Berni Searle

Kathryn Smith, 'Conversing with pain: Berni Searle's darker shades of light'

Published in FNB Vita Art Prize 2000, Sandton Civic Gallery, 2000 (exhibition catalogue)

For Johannesburg audiences, the name 'Berni Searle' is not as familiar as it should be. This may be true for audiences across the country as well, with the possible exception of Cape Town, Searle's mother city. But international culturemongers have been following her burgeoning career with an eagle eye. Most recently, Searle was selected to participate in DAK'ART 2000 and was subsequently handed the Minister of Culture Award. Prior to this, she was presented with a UNESCO prize by the International Art Critics Association at the 7th International Cairo Biennale in 1998, short listed for the first Daimler Chrysler Award, and participated in residencies at London's Gasworks and INOVA (University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin), and group exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland and South Africa, confirming her status as one of South Africa's newest and most celebrated exports.

It's unfortunate but inevitable that many of our most celebrated local artists are really only taken seriously abroad, where support structures exist to ensure a validation of arts and culture. And likewise, the debates surrounding these works at times eclipsing the works themselves often take place on foreign soil.1

Searle's project is an ambitious and strategic one, one that tackles difficult issues in ways which may, at first view, seem rife with internal paradoxes. Confronting, challenging and, to an extent, even celebrating issues of lost histories, mutable identities and parochial assumptions in the face of her 'classified coloured' identity, Searle is a black woman who redefines the cliche, "if looks could kill".

Without wanting to sound trite, it is literally her gaze which forces us to murder all our assumptions and expectations of her, and redefine ourselves in relation to her representation and the multitude of displaced cultural references she calls on. Her image, eyes open, is always confrontational, even when she is prostrate.

The work produced for her Masters degree, dubbed Illusions of Identity Notions of Nationhood, 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. But these object based sculptures "this was the sculpture and you walked around it and that was it"2 - executed in concrete, bronze and other mixed media seemed too rooted in a phallic configuring of power relationships in which she could locate little of her own lived experiences. It didn't seem conducive to the seldom heard voices of a "culture which affirms the impossibility of hard, separating edges in South African society."3

Colour Me, the series of work begun in 1997 (which gave rise to her eponymously titled and only solo exhibition thus far4), and the Discoloured series (1999) are ongoing projects that are as much about the permanence of documentation, recording, archiving and intervening into historical stereotyping, as they are about ephemera and experimentation. Searle creates visually arresting and assertive installations which co opt digital media, found elements and a sculptural consideration of space in a variety of permutations that, as Tracy Murinik has noted, "deny their own classification by pre empting it."5

Interested in exploring present day responses to the idea of being of 'mixed' heritage, but also vehemently resisting victimisation, Searle's choice of palette in Colour Me alludes to the most base racial stereotyping: red (paprika), yellow (turmeric), brown (ground cloves) and white (pea flour). Covering her naked body with spices and flour and presenting herself for our observation, the hues are at once seductive and deadly, carrying with their opacity an implicit threat of suffocation and burial.

Her use of spice was first incorporated in her installation on Kellie Jones' Life's Little Necessities, installed in the Castle in Cape Town for the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. Spice was further explored at a workshop on Robben Island for the exhibition Isintu, co-curated by Tumelo Mosaka and Zayd Minty. The use of spice as metaphor would be easy to pin down to colonial trade route economies and a history of slavery, but in truth, Searle feels only a tenuous link to such a heritage, and then only through food. She at once acknowledges these stereotypical connections, but also attempts to rid herself of this associative history.

In Traces, images of Searle's spice covered body face images of spice traced outlines of her form, once she has exited the photographic frame. The work now begins to speak explicitly of the representational 'absence' of 'othered' bodies in the history, politics and visual culture of apartheid South Africa and beyond. The images are reproduced digitally, and printed onto tracing paper, allowing for a layering of absence and presence which in turn is joined by a carpet of spices on the floor between the three meter high hanging prints.

These carefully sifted spices form a bridging mechanism to try and negotiate the space between this perceived 'presence' and 'absence', an abstract, in-between space where notions of difference and desire could be said to be located.

In Traces Searle attempts to quantify this space empirically by weighing the spices on scales. Ribboned prints depicting Searle's body as alternatively and individually present and absent. A scale below each image measures varying quantities of spices in a bowl. Where Searle's body is present, the amount of spice is level with the container. Where her body is absent, the spices removed from her body form a larger quantity in the scale, but in both instances, the dial remains centrally placed, refusing to submit to her demands. The standard measuring system cannot offer an answer.

Searle then tries to turn this computing eye on herself in more direct ways. Not Quite White depicts the artist's prone body composed of image fragments and covered in pea flour which, unlike the pristine whiteness of cake flour, is slightly off white. Two measuring tapes frame her body horizontally, top and bottom. Whether her method is weighing, measuring, or lining herself up next to colour test charts, we can't lay claim to Searle uncritically embracing the 'exotic other', or languishing in a self styled subject position that, through its own representation, somehow renders it immune to criticism. As she says, "I am trying to work out what the consequences are of a particular loss, whatever that loss might be."6

The binary of 'presence/absence' finds a parallel in the literal 'opaque/transparent' contrast between Colour Me and Discoloured, where in the latter series, Searle begins to explore internal and external identities by staining (bruising) selected areas of her body with black henna. Her subversive reaction in darkening her skin attempts to destabilise the binaries of light/good and dark/bad.7 The body sites are selected for their sensitivity, and following in a particular order the palms of the hands, the small of the back, the nape of the neck, under the belly and the soles of the feet begin to 'map' the body as a series of progressive zones of experience. It is interesting to note that the least exposed (and therefore less hardy) parts of her body hardly picked up the pigment at all. In addition to the stain, panes of glass press against her body, distorting the already fragmented parts and enriching metaphors of 'transparency' being rendered opaque and the semiotics of pane/pain.

"One of the things I've tried to do consistently is to challenge what is 'expected' of me and I think, as an African artist, there is this perception that all you can do is use recycled materials or whatever."8 Berni Searle refuses to submit to such pigeon holing, and embraces high end digital and lens based media in order to present herself the way she wants to. Digital reproduction allows her to distort and alter her image at will, extending the possibilities of change and flux that form an intrinsic aspect of her installation based works.

The process emerges as key. Photographs are primary tools in categorising people and places, documenting history and recording evidence. While the layered, digital prints on tracing paper compress and extend space and time, A Darker Shade of Light (from the Discoloured series) is made up of Polaroid transfers scanned and reproduced onto translucent film, which are then boxed and back lit. This presentation, reminiscent of a medical examination, invokes an intense self criticality and awareness when it comes to the dialogue of form and content.

But while her work is performative, Searle is reluctant to embrace performance as a direct mode, simply because it allows for less control in terms of the viewer's position in relation to her body: "I think there's a kind of assumption that because I'm working with my body that it's everyone's property and that I am entirely comfortable with it. But I have a particular relationship to this work that is also negotiated. I am still self conscious about my body regardless of whether everybody has seen it." She is also interested in the creative space between performing the act and presenting it, which her digital mode allows her to do.

While Searle is very aware that a critic's interpretation of the work often reveals more about the critic than the work itself, she has come to accept this in the same way that she has to relinquish control of the interpretation of her work by the public once it is on exhibition. Working through the particular histories of disenfranchised subjectivities, and what has been left in the wake of that history, allows her to explore what has been lost, whether it be through incorporating sound elements of 'forgotten' Khoisan dialects in Julle Moet Nou Trek for Lien Botha's Bloedlyn exhibition, or trying to figure her own position in relation to an oppressive past.

"In the South African context particularly, my work does have a significance in terms of imaging myself, because that is a process by which I am claiming something. And it's not as if I want to project that the only people who can use black bodies are black people. But if you look at it in the larger scheme of things, that there is this absence, that there is this glaring gap, then it is a problem. And I see the work as somehow contributing to that debate, not without it being contentious I'm sure. You have to take responsibility for what it is you do, and if, in the process of being criticised, you are forced to think about your intentions and what kind of impact that has in a particular context, then that is not a bad thing."

1. This paraphrases Kendell Geers in an article entitled "Dangers inherent in foreign curating", Star Tonight (19 March, 1997)
2.Interview with the artist (May 18, 2000)
3. Martin, M. "The now South Africa facing truth and transformation" in Hope, M. (ed ), Contemporary Art from South Africa
exhibition catalogue, Oslo: Riksuistillinger, Oslo, Norway (1997) p. 8
4. Colour Me, Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet, Cape Town, South Africa (April 7 - May 1, 1999)
5. Murinik, T. Towards Transit: New Visual languages in South Africa, exhibition catalogue, De Blaue Saal, Zurich, Switzerland (28 August 25 September 1999. n.p
6. Interview with the artist (May 18, 2000)
7. Bedford, E. Staking Claims, exhibition catalogue, South African National Gallery/Cape Town One City Festival, South Africa (1999). 8. Interview with the artist (May 18, 2000).