001, Searle's exhibition was infused with an overall reflective tone. Using spices, images and details of her naked body, and selective dictionary text, Searle's work addresses on a visual and visceral level issues of race, gender and placement.
One highlight in the show was an enclosed installation titled Still (2001) that relates to earlier works such as the 'Colour Me' series and Snow White. The interior of the installation included a series of digital prints on back-lit paper with small mounds of flour on the floor. These haunting images of Searle were taken from Snow White, a video piece that was shown at the 2001 Venice Biennale as part of 'Authentic/Ex-Centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art'. In the NYC show, the digital prints show Searle kneeling naked in a dark space, covered in flour, while kneading a dough-like substance. In her 'Authentic/Ex-Centric' exhibition catalogue essay Skin Deep/Bodies of Evidence: The Work of Berni Searle, Annie Coombes discusses the various levels on which Searle's Snow White performance piece operates. On one level, the piece is critiquing the Monument to the Women of South Africa which references "the action of kneeling and recalls the specifically gendered (women's) labour of grinding" (Coombes, 194). On another level, Searle's actions and use of flour culminate as a powerfully orchestrated protest of the act of reading skin color in racist societies. However, the recent domestic tragedies and anthrax cases that have dominated NYC newspaper headlines added another, albeit unintentional, layer to this work.
Other works from Searle's 'Colour Me' series featured prominently in this exhibition. A series of photographs along one wall showed vibrant, cropped images of the artist's head coated with ground spices such as cloves, turmeric, and paprika. Using spices that were central to the Dutch East Indian trade, Searle complicates ambiguous and offensive terms of racial classification such as "coloured."
Another related series of prints shown in this room titled 'Traces' (1999) included a trio of vertically paired photographs showing front and rear impressions of the artist, scales and mounds of spices deposited on the floor between each paired print. The installation evokes ideas about the weighing of evidence, records, and personal histories. The front print shows Searle almost entirely covered with a large amount of one particular spice. Letting your eyes travel down the print, along the mound of spices on the floor to the back print, the back print shows the same spice collected around a white impression of Searle's posterior. Searle's images hint at the absurdity of classification systems by including different amounts of spices on the scales that all weigh in with the same results.
Van Wyk and Brittan stated that as the only gallery in the United States dedicated to South African art, they are interested in showing artworks that challenge stereotypes of African art. Additionally, they are interested in showing art that bridges gaps in the African art world. The 'Still' exhibition supports this mission while showcasing a nice cross-section of the artist's work. One thing is for sure, Searle is an artist we will surely be hearing more about. During my visit to Axis, I was told that several museums had expressed an interest in hosting solo shows of Searle's work.
Laurie Farrell is associate curator at the Museum for African Art, NYC
September 11 - October 27 2001
Axis Gallery, 453 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011
Tel: 212 741 2582
Fax: 212 924 2522