Manchester Art Gallery

Berni Searle: new acquisitions

Two powerful photographs by South African artist Berni Searle have been donated to Manchester Art Gallery.

Manchester Art Gallery has been selected as the winner of the Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society award which supports the acquisition of significant works by a living female artist into museum collections. We are receiving the photographs by Berni Searle through this scheme after making a strong case for addressing the representation of female artists within their existing collections.

Berni Searle

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.

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

Untitled (Red), 1998 is a play on the racial classification of ‘coloured’ used under apartheid, the then government’s term for people of 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 affected by 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)

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 Untitled (Red). From the Colour Me series, 1998
Berni Searle In wake of 2014
©Berni Searle, courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

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