Each year the National Arts Festival celebrates the work of a featured artist – a South African artist of exceptional talent who has consistently exhibited ground-breaking work, shaping the arts narrative of South Africa. This year is the first time a visual artist has been honoured in this way.

Berni Searle will premiere a new work at the Gallery in the Round, commissioned by the National Arts Festival and supported by the Maitland Institute. Earlier work will be shown at five other venues across Makhanda, including the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George, and Noluthando Hall.

Searle, the 2003 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art, explores the ways in which history and geography map onto the human body. 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. Says Searle, “The Standard Bank Young Artist show in 2003 was a seminal exhibition in my development as an artist. It is an honour to return to Makhanda as the featured artist, and share the work I have been making over the past 16 years.”

Searle’s influence is deeply felt in South African visual art, 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. She has also made her mark as an educator: Searle has been Associate Professor at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, for the past six years, and has served as the school’s Director for the past two years. Fittingly, as the Featured Artist she has engaged with the students of the Rhodes School of Fine Art to create a project in response to her iconic 2001 video, Snow White.

Outside South Africa, Searle came to prominence alongside artists like Shirin Neshat from Iran and Tania Bruguera from Cuba, whose work emerged in response to the global social and political schisms of the 1980s and 90s – a moment best captured by the 2005 Venice Biennale and the 2007 Brooklyn Museum show Global Feminisms.

Nobesuthu Rayi, Associate Producer of the Festival, says: “What excites me about hosting Searle for the 2019 edition of the Festival are her unapologetic and bold statements, which make her the voice of many. In an awkwardly subtle manner her body of work explores the many levels of what constitutes a human being. It particularly resonates with me as a young woman of colour who often wonders, why is it that my mere existence upsets and rattles so many in my province, country and continent of birth?”

Born in Cape Town in 1964, Searle has a Master’s degree from UCT 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 (Senegal, 2000), the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art (South Africa, 2003) and the Mbokodo Award in the Visual Arts category (South Africa, 2015); she was shortlisted for the Artes Mundi Award (Wales, 2004). In 2014 she was a Rockefeller Bellagio Creative Arts Fellow.

International exhibitions include 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 and the Museum for African Art (New York, 2004); Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum (NY, 2007); and New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (NY, 2007). Subsequent to this, she participated in Figures and Fictions at the V&A Museum (London, 2011); Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (NY, 2011); Earth Matters at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, 2014) and Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive at the Walther Collection (Ulm, Germany, 2014-15) and Social Work at Frieze (London, UK, 2018).

Main image: Still from Berni Searle’s Snow White