Archive: Issue No. 51, November 2001

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Berni Searle

Berni Searle
Snow White
Still from video

Willem Boshoff

Willem Boshoff
Panifice (detail)

'Authentic/Ex-centric' - praise from the world press

Marcia E Vetrocq, "Biennale Babylon"
Art in America, September 2001

"'If you do not exhibit, you do not exist!' This is how curators Salah M Hassan and Olu Oguibe ruefully explain their determination to bring an exhibition of contemporary African and African Diaspora art to the Biennale. The cruel irony, of course, is that as more artists and presenters heed this imperative, they compete ever more fiercely for the time and attention of viewers. ...

"Of the national pavilions and collateral shows located outside the Biennale's two principal venues, Hassan and Oguibe's exhibition proves to be the most satisfying. Organized with Emma Bedford, 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Conteptualism in Contemporary African Art' takes up the project of decentralizing conceptualism from the 1999 exhibition 'Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin' (see A.i.A. July '99). Effectively installed in the 17th-century palazzo of the Fondazione Levi near the Accademia Bridge, the show presents six artists who work with video, installation and photo-derived imagery, and who train a critical eye on the markers of African identity both on that continent and in the West. Unlike 'Plateau of Humanity', there's not a polychrome figure in the house, unless you count the astronaut family in Yinka Shonibare's Vacation (2000). They wear brightly patterned space suits that mimic the wax-printed "African" cotton - actually manufactured in Dutch Indonesia - popular in 19th century Europe. Shonibare, a London-based artist raised in Nigeria and the UK, received a special mention from the Biennale jury. ...

"The babel of languages that fragments the world's population is taken up by the South African artist and lexicographer Willem Boshoff in Panifice (2001). Dozens of black and gray granite "bread-boards" bearing stone loaves are inscribed with the same Biblical passage. The bread promises nourishment and communion for all, but each inscription is rendered in a different language and comes with statistics on the number of people who speak it.

"Bread-making as a complex sign of both domesticity and abjection is one of the paradoxes evoked in Berni Searle's video performance, Snow White (2001). A South African of mixed descent who was categorized as "coloured" under apartheid, Searle is alternately dusted with flour and showered with water. Nude and kneeling, she becomes a streaked and mottled figure of indeterminate color who prepares balls of dough for flat-bread and then destroys them with what seems a volatile mixture of resignation and simmering resentment. ..."

Barbara Pollack, "The new look of feminism"
ArtNews, September 2001

"... Berni Searle from South Africa finds her identity as a black woman inescapable. "I use my own body, so it is inextricably tied to issues of gender, but it is also connected to race and class," says Searle, who acknowledges the influence on her work of American artists such as Lorna Simpson and Pat Ward Williams. ... In the video Snow White, the artist sits under a drizzle of flour until she is entirely covered, then scoops up the white powder and kneads it into a loaf of bread, a performance that can be read either as a meditation on the subjugation of women or as an ironic comment on the current politics of reconciliation in South Africa, which asks its citizens to blithely build a future out of the ashes of apartheid. ... Searle, who continues to live and work in Cape Town, is acutely aware that audiences in Europe and the United States may find her image exotic. 'Using my body is a tricky thing to do because it can reinforce stereotypes,' she says, explaining that to ward off simple voyeurism she intentionally inserts an element of confrontation into her self-portraits.

"'Searle is dealing with issues relating to women, race, color, language and specific questions about South Africa's recent history,' says Oguibe, a Nigerian-born curator and artist living in New York. He points out that while Searle's work is aesthetically beautiful, it is also an entry into the complex history of Africa and other regions. For example, he explains, being 'whited-out', as enacted in Snow White, refers to the official policy of 'erasing' indigenous populations in countries such as Australia and Tasmania. The use of nudity, which Western viewers tend to associate with pornography, actually goes back to the anticolonialist demonstrations in Eastern Nigeria in 1929, in which crowds of naked women took to the streets in protest, thereby bringing down the British poll tax. ..."

Daniel Birnbaum, "More is less"
Artforum, September 2001

"... there were ... some ambitious sideshows this year, such as 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa' in the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, which featured work by sven artists, including a fascinating installation by Yinka Shonibare. His Vacation, 2000, a family of astronauts (clad in space suits made from African wax-printed cotton textile) out for a leisurely extraterrestrial stroll, smartly conflates various forms of otherness in a waty that leaves everybody confused. ..."

Lynn Macritchie, "Out of Africa into the limelight"
Financial Times, June 22 2001

"Some of the most interesting exhibitions at the Venice Biennale are often not in the national pavilions of the Giardini or the ancillary spaces around the Arsenale nearby, but in the assorted palazzi, churches and buildings throughout the city pressed into service to accommodate the ever-growing diaspora of Biennale-related exhibitions and events.

"This year, the Palazzo Fondazione Levi in San Marco houses 'Authentic/Ex-centric', a group show of seven artists from Africa. ... The black South African artist Berni Searle in her video installation, Snow White, makes a simple point clearly and well. As she kneels naked on the ground, her black skin appears to turn white as it is dusted by white flour poured over her head. It gleams black again as a stream of water follows the flour, washing it from her skin. Scooping the fallen flour and water into her hands, she kneads them into dough to make flat bread, a process she learned from her mother.

"Also using the metaphor of bread is white South African artist Willem Boshoff in his installation, Panifice. In the inner courtyard of the Conservatorio di Musica near the palazzo, Boshoff has laid out on the ground a circle of 'loaves' made of granite, each on its own granite 'breadboard'. Each breadboard is inscribed in a different language, African or European, with the Biblical quotation 'What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will give him a stone?' Reading these ever-varying words with the sounds of the voices and instruments of the music students at their practice floating down between the dark, crenellated walls of this usually inaccessible space is one of this Biennale's more delicious moments."

Kim Levin, "Panic Attack: Navigating the Venice Biennale's Sprawling Interzone", Village Voice, June 25 2001
Full review:
"The demographics of the biennale ... are as myopic as ever, perpetuating stereotypes on all sides. Latin American artists are a long boat ride away, replicating their geographical distance. The few works from Africa are folksy or folkloric. 'Authentic Ex-centric', one of the best satellite exhibitions, provides an antidote with installations by nine artists of African ancestry, including Berni Searle, Yinka Shonibare, Godfried Donkor, and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons."

Coco Fusco, "When in Rome (or Venice)"
The Thing -, June 26 2001

"... the parallel exhibition 'Authentic Ex-centric' showcasing by African and African diaspora artists was a remarkable first step toward establishing a permanent and serious presence for African art in Venice."

Christine Temin, Boston Globe, July 1 2001
"My favorite works outside the Arsenale and Giardini were two installations from the show 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa In and Out of Africa': Willem Boshoff's commentary on which of the world's languages are propped up by officialdom and which are slated for extinction; and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's Spoken Softly With Mama."