Two powerful photographs by South African artist Berni Searle donated to Manchester Art Gallery through the VN XX CAS Scheme

11 September 2019 By
Valeria Napoleone at Manchester Art Gallery. Photographer: Simon Webb
Alistair Hudson, Director of Manchester Art Gallery, with Caroline Douglas, Director of the Contemporary Art Society and Valeria Napoleone. Photographer: Simon Webb
Berni Searle, In wake of, 2014, Archival digital print, 100 x 200 cm, Edition 2 of 3 + 2 APs
Berni Searle, 'Untitled (Red)'. From the 'Colour Me' series, 1998.
Berni Searle. Photographer: Chris de Beer-Proctor

Two powerful photographs by South African artist Berni Searle have been unveiled today at Manchester Art Gallery, donated through the Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society (VNXXCAS) initiative. The museum received the work through this scheme after making a strong case for addressing the representation of female artists within their existing collections.

Berni Searle works with lens-based media to stage narratives connected to history, memory and place. Using her own body, she addresses race, the commodification of the female body and its power in myth making. Her work connects to universal emotions of vulnerability, loss and beauty.

Untitled (Red), 1998 is a play on the racial classification of ‘coloured’ used under apartheid, the government’s term for mixed ethnicities. Searle covered herself in spices in reference to the Dutch East India Company’s trade. This brought white colonisers into contact with the local inhabitants and slaves of the Cape of Good Hope, and as a consequence having children of multiple cultural heritage. She said ‘I chose to cover myself with various colours – red, yellow, white, brown, in an attempt to resist any definition of identity which is static, or can be placed into neat categories. Placing myself or my body in the work, exposes other aspects of my identity, for example, gender.’ Here Searle’s mouth is covered, and unable to speak, she confronts us directly with her eyes.

In wake of, 2014 was created after the 2012 Marikana massacre in which striking mineworkers were shot at close range by the South African police. In this closely cropped image, Searle’s body is covered with coal dust and positioned as if laid out in death. Her hands hold gold Kruger Rand coins, a symbol of the wealth created by the mine owners in direct contrast to the migrant workers who suffer under systems of racial, gender, class and economic segregation. The body here is presented as a unit of labour and memorialises women involved in the mining industry.

Manchester Art Gallery’s collection has relatively few works by women artists but many depicting women, especially nude women, created by male artists for male patrons. In using her body in her work, Searle takes back control of female representation. Although her work comes out of the context of South African history and politics, it raises universal questions which transcend place and speak to works in the collection, the gallery’s history and the people of Manchester.

Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society (VN XX CAS) is a joint initiative of philanthropist Valeria Napoleone and the Contemporary Art Society. The scheme purchases and donates a significant work by a living female artist each year to a UK museum that that has made a strong case for addressing the representation of female artists within their existing collections. Past acquisitions have included work by Martine Syms for Leeds Art Gallery and Aliza Nisenbaum for Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

Berni Searle, Artist said: “I am delighted and honoured to enter the permanent collection of the Manchester Art Gallery, and I am grateful to the Contemporary Art Society and Valeria Napoleone for their continued patronage of women in the arts.”

Caroline Douglas, Director, Contemporary Art Society, said: “In a year marked by the collaboration with Sonia Boyce and the important ‘Speech Acts’ exhibition, Manchester is very much leading the way in re-assessing their collections. In this context we are proud to be able to donate these exceptional works by one of South Africa’s most influential artists. They will without doubt extend the discourse around representation and identity through their integration into the permanent collection.”

Alistair Hudson, Director, Manchester Art Gallery, said: “Manchester Art Gallery has a long history relating to women’s rights: the School of Art opened in our basement, admitting female students from 1838 and in 1913 the Suffragettes smashed the glass on 13 paintings as part of their militant campaign for votes for women. Following our recent work with Sonia Boyce, we have initiated a programme called ‘Whose Power on Display’, a long term re-examination of our collection. As a civic institution we can provide a platform to ask questions about power, representation and the role of public museums and galleries in the 21st century. We are very grateful to Valeria Napoleone and the Contemporary Art Society for the acquisition of Berni Searle’s work.”

Valeria Napoleone said: “I am delighted with this acquisition of Berni Searle’s two outstanding photographs, ‘Untitled (Red)’ and ‘In Wake of’, since they not only illuminate themes of gender and identity but also, significantly, South Africa’s anguished colonial past.

Coloured powders or spices on the artist’s naked body increases the attention of the viewer to skin colour, personifying culture, heritage and the postcolonial reality. In creating a point of departure that leads to multi-layered interpretations, this acquisition will allow audiences to engage in a broader discussion about humanity today.”