For Women’s Month, ArtThrob is collaborating with South African History Online (SAHO) in an effort to highlight women artists who were active in the resistance as well as those currently pushing notions of visual culture for the new South Africa. These women have throughout the years continued to challenge themselves and their position in the field of visual arts as well as in society. They represent some of the best contemporary art in the world and are from South Africa. Read them here.
When Berni Searle was asked by the Brooklyn Museum of Art what her ‘Feminist Artist Statement’ was, she replied, “I don’t have a ‘feminist artist statement’ as such. Being a woman is only one aspect of who I am.”
This statement and wanting to not to be strictly categorized or placed into a specific box is apparent in Searle’s work, the desire to belong, yet not to be reduced to simply, this or that, there are more layers within the complexity of the work. She is concerned with identity, but the complexities within that and that of belonging, through language, race, colour, gender and the History of South Africa. Searle also has a relationship with the land and rituals of the land, that is not always in reference to the land as a she or she within the place, whether is be stomping on mountains of grape skins (Night Fall, 2006), or walking through volcanic ash and soil (Seeking Refuge, 2008).
In ArtThrob’s 2000 Modus Operandi, it states:
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 which ensued.
Berni Searle was born in 1964 in Cape Town. She 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). She originally worked as a sculptor, and for her Masters degree produced a worked titled Illusions of Identity Notions of Nationhood, which according to a conversation with the artist and Kathryn Smith in 2000, “dealt with issues around nationalisms and nationhood in the face of a rapidly transforming culture. It laid the foundations for her explorations into an ‘unfixed’ conception of ‘identity’, and the creation of ambiguous spaces in which to consider these issues.”
Later Searle made the move to utilise large scale digital photographic prints and found materials to make installations. She uses time based media, like photography, video and film as a tool to capture her working with performative narratives and the self as the figure to embody history, land-memory and place. South African History is one aspect, awareness of her own colour and of those around her, as she worked on a series of works Colour Me series which was made in 1998. Her work was included in the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, the 1998 Cairo Biennale, and the 2001 and 2005 Venice Biennales. Searle received a UNESCO award in 1998, the Minister of Culture prize at the Dak’art 2000 Biennale, and was nominated for the FNB VITA Art Award 2000 as well as the Daimler-Chrysler Award for South African Contemporary Art in 2000. In 2001, she was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. She was the Standard Bank Young Artist in 2003 and shortlisted for the first Artes Mundi award in 2004.
Searle had four solo exhibitions at the Stevenson Gallery between 2004 and 2008. From 2006 – 2007 her solo exhibition Approach travelled to Krannert Museum, Champaign, Illinois, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, SA and the USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, Florida, USA.
In 2014 Searle was a part of two major exhibitions in the USA, Earth Matters at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, and Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa at the Yerba Buena Center with the Arts in conjunction with SFMOMA in San Francisco.
Her work embodies not only her physical self but the physicality of the landscape and the memory that it holds. Using the body and with performances is a post modern tradition that started with artists like, Cuban born, Ana Mendieta. Unlike Mendieta who creates often traces of violent scenes, Searle, uses the memory of the land to become part of her body. Mendieta the woman is displaced from her home and land where as the Nation that Searle has grown up with, has made her feel displaced within it and without actually leaving it. Berni Searle does not take the viewer to a monument or a place that one can completely recognize. The specificity of the location is often too surreal to be pinpointed. The landscapes show no traces of human life except for her presence. The colour, the coating, the hiding, emerging and covering, as well as the mountain, the ocean and the air show the desire to stay in that her body gives the gesture and posture of that which could be interpreted as a rooting or connecting to that place.
Berni Searle was the recipient of the Mbokodo Award in the Visual Arts category winner in 2015. The award is a National South African competition, celebrating women in the arts. Also in 2015, Searle was a participating artist in Between Democracies 1989-2014: Commemoration and Memory at Constitution Hill, in Johannesburg and The film will always be you at the Tate Modern in London, UK.
The exhibition, Senses of Time: Video and Film-based works of Africa will travel to: Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, NY, 10 September – 11 December 2016, Smithsonian National Museum of Art. Washington DC. 25 May 2016- 2017 and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (LACMA). 20 December 2015- January 2017.
Berni Searle lives and works in Cape Town and is currently Associate Professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town.