Archive: Issue No. 65, January 2003

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Berni Searle

Berni Searle
Traces, 2000
Architectural tracing paper, spices
from the 'Discoloured' Series´┐Ż

Berni Searle

Berni Searle

Berni Searle

Berni Searle
Snow White, 2001
Two projector video installation, 9'

Berni Searle

Berni Searle
Returning the Gaze, September 2000
billboard for Cape Town's One City Festival

Berni Searle

Berni Searle
Stain (detail) 1999-2000

Berni Searle
by Sue Williamson (2000), updated by Sean O'Toole (2003)

Berni Searle has become one of the most visible of South African artists, increasingly peripatetic, undertaking art projects and participating in exhibitions across the globe. Trained as a sculptor, the Cape Town artist now utilises large-scale digital photographic prints and combines them with found materials to make her compelling installations.

Using her own body as subject and point of departure, Searle experiments with the surface of her skin, allowing it to be clad in layers of coloured and aromatic spices, leaving her bodily imprint on drifts of spices on the floor, or staining certain areas of her body with various substances, suggesting trauma, or damage.

The spices are in part a reference to the spice trade, which brought white colonists to the Cape of Good Hope in the 17th century, and in interbreeding with the local inhabitants and slaves brought from other parts of Africa, produced children of mixed race, or 'Coloured'. Searle's work confronts head-on this history and the obsession with racial classification that ensued.


"'Searle is dealing with issues relating to women, race, colour, 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."
Barbara Pollack, "The new look of feminism", ArtNews, September 2001

"Using spices that were central to the Dutch East Indian trade, Searle complicates ambiguous and offensive terms of racial classification such as 'coloured.' "
Laurie Farrell, 'Still' - Berni Searle at Axis Gallery, New York

"If you had to classify Berni Searle, you'd probably call her a performance artist, except that she 'performs' for a camera, then presents the piece as a series of still photographs, converting an ephemeral, kinetic art form into a permanent, static document." Lennie Bennett, "The Ironic Eye", St. Petersburg Times, November 10, 2002 describing 'Still'


"Without providing any definite answers, I think my work raises questions about attitudes towards race and gender. I think it operates on different levels and reflects different racial and political experiences - but I don't think my pieces are limited by that. I hope they transcend and go beyond that, and provide a space for illusion and fantasy. They reflect a desire to present myself in various ways to counter the image that has been imposed on me. Race is inevitable in South Africa.

"The self is explored as an ongoing process of construction in time and place. The presence and absence of the body in the work points to the idea that one's identity is not static, and constantly in a state of flux."


Late in 2002, the artist was adjudged winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, in the visual arts category. One of the most longstanding art prizes in South Africa, it is explicitly recognises her heretofore tacit status as one of South Africa's most important artists successfully exhibiting abroad.

As Standard Bank Young Artist, Searle will be the featured artist on a solo show in the Monument Theatre Gallery on the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a show which will tour other centres in the South Africa throughout 2003.

Commenting on the award the artist stated: "I have been out of the country so much in recent years, that I really welcome the opportunity to show my work here."


Berni Searle recently participated on 'The Field's Edge', a multimedia group exhibition that explored the relationship between contemporary art and colonial ethnography, most notably the legacy of colonial ethnography on readings of contemporary art from Africa and the Diaspora. Curators Rory Bester and Amanda Carlson selected a digital print of Still (2000) to form part of their visual exploration of the contested relationship between art and ethnography.

2001 marked a pivotal moment in Berni Searle's international career. 'Still', her New York solo debut at the Axis Gallery in Chelsea, coincided with her appearance on the 49th Venice Biennale show 'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa', curated by Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe. These two shows overlapped with a major installation of her work on 'Encounters with the Contemporary', a show curated by Elizabeth Harney at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Her New York show, particularly, was favourably received and won her many critical accolades.

Much of the groundwork critical to this success was however done in the year preceding, 2000. Highlights of the many shows and projects Searle participated on during 2000 include: her highly visible billboard poster 'Returning the Gaze' for Cape Town's One City Festival; 'Kwere Kwere: Journeys into Strangeness', Rory Bester's travelling exhibition; Salah Hassan's 'Insertion' at the Apex Gallery in New York; a two-month residency at the south London Gaswork's studio; DAK'ART 2000 in Dakar, Senegal; and 'Distinguished Identities: Contemporary African Portraiture', a show curated by Barbara Frank at the Staller Centre for the Arts, at Stoney Brook, New York.

As a list of achievements it is impressive, it is also deceptive. Berni Searle has continually adapted and refined her work. For her DAK'ART 2000 appearance, the curators asked her to develop a new piece on that theme established in her 'Colour Me' series. The DAK'ART 2000 piece eventually consisted six open 'cubicles', the three sides of which were formed by three-metre high prints. The floor of the cubicle was covered with spices, thereby enabling viewers to look into the cubicles but not enter. The piece was entitled Red, Yellow, Brown: face to face.


The transition in Searle's focus from the work made as a masters student (Searle received her M.F.A. in 1995) - resin sculptures encasing found objects - started with her piece for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale show in 1997, Life's Little Necessities, staged at the Cape Town Castle, when Searle introduced the pentagram shape of the Castle laid out in spices as part of her installation.

A second turning point was a two week workshop on Robben Island in 1998, preparatory to a show called 'Isintu: Ceremony, Identity and Community', curated by Tumelo Mosaka at the South African National Gallery. All the artists for the show were black, and the workshop, says Searle, led to her confronting the issue of blackness for the first time, and realising that up to now her work had not really engaged with her own sense of self. Later that year, Searle was to win the UNESCO, in conjunction with the International Arts Critics Association, award for the work Red, Yellow, Brown from the 'Colour Me' series at the 7th International Cairo Biennale.


Following the positive critical reception of 'Still' in 2001 at the Axis Gallery, the artist has been invited to participate on the Matrix Contemporary Art Program at the University of California. A solo museum show will open in February 2003.

Born on July 7, 1964, in Cape Town, Berni Searle received her Master of Art in Fine Art (MFA) from the University of Cape Town (1992-95). She was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art (BAFA) from the same institution (1984-7).

Solo Exhibitions:

'Still', September 2001, Axis Gallery, New York.
'Colour Matters', June 2001, Kunsthalle Stadgallerie, Osnabrück, Germany.
'Colour Me', April 7 - 30, 1999, Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet, Cape Town.

Select Group Exhibitions (1999 - 2002):

'The Field's Edge: Africa, Diaspora, Lens', USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, Florida, October 19 - December 21, 2002.
'Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa', 49th Venice Biennale, curated by Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe, Venice, Italy, June 6 - November 4, 2001.
'Encounters with the Contemporary', Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, curated by Elizabeth Harney, Washington D.C. U.S.A. , January 7, 2001 - January 6, 2002.
'Juncture', The Granary, Cape Town, 7 February 2001, and London, 15 April - 15 May, 2001.
'A.r.e.a. 2000', Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland, 17 November, 2000 - 7 January, 2001.
'L'Afrique a Jour', Lille, France, 29 September - 20 October, 2000.
'Returning the Gaze', billboard for Cape Town's One City Festival September, 2000.
'L'art dans le Monde', Paris, France, 8 September - 8 November, 2000.
'FNB Vita 2000', Sandton Civic Gallery ll, Johannesburg, South Africa, 18 July - 2 September, 2000.
'Artworks for Aids', auction for commissioned work, Durban, Washington DC, Brussels, Boston, 30 November, 2000.
'DAK'ART 2000', Dakar, Senegal, 5 May- 5 June, 2000.
'Insertion', Apex Gallery, New York, U.S.A., curated by Salah Hassan, 18 April - 20 May, 2000.
'Kwere Kwere: Journeys into Strangeness', The Castle, Gertrude Posel Gallery, NSA, travelling exhibition curated by Rory Bester, 2000.
'Distinguished Identities: Contemporary African Portraiture', Staller Centre for the Arts, SUNY at Stoney Brook, New York, U.S.A., curated by Barbara Frank, 5 February - 4 March, 2000.
Open Studio. Work produced in two-month residency at Gasworks, London, U.K., February - March, 2000.
'Afrika Portrat', House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany, 13 January - 31 March, 2000.
Solo exhibition of work produced during residency at Inova (Institute of the Visual Arts).

Workshops/ Residencies:

Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship for artist residency Umbria, Italy, August 13 - September 17, 2001.
FRESH, a month long residency at the South African National Gallery, July, 2000.
Invitation to attend the Western Australian International Artists Workshop. Walpole, Australia, January - February, 2001.

Select References:

Annie E. Coombes, 'Skin Deep/Bodies of Evidence: The Work of Bernie Searle' in: Authentic/Ex-Centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art (Hassan, S. and Oguibe, O. (eds.), 2001).
Barbara Pollack, 'The Newest Avant-Garde'. ARTnews, April, 2001.
Tracy Murinik. 'Berni Searle'. NKA Journal of Contemporary Art, Spring/Summer. 2001.
Sue Williamson, 'Staking Claims: Confronting Cape Town'. NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, Fall/ Winter 2000.
Tracy Murinik. 'State of the Art'. Leadership. May 2000


Billiton Collection (2001), Hans Bogatzke Collection, Germany (2001); Buhl Foundation, New York, USA (2001); South African National Gallery, Cape Town (2000); Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, USA (2000); NORAD, Oslo, Norway (1999).


Civitella Ranieri Fellow (2001/2002); FNB Vita Award Finalist (July 2000); DAK'ART 2000 Minister of Culture Prize (May 2000); Nominated for Daimler - Chrysler Award for South African Contemporary Art (2000); British Council Grant for two-month residency at Gasworks (February 2000).


Alan Alborough
(July 2000)
Jane Alexander
(July 1999)
Siemon Allen
(June 2001)
Willie Bester
(Aug 1999)
Willem Boshoff
(Aug 2001)
Conrad Botes
(Dec 2001)
Andries Botha
(April 2000)
Kevin Brand
(June 1998)
Candice Breitz
(Oct 1998)
Lisa Brice
(Jan 1999)
Pitso Chinzima
(Oct 2001)
Marco Cianfanelli
(Aug 2002)
Steven Cohen
(May 1998)
Leora Farber
(May 2002)
Bronwen Findlay
(April 2002)
Kendell Geers
(June 2002)
Linda Givon
(Dec 1999)
David Goldblatt
(Dec 2002)
Thembinkosi Goniwe
(Oct 2002)
Brad Hammond
(Jan 2001)
Randolph Hartzenberg
(Aug 1998)
Kay Hassan
(Oct 2000)
Stephen Hobbs
(Dec 1998)
Robert Hodgins
(June 2000)
William Kentridge
(May 1999)
Isaac Khanyile
(Nov 2001)
Dorothee Kreutzfeld
(Jan 2000)
Terry Kurgan
(Aug 2000)
Moshekwa Langa
(Feb 1999)
Mandla Mabila
(Sept 2001)
Veronique Malherbe
(June 1999)
Mustafa Maluka
(July 1998)
Senzeni Marasela
(Feb 2000)
Santu Mofokeng
(July 2002)
Zwelethu Mthethwa
(April 1999)
Thomas Mulcaire
(April 2001)
Brett Murray
(Sept 1998)
Hylton Nel
(Feb 2002)
Karel Nel
(Oct 1999)
Walter Oltmann
(July 2001)
Malcolm Payne
(Nov 2002)
Tracy Payne
(Mar 1998)
Peet Pienaar
(Dec 2000)
Jo Ractliffe
(Mar 1999)
Robin Rhode
(Nov 1999)
Tracey Rose
(Mar 2001)
Claudette Schreuders
(Sept 2000)
Berni Searle
(May 2000)
Usha Seejarim
(May 2001)
Penny Siopis
(Sept 1999)
Dave Southwood
(Mar 2002)
Doreen Southwood
(Sept 2002)
Greg Streak
(Feb 2001)
Clive van den Berg
(Nov 1998)
Hentie van der Merwe
(Mar 2000)
Strijdom van der Merwe
(Jan 2002)
Minnette Vári
(Feb 1998)
Jeremy Wafer
(Nov 2000)