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Berni Searle is the 2019 National Arts Festival featured artist

Cape Town-based visual artist Berni Searle is this year's National Arts Festival featured artist. Every year, the National Arts Festival celebrates the work of a South African artist who has consistently exhibited groundbreaking work and exceptional talent, shaping the arts narrative of South Africa.
The featured artist is showcased through retrospective and new works forming a snapshot of their career through time. The 2019 instalment of the festival takes place between 27 June and 7 July.

© Vanessa Cowling

History, land-memory and place

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 usually set up as multiple screen projections within discrete darkened and enclosed spaces.

Searle will often include 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, mirroring the continuous cycle of protests and strikes across the country. While these 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.

In wake of - from the ‘Into the dark’ series. 2014 - Image sourced from

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 (2003). 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 newly 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.”

The executive producer of the National Arts Festival Ashraf Johaardien commented on the choice of Searle as this year’s featured artist: “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 2003 Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYA) winner 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 also comments 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 will express a snapshot of a career that reflects on place and identity under the National Arts Festival spotlight.”
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