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Berni Searle / MATRIX 202

A Matter of Time

February 2, 2003 - March 23, 2003

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Berni Searle: A Matter of Time (video still), 2003; DVD projection; dimensions variable; courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery, New York.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF) .

When South African artist Berni Searle was a child, her grandmother told her that one day she would travel to places where people would appreciate the olive color of her skin. These words were intended not only to expand the young Searle's world perspective and promise hope, but also to counteract the negative and often demoralizing racial stereotyping that she was experiencing as a daily part of life in Cape Town. As a South African of African and German-English descent, Searle was categorized as "coloured" during the Apartheid era - a fact that drives most of her work.

Searle creates performance video works that address not only race but also gender by activating the viewer's senses: smell and the suggestion of touch, as well as sound and sight. In Snow White (2001), a two-screen, mural-size video projection presented in the Authentic/Ex-centric exhibition at the 2001 Venice Biennale, the artist is seen naked, crouching on the floor, repeatedly kneading dough. As she presses and folds the dough, her hands form a pattern of wings on the ground resembling snow angels made by children. Flour particles travel up the artist's hands and arms and begin to lightly dust parts, and then eventually the entirety, of her body. The white powder is in stark contrast to her dark skin. The slapping sounds of Searle's hands against the floor simultaneously have a rhythmic effect and serve as an aural jolt, as if to punish viewers for staring at the naked body seemingly so available in front of them.

In her Color Me series (2000), Searle hangs enlarged digital images of her body covered in spices of various shades of red, brown, yellow, and white above piles of these same aromatic substances. The choice of material references the profitable spice trade, dependent on black labor, that flourished in South Africa when it was a Cape Dutch colony in the seventeenth century; it reflects, as well, Searle's own mixed heritage. In close-up images, the spices cover her face, leaving only the emotion-filled eyes of the artist revealed. True, she returns the gaze of the viewer, yet her gaze communicates so much more than confrontation: need, fear, survival, existence.

For her MATRIX exhibition Searle has been commissioned to create a new performative video work. She is seen in a Plexiglas box while olive oil is poured over her body. Cameras are positioned on top, underneath, and on the sides of the box to capture close-up images of the artist's body pressed against the glass and covered in the oil. The visual suggestion of tactility is extremely sensual. Searle uses her body and its inherent appeal to take a potent political stance. The artist asserts her right to use and present her own body. It is a defiant, feminist gesture that refuses the assignment of any meaning other than on her own terms.

The issues Searle confronts - racial and gender inequity - are now ubiquitous in visual and news media. Artists such as Adrian Piper, Janine Antoni, Hannah Wilke, and Lorna Simpson have also addressed them. Nevertheless, equality has yet to be achieved. It is essential to keep reminding the world that there is still more to be done. As with the "Butterfly Effect" (essentially, the notion that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas), a single act can have a profound impact.

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by the generous endowment gift of Phyllis Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Ann M. Hatch, Eric McDougall, Glenn and April Bucksbaum, and Christopher Vroom and Illya Szilak.

Support for Berni Searle/MATRIX 202 A MATTER OF Time has been provided by the LEF Foundation.