Rockefeller Bellagio Creative Arts Fellow named

16 May 2014 - 11:15

A/Professor Berni Searle is one of three Bellagio Creative Arts Fellows in 2014. She works in the medium of photography, film and video.

Associate Professor Berni Searle has been awarded a Bellagio Creative Arts Fellowship. These  are extended to visual artists who, inspired by global social issues, produce work of an exceptional standard. Berni is a well-known South African artist, she lectures at the Michaelis School of Fine Art and is an alumna of the same institution. She is one of only three recipients in 2014. Humanities News spoke to her about the significance of this latest accolade.

HN: What does being named the Rockefeller Bellagio Creative Arts Fellow mean to you?
B: I find it exciting that previous Fellows have included artists (among others) Mona Hartoum and Shazia Sikander whose work I have admired and found to be very engaging. Former Bellagio residents have also included writers such as Maya Angelou and Susan Sontag all of whom have made significant and inspiring contributions in their fields. To have been selected as one of three Fellows for 2014, is therefor a great privilege and honor.

The Rockefeller Bellagio Creative Arts Fellow award is part of a broader program of the Rockefeller Bellagio Center. The Center, through conferences and residency programs, supports the work of scholars, artists, writers, thought leaders, policy makers and practitioners. So at any one time there will be a range of people from different fields who will either be in residence, visiting or attending conferences. This provides an opportunity to establish new connections with other professionals around the world, and provides a stimulating environment to work in. 

HN: You've received a number accolades during your career. Which award stands out as the most memorable and why?
B: For me, the Standard Bank Young Artist award in 2003, was definitely a highlight. It was the first opportunity for me to show a substantial body of work at various locations across South Africa, which up until that stage I had not had the opportunity to do. Awards are generally an acknowledgement of the work that one has done but for me, what was particularly significant about this award at the time, was that I received it on ‘home ground’.    

HN: When does your residency with the Foundation commence and what does it entail?
B: It is a two-month residency which I will start in June 2014. It involves travelling to Bellagio in Italy, which is located on the shores of Lake Como and is incredibly beautiful and serene, creating a peaceful and unique environment to work in. Fellows are housed in separate apartments with an adjoining studio. The idea is that Fellows either produce a new body of work, or extend projects that they may already be working on. For me, the location provides a unique opportunity and I am hoping to take advantage of this by creating a new body of work in response to the environment and the context that I will find myself in. At the end of the residency, the Foundation publishes a catalogue which documents the process and work produced.




Once Removed (Head) I, II, III. 2008. Archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper. Photo-credit: Tony Meintjes

HN: Bodies and women feature prominently in your work. What is the inspiration behind this?
B: I have often, but not exclusively, used myself in my work. On one level, one’s own body is physically immediate and accessible. To put it simply, it is at my disposal. I’m not sure that anybody else would be prepared to swim and float alone in the middle of the Mediterranean ocean, or deliberately and precariously slip on oil, as some of my projects have required me to do. But my body is not any body. It is shaped and impacted on by particular socio-political circumstances with regard to race, class and gender- different aspects of which are at times more important and strategic to foreground than others, depending on the project that I am working on.  

HN: You obtained an MAFA from Michaelis in 1995 and now you hold a teaching position here. Do you feel that you've come full circle? What do you enjoy most about your current position?
B: Taking up a position teaching position almost 20 years after being a student at Michaelis myself, is something I never imagined. It still feels strange to stand behind a podium of the Michaelis lecture theatre, in which years ago I sat as a bewildered student. Being a student at Michaelis in the late 80s and early 90s had its own set of challenges and while much has changed, those challenges have made me more aware of the difficulties that students might be facing today. 

What I enjoy most about my current position is being part of a creative and intellectual environment, seeing students pushing the boundaries and excelling, producing imaginative and thought provoking work that critically engages with the world around them.