Berni Searle’s art is an engagement with the unexplored obvious, memory, history and the rituals of the ordinary - all anchored in lingering ethical questions. Picture: VANESSA COWLING
Berni Searle’s art is an engagement with the unexplored obvious, memory, history and the rituals of the ordinary - all anchored in lingering ethical questions. Picture: VANESSA COWLING

Berni Searle, artist and director of the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Art, is on an unusual mission to Japan. The trip follows a wide-ranging career overview at the recent National Arts Festival in Makhanda which spotlit her remarkable art engagement with the personal as dramatic dynamic of morality.

While the purpose of the Japanese visit, undertaken with other UCT academics, is clothed in scholastic motivation, her involvement as artist is not unusual.

She says that the exchange project — with representatives of the universities of Kobe, Tokyo and Nagasaki — which will consider the theme “Human resilience in the face of man-made and natural disasters in Japan and South Africa” will include a visual component of some kind at its conclusion.

“The group is travelling to Kobe, where the great Hanshin earthquake took place in 1995 and Kesennuma, which is of interest to the project in its efforts to recover from the devastating 2011 tsunami.”

The key words “human reliance” and “disaster” are easy links to Searle’s oeuvre over a highly successful career as a foremost video artist. In Makhanda, where a number of key works could be viewed, Searle’s consistent focus on social and historical issues within the personal, confirmed that status.     

Significantly, Searle was a Standard Bank Young Artist with a comprehensive exhibition at the festival in 2003, when that award played an important role in focusing artists’ careers in public perception.

A video still of Berni Searle’s performance in ‘Snow White’. Picture: SUPPLIED
A video still of Berni Searle’s performance in ‘Snow White’. Picture: SUPPLIED

This year the Monument’s Gallery in the Round hosted a new video work, A Place in the Sun, commissioned by the festival. And in front of the monument the established flag poles fluttered brightly in another of her projects as addendum to her well-known Spirit of ’76 video.

To say she had an eye-catching presence is an understatement.

As in much of her previous work, the new art is an engagement with the unexplored obvious, land, memory, history and the rituals of the ordinary, anchored in lingering ethical questions. Hers is a finely-crafted sense of the theatrical of place and personality.

A Place in the Sun is a four-channel video installation, taking as point of departure an abandoned public swimming pool in Maitland near her Cape Town studio in which the scars of its disuse triggers contemplation of what it was and is, and how the future of run-down urbanscapes can be meaningfully imagined.

She says she will adapt this for future exhibitions.

The way in which memory is held in the commonplace, the ordinary, and where and how identity is embedded, have from the start powered her sense of the aesthetic.

As student at the Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town in the late-1980s, her interest was sculpture (at the time a strong subject at the school). For her Master of Fine Art some years later, she encased various objects in resin, offering these “things” as simple sculptural memes of identity under the title Illusions of Identity Notions of Nationhood.

Placing my body in the work, exposes other aspects of my identity, such as gender.
Berni Searle

As her career unfolded, she turned to digital media and performative art — placing herself central, bringing her own body, her skin, literally into the picture. The presence of the unconcealed personal has unyielding persuasive power, and she plays it brilliantly in her art.

A stand-out work at the time was the Colour Me series of 1998 which brought race, identity and unusual “ingredients” into play: red (paprika), yellow (turmeric), brown (cloves), white (pea flour) — the colours and flavours that signal Cape culinary heritage. With these she covered her naked body for intimate portraits.

At the time she explained that the work was a play on the racial classification “coloured” under apartheid legislation. “I chose to cover myself with various colours in an attempt to resist definition of identity which is static, or can be placed into categories. Placing my body in the work exposes other aspects of my identity, such as gender.”

These tropes define her career in numerous variations, with some exceptional video statements.

In 2001 at the 49th Venice Biennale, crowds were transfixed by a dramatic and beautiful conceptual piece.

At once rooted in southern Africa, issues of gender, race and history were reaching out to the international audience through an installation in a gorgeous 17th century palazzo. Snow White formed part of a group show, Authentic/
Ex-centric: Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art — the artwork was riveting.

The two screens of the work were projected as a diptych and had a stitch-in-time discord which enhanced the edginess and theatricality of the ritual performance on view. The performer, enveloped in darkness, is seen from the front and vertically from above as a white veil of fine flour sifts from above on to the dark nude female body. After a shower of water rinses the white, the figure starts to move and mixes the flour into dough.

The performer was the artist.

It was Searle’s first video artwork in a medium that she would own in an extraordinary conceptual manner and one that informs the particular dramatic dynamic of her individual art. It brought her worldwide acknowledgment. And has influenced several other artists who staked their own claims in the medium.

Snow White, projected at the Rhodes School of Fine Art, offered students the chance to interact with this seminal work. “After all the years, it was great to see this reaction,” says Searle.

The videos were shown in diverse public spaces, particularly apt as the artist has always pitched presentation of her video works in places beyond the neutrality of the typical gallery space.

Berni Searle's 'Interlaced' was filmed in Bruges, Belgium. Picture: SUPPLIED
Berni Searle's 'Interlaced' was filmed in Bruges, Belgium. Picture: SUPPLIED

Searle, who turned 55 on the last day of the National Arts Festival, has made many video pieces, often accompanied by exquisite prints. These chart a distinctive career which has mined the very personal, but doesn’t tap the limelight for ego. She remains the anonymous performer in many, and yet the often immensely striking visual message carries all the power of the personal.

Interlaced, for example, dating from 2011, filmed in Bruges, Belgium, will exude all the ambience of its mystery shown in the Cathedral of St Michael and St George. The work was originally commissioned for a retrospective by the Cultuurcentrum Brugge and two other European museums.

Like much of her other recorded moving imagery, this video installation’s timing is perfectly pitched to the viewer’s presence. (Audience attention span is a test of the medium.) In this instance the actual bells of the cathedral will contribute vividly to the ritual of the dramatic projection.

Notions of, and meditations on place, history, identity and meaning weave through these engaging works. Because of her anonymous performative presence, the visual narrative is charged with authenticity. At the same time her art is driven by a real eye-engaging, aesthetic elegance.

Searle has won many awards, is represented in great collections, holds a formidable quiet presence in local art, but it is in these fine projected artworks that her singular talent comes vividly alive.