Richard Saltoun's first solo presentation of work by Berni SEARLE takes place online as part of its Women 2.1 series, virtual showcases presenting work by female artists who supplement the gallery's roster. The presentation will feature new works from the artist's latest series 'Mantle' (2021) that draws on an earlier video performance Interlaced (2011), as well as limited edition prints that demonstrates the artist's mastery of photography and the moving image.
Commissioned for a solo exhibition in Bruges, Brussels, Interlaced shows Searle's continuing engagement with the effects of colonisation, dispossession and displacement. Filmed in the ornate Gothic Chamber of Bruges's town hall, the site, as a seat of power, presents a backdrop against which to consider the wealth accumulated in a country with a history marred by plundering and violence under King Leopold II in the Congo.
Interlaced opens with an image of the artist shrouded in gold-coloured drapery. The performance unfolds slowly and lyrically, with subtle movements a veil of black lace is revealed, then skin, parts of which are covered by gold leaf. The body as a site of marks and meanings is integral to the practice of Searle. Here, with this performance, Searle is clothed in lace, a reference to both the Christian tradition of veiling, but also to the act of covering oneself in the Islamic tradition of the burka. Lace was also central to the history and trade of textiles in the medieval city of Bruges which formed the hub of Nothern European Commerce at the time. Searle's own cultural heritage is reflected in the religious references, Searle's paternal lineage being European, with Searle raised a Catholic against the backdrop of her maternal grandmother's Muslim ancestry. At the time of shooting the video, the banning of the burka was also being legislatively tabled in many European countries.
The online exhibition is accompanied by two prints from her Lament Pieces series, in which Searle subverts the iconography of Christian lamentation, instead lamenting the atrocities committed against the Congolese under King Leopold II, her gilded hands a direct reference to the severing of hands and feet as punishment under his reign.
A video of Interlaced will be available to watch as part of the online presentation, accompanied by two new large-scale prints that draw on the performance. Titled Mantle I and II, the prints were produced in early 2021 for an exhibition at the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation. The incorporation of the artist's own body can be seen in Mantle I (2021), where Searle is covered in a golden cape, and in Mantle II (2021), where the shroud has dropped to her feet, revealing the artist in a black lace gown with gold-painted hands.
The transformation of Searle's body is also evident in an earlier work titled Seeking Refuge (2008), in which the artist's hands and feet are covered in a deep crimson red. Here she specifically examines the microcosm of Lanzarote, a landscape scarred by volcanic rock and ash, which proves inhospitable but for the hardiest of species. Dying her body using the crimson acid ink of an indigenous insect, the cochinilla, the series shows Searle both independent, striding in the landscape as with Flight (2008) and hiding or laying herself to rest, as with Enfold (2008). Becoming part of the land, she makes visible the feelings of translocation and lost identity that migrants experience as well as the tenacity to survive in an otherwise inhospitable landscape.
In the triptych To hear, to see, to speak (2014), Searle sprinkled coal dust over her body. The work was created after the 2012 Marikana massacre in which striking mineworkers were shot at close range by the South African police. In these closely cropped images, Searle's body is positioned as if laid out in death. Her hands hold gold Kruger Rand coins, a symbol of the wealth created by the mine owners presented in stark 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 affected by the mining industry.
The artist will be in conversation with Zoe Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery, on the occasion of the online presentation. The full video will be available to watch on Richard Saltoun Gallery's website and IGTV channel. Visit www.richardsaltoun.com/viewing-room or follow @richardsaltoungallery for more information.
Press release courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery.