Writing Art History Since 2002

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Titled Approach, Berni Searle’s mid-career retrospective begins with a selection of photographic images from the now well-known Colour Me series (1998-2000) and ends with Night Fall (2006), a three-screen video installation accompanied by related prints. Searle’s formation as an artist began with sculpture – reference to this work is absent from the show – and shifted to photographic and video installation after her participation in the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997. Until she exhibited the Colour Me work Red, Yellow, Brown on the seventh Cairo Biennale in 1998/9 she was little known. It was at Cairo that she won a UNESCO/AICA Award, her success there playing a role in propelling her into a position of visibility within the contemporary art world. Since then, Searle’s profile as a contemporary artist working within a global arena has escalated.Searle’s distinctive positioning of herself and her work has repeatedly been remarked on in appraisals of her work as well as in her own curatorial statements. She reiterated this in the walkabout/lecture that accompanied Approach, presenting herself as an artist concerned with the ways in which political events, systems and ideologies impact upon the personal. Drawing attention to her conception of the contingent and mutable nature of identity Searle consistently situates her work in relation to her mixed race heritage and her resistance to the imposition (upon her) of the apartheid label Coloured. She speaks too of the possibility of art transcending the constraints and limitations of the political realm.Despite the manner in which she positions herself, Searle has often been fixed in terms of the very categories she resists. In the numerous curatorial statements, reviews and articles that have emerged around her she is often defined as Black, as African and as Woman. In the walkabout she stated: “Categories of being Black; being African; being a woman are narrow… I do try to make my work more open-ended… The work can never exist without a context, but needs to be flexible enough. I like to transcend these narrow boundaries. But the only way I can do it is in the work itself.”Her intellectual preoccupations are certainly more successfully negotiated in later work, such as the three-channel video projection About to Forget (2005), an extraordinarily evocative and powerful piece. On a personal level this work speaks of the ongoing trauma of what it still means to have been classified Coloured during the apartheid era. Its imagery is taken from a handful of photographs belonging to Searle’s mother, the only visual reminder she had of family who had been classified White. Even without knowledge of its departure point, About to Forget resonates beyond the specific context of its making; it is difficult to reduce the visual, sensory and emotional experience of the work to words.In constructing this work Searle cut groupings of figures based on her mother’s photographs from red crêpe paper. She placed these cut-outs into a bath of hot water and orchestrated the filming of the swirling, draining away of the red pigment until all that remained was a pale trace image of what had been before. About to Forget encapsulates a tension in Searle’s work, between the ongoing impact of apartheid classificatory practices and her continuously articulated desire to escape the constraints and limitations of the political realm.Searle’s oeuvre thus far – and the suggested tensions between her personal history, her self-positioning, the appropriations of her and her resistance to these appropriations – resonates in powerful ways with the complexities of South African racial and identity politics. In particular, the struggles between the strategic reactivation of apartheid, colonial and patriarchal categories coupled with the desire to escape the constraints and limitations embedded within them.

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