The magisterial career survey exhibition of the work of internationally renowned artist and UCT academic Berni Searle is an absolute must-see, especially for local art lovers who are often denied the opportunity to see South African contemporary artists of Searle’s calibre in a sophisticated museum context.
The exhibition is curated by art historian Liese van der Watt and the curatorial team at Norval under the direction of Owen Martin. It focuses on Searle’s video installation and photographic work over several decades and stages it with care, intelligence and impressive scale in the unique Cape wetlands setting of the Norval Foundation Museum.
The Museum has become adept at curating exhibitions of this depth and gravitas, accompanied, as in this case, by a substantial full-colour catalogue which includes essays by curator Khanya Mashabela, Van der Watt and an interview with Searle conducted by the director of London’s Chisenhale Gallery, Zoe Whitley. The book includes a detailed index of Searle’s artistic production and will be the single largest contribution to the scholarly literature on her practice. It is, like the show itself, a significant addition to South African art history and contemporary discourse in general.
Searle’s internationally respected and exhibited work has usually been in the mediums of film and photographic documentation of them. Trained at Michaelis in the 1990s as a sculptor, her work has focused not only on identity politics, but often very subtly and seductively, on ideas about colonial history and politics, space and place.
Her work most often includes her own body, in performances, as a cipher. Her well-known and widely exhibited early series from the late 1990s, Colour Me and Discoloured, both on show at Norval, portray the artist naked, in large-scale video and photographs, covered in various coloured spices. The allusion is not only visually striking, but politically incisive, referencing racial classifications of the apartheid era, but also colonial conquest and trade.
In more recent years her work has ranged further afield than the initial major spur of apartheid identity politics. But she remains an astute visual commentator on the political and social malaise of her own country. Her Black Smoke Rising video trilogy from 2009-2010 uses as a motif the burning tyre, infamous from kangaroo courts in the dying days of apartheid, as a metaphor of social dislocation, xenophobic violence and ultimately mournful desolation. This is especially true of its first episode, Lull, which depicts a bucolic tyre-swing in a rural setting which gradually becomes a burning totem of violence as it swings, pendulum-like.
The title of the exhibition, Having but little gold, derives from a colonial era manuscript discovered by Searle in the burnt-out remains of UCT’s Jagger Library after a catastrophic fire in 2021. The text talks of the colonial occupation of present-day Ghana, the English author observing with characteristic disdain that the inhabitants of the region trade slaves and ivory, ‘having but little gold’. An entire gallery of the exhibition focuses on Searle’s emblematic use of this most characteristic colonial commodity, gold. Lament, from 2011, depicts the artist draped in Belgian lace, her hands daubed in gold paint. The centrepiece of this substantial section of the show is Shimmer, made between 2012 and 2013. Recently installed as part of another private museum show in Johannesburg, this astonishing installation mixes video, sculpture, photography and sound design to immerse and implicate the viewer in a room-sized tableau depicting all of the commodities – prominently gold – pillaged from the Belgian Congo, when it was treated as the personal fiefdom of King Leopold of Belgium in the 19th Century. Included in the installation are, of course, scathing references to the genocide committed by the European nation during its colonial rule.
Searle has proven visionary in her commitment to using her chosen time-based mediums of photography, video and film to expose, implicitly critique and conjure a subtle and beautiful world out of the injustices and oppressions that humanity commits against itself. Seeing her interventions to best effect in this wonderful show is an opportunity not to be missed.
Having but little Gold: Berni Searle
Norval Foundation Museum
Atrium and Galleries 2-8
15 February 2023 – 13 November 2023