This biography was written by SAHO in collaboration with Artthrob
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 aversion to being strictly categorized or placed into a specific box is apparent in the complex layers of Searle’s work; characterised by a desire to belong, yet not to be reduced to simply one thing or another. She is concerned with the complexities of identity and belonging in relation to language, race, colour, gender and the History of South Africa. Searle also produces work about land and rituals of the land, whether 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). Originally working as a sculptor, she produced a worked titled Illusions of Identity Notions of Nationhood for her Masters degree. In a conversation with Kathryn Smith in 2000, Searle suggested that this work “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 such as photography, video and film as a tool to capture her work with performative narratives and the self as a figure to embody history, land-memory and place. Besides dealing with South African History, awareness of her own skin and of those around her has been a recurring theme in her work, as seen in the 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 held 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 included in 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. Her use of the body in performances references a postmodern tradition that started with artists such as Ana Mendieta. Unlike Mendieta, who often creates traces of violent scenes, Searle, uses the memory of the land to become part of her body. Born in Cuba, but arriving in the United States as a refugee in 1961, Mendieta was displaced from her home and land whereas the nation that Searle has grown up with (South Africa), 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, hiding, emerging and covering, as well as the mountain, the ocean and the air convey a desire to stay in that her body gives the gesture and posture of rooting or connection to that place.
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.
Searle was recently the recipient of the Mbokodo Award in the Visual Arts category 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.
Searle’s work has been included in the group exhibition, ‘Senses of Time: Video and Film-based works of Africa’, which will travel into 2017 through various institutions in the United States including: Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, New York; Smithsonian National Museum of Art, Washington DC; and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.