Searle, Berni


South African, b. 1964; lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa


Conceptual artist Berni Searle engages the body and the senses in the service of photographic, installation, and sculptural practices to comment on the racial, political, and phenomenological conditions of humanity in her country, South Africa. With a bachelor's degree in fine art and postgraduate and master's degrees in education and sculpture, Searle uses her own body as a highly studied site of symbolic gesture and as a point of departure to speak to larger questions about nation and ethnicity. Often invoking the indices of violation—staining and bruising—on the body proper through the use of natural materials such as spices, ground seeds, and earth pigments, Searle "colors" the body with dust of the natural world, opening new inquiries into the fixity of the racially inscribed body, the politics of racial mixing, the colonial interest in the spice trade, and the ensuing historical violence in South Africa, along with the personal intersection of site, location, and physical being. 

Her 1999 work Lifeline from the Discoloured series, consists of an enlarged close-up of an outstretched palm, stained with henna and fragmented into twenty-four identically sized prints. In its twenty-four components, whose cropped edges break up the lifelines of a vulnerable body part, the universal lifespan of a day is imbricated with the personal and biological lifespan of a unique body—a body marked with indices of trauma, whose physical trace will fade over time but whose psychological trace surely will not. The Discoloured series followed the 1997 series Colour Me, in which Searle covered her naked body with various spices to evoke the primary colors of racial stereotyping: red (paprika), yellow (turmeric), brown (ground cloves) and white (pea flour). Although Lifeline is Searle's only work in The Walther Collection, the work's open palm serves as a palimpsest for the artist's concerns with unfixing the body from the categorical inscriptions of race, ethnography, and gender that have historically undergirded conditions of oppression and discrimination in South Africa and elsewhere.

– Ellen Yoshi Tani

Artworks by Searle, Berni

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