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Berni Searle is the Featured Artist for 2019

Published on 21 February 2019

The National Arts Festival has announced that its 2019 Featured Artist is Berni Searle, a visual artist based in Cape Town.

Each year the National Arts Festival celebrates the work of a featured artist – a South African artist who has consistently exhibited ground-breaking work and exceptional talent, shaping the arts narrative of South Africa. The featured artist is showcased at the Festival through retrospective and new works forming a snapshot of their career over time. This year is the first time a visual artist has been honoured in this way.

The National Arts Festival will run from 27 June and 7 July in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown).

Searle, who was the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art in 2003, works predominantly with photography and the moving image. She often exhibits installations where still photographic images are combined with ephemeral materials and objects. In the case of video, her work is often set up as multiple screen projections within discrete darkened and enclosed spaces.

Searle regularly includes herself in her work but performs only for the camera, producing performative works that explore issues of self-representation, the relationship between personal and collective identity and narratives connected to history, memory and place. Her more recent work has a pervasive and growing sense of discontent, an expression that mirrors the continuous cycle of protests and strikes across the country.

While her works are often explored in dialogue with the socio-political legacy of South Africa and in relation to current-day realities, her use of metaphor and poetic ambiguity transcend the specificity of context, drawing on universal human emotions associated with displacement, vulnerability and loss.

Commenting on the accolade Searle says, “I am honoured to be invited to be the Featured Artist at this year’s National Arts Festival. It has been 16 years since I exhibited in Grahamstown, as it was known then, as the Standard Bank Young Artist. This was a seminal exhibition in my development as an artist that also provided a national platform for the exposure of my work at the time. I welcome the opportunity to present selected work that I have made since then, as well as new commissioned work that speaks to the focus on
land at this year’s Festival and look forward to the engagement with local audiences in Makhanda, as well as those further afield.”

Commenting on the choice of Searle as this year’s Featured Artist, Executive Producer Ashraf Johaardien says, “The curated programme of the 2019 National Arts Festival has the issue of land at its core. Works selected for this year’s programme have thrown up notions of borders and boundaries, cartography, geography and generally navigating the South African landscape both in literal and metaphoric terms. So the curatorial decision to invite Berni Searle to present on the programme as this year’s Featured Artist emerged quite organically.”

According to South African History Online, Searle “uses time-based media such as photography, video and film as a tool to capture her work with performative narratives and the self as a figure to embody history, land-memory and place”. In an article for Artthrob, Juliana Irene Smith writes that Searle “has a relationship with the land and rituals of the land.”

Says Johaardien, “It is fitting that in this difficult time in our country, an artist of the depth and calibre of Berni Searle will express a snapshot of a career that reflects on place and identity under the National Arts Festival spotlight.”


Born in Cape Town in 1964, Searle has a Masters degree from the University of Cape Town and has mounted solo exhibitions in South Africa, Europe, and the United States. She has won a number of awards including the Minister of Culture Prize at DAK’ART 2000, Senegal; the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art (South Africa 2003) and she was an Artes Mundi short-listed artist (Cardiff, Wales, 2004). In 2014 she was the Rockefeller Bellagio Creative Arts Fellow and in 2015 she won the Mbokodo Award in the Visual Arts category.

Previous international exhibitions include a.o. the 49th Venice Biennale (2001) and the 51st Venice Biennale (2005); Personal Affects, Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York, 2004); Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum (New York, 2007); and New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, 2007). More recently she participated in Figures and Fictions at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 2011); Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (New York, 2011); Earth Matters at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC, USA., 2014) and Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive at the Walther Collection, Ulm, (Germany, 2014-2015).

Last year she was included in an exhibition titled Social Work at Frieze London, which featured eight monographic presentations by women artists whose work emerged in response to the global social and political schisms of the 1980s and ’90s.

Searle has been Associate Professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town for the past six years, served as the school’s Director for the past two years and is currently on sabbatical.

Photo: Vanessa Cowling