Berni Searle: Still


Axis Gallery, NewYork
September 11th – October 27th 2001

“Still” is Berni Searle’s New York solo debut, featuring new and recent work. It coincides with Searle’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which overlapped with a major installation of her work at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Berni Searle’s award-winning photography, video, performances, and installations articulate within global artistic frameworks of postmodernity and postcoloniality. At the same time, her focuses on the body, identity, and gender are colored by her experience as a South African woman of color.

The anthropometric references in Searle’s work, for example, echo investigations of the body by many international artists, but Searle’s background turbocharges her references. In Apartheid South Africa, people of mixed race were termed “Coloured,” and classified into 7 subgroups according to their genetic makeup. Identity and racial classification were determined by invasive tests and measurements of physical features, from the curl of the hair to the color of the anus.

Now that Apartheid is over, questions of identity remain. Searle is currently researching her own family’s web of identity, linked to Europe, Mauritius, Saudia Arabia, and South Africa. The Cape was an entrepôt in the East Indies trade, an African node in the flow of spice and slaves from the “East” to Europe. In Searle’s Color Me and Discoloured series, the spices and Egyptian henna covering or staining her body connect her body to trade routes and destinations, and suggest bruising, wounding, burial, oppression, and suffocation.

Simultaneously, Searle’s naked body writ large positions her practice against the traditions of art history: all those female nudes created by and for men, their flesh bared to titillate. In another register, the works affirm aesthetic experience, achieving haunting beauty while inviting us to think. Wittgenstein’s statement that “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same” also resonates within Berni Searle’s work.