A monthly feature on an artist currently in the public eye
Bernie Searle in front of one of her artworks
Lifeline 1999 (detail)
Traces (details) 1999
Searle works with flour and an assistant in preparation for being photographed for Off-white: back to back.
Off-White: Back to Back 1999
Photograph for video proposal 2000
by Sue Williamson (May, 2000)
Trained as a sculptor, Cape Town artist Berni Searle 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 which ensued.
"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."
Berni Searle is one of a small group of South African artists who will be participating in Dak/Art 2000 this month (see News). Although in her recent work, she has moved on from using the spices in the Colour Me series which first grabbed international attention, the curators asked her to develop a new piece on that theme. Her piece will consist of six open 'cubicles', the three sides of which will be formed by three-metre high prints. The floor of the cubicle will be covered with spices, so viewers can look into the cubicles but not enter. The piece will be entitled Red, Yellow, Brown: face to face.
Searle's work is also to be seen in New York at present on a show curated by Salah Hassan at the Apex Gallery. Entitled 'Insertion', the exhibition runs until May 20
In February and March this year, Searle spent two months in residence at the Gasworks, in London. Away from the support system of digital processing Searle had set up in Cape Town, and faced with high London prices on a tiny budget, it was not altogether an easy period for the artist to make work. Across the Atlantic, Searle's 10 week solo exhibition at the Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin finished in February.
And before that:
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 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' to be held at the SANG. 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 realizing 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.
Searle is one of the finalists for the FNB Vita 2000 Award, and will make new work involving video for the exhibition opening in July, 2000 at the Sandton Civic Gallery in Johannesburg.
And after that:
Next January, Searle will attend the Western Australian International Artists Workshop in Walpole.