Social Work

Berni Searle

Berni Searle, Still, 2001, Digital prints on backlit paper, 8 images, 120 x 120cm each, Edition 3 + 1 AP © Berni Searle. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Berni Searle, Still, 2001, Digital prints on backlit paper, 8 images, 120 x 120cm each, Edition 3 + 1 AP © Berni Searle. Courtesy: of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Berni Searle explores the ways in which history and geography map onto the human body. Her influence is deeply felt in South Africa, where a whole generation of artists, including Athi-Patra Ruga, Mohau Modisakeng, Zanele Muholi and Nandipha Mntambo, share a common lineage in Searle’s staged photography and video work.

Still consists of a sequence of eight semi-transparent photographs, suspended in a square; these depict the artist kneeling, covered in flour, in the process of kneading dough. The installation is illuminated by a central light source, and a thin layer of flour on the floor mirrors the images, showing traces of a body. The white flour on Searle’s skin sharpens one’s awareness of skin colour, while the labour of preparing dough highlights gender – both loaded subjects in South Africa’s fraught history. In the end, the ritualistic nature of the action offers a space for reflection and, perhaps, even healing.

Berni Searle (b. South Africa, 1964) came to prominence at the turn of the millennium, alongside artists like Shirin Neshat and Tania Bruguera – a moment best captured by the 2005 Venice Biennale, curated by María de Corral and Rosa Martínez, and the 2007 Brooklyn Museum show Global Feminisms. She is currently director of the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, where she obtained her MFA in 1995.