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BEAUTY with a sting in the tail.

Byline: Alan Sykes

The shortlist for the first pounds 40,000 Artes Mundi prize has been revealed. In the first of a new Box Office series on the 10 finalists, Artes Mundi publicist Alan Sykes looks at the works of Berni Searle and Jacqueline Fraser.

FOR Berni Searle, who comes from South Africa, and Jacqueline Fraser, who is from New Zealand, the Artes Mundi Prize exhibition will be the first major showing of their work in the UK.

But the women have other factors in common - in particular, both come from countries where colonisers have oppressed indigenous people.

In the case of Searle, who was born in 1964 - the year Nelson Mandela began his life sentence in prison - the oppression is a recent memory, and state-sponsored racism had a direct effect on her personal liberties as she was growing up.

Announcing the full shortlist at the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff last September, Artes Mundi Prize selector Declan MacGonagle said, 'What struck us in researching for the shortlist was just how many contemporary artists are trying to reconnect art practice to what I would call life processes and with the stuff of humanity: history, identity and memory, the body and communication.'

Searle's Colour Me series of works is perhaps her most dramatic comment on the racism of the past.

In these she experiments with the surface of her skin, covering it with different spices: either leaving her body's imprint on piles of spices laid out on the floor, or staining her own body with varying vivid colours of spices.

The title itself is an allusion to her former legal status as 'coloured' - usually descendants of interbreeding between early colonisers and the local population, as opposed to 'pure black' or 'pure white' people.

The spices, as well as providing an ironic comment on the absurdity of discrimination on the grounds of skin colour, also allude to the lucrative 17th-century spice trade which was the original reason white colonists came to the Cape of Good Hope.

Although she originally trained as a sculptor at Witwatersrand University, Searle now generally works with large format digital photographic prints and video to construct installations where her own body is the subject matter.

Her skin colour, gender and character are all integral to her art and to the questions it asks people who look at it.

As she has put it, 'the self is explored as an ongoing process of construction in time and place. The presence and absence of the body in the work points to the idea that one's identity is not static, and constantly in a state of flux.'

In many cases, the original work is a performance which is documented through video and/or photography.

In Snow White, a double screen video installation, the artist is seen from two angles sitting passively in a half-lit space while white flour is slowly poured over her body.

As water is added, she gathers up the flour and kneads the combination to form a loaf. 'Using my body is a tricky thing to do because it can reinforce stereotypes,' she says.

In Home and Away, another double screen video, Searle is seen floating in the sea between Morocco and Spain. Only 10 miles of sea separates Europe from Africa at this point and such proximity has, over the centuries, sometimes dissolved the cultural and political boundaries between the two.

Filmed from a boat, Searle floats on her back in a voluminous red and white dress in an apparently endless sea.

As with much of Searle's work, the rich colouring makes the work in itself startlingly beautiful, but there is a hidden sting in the tail when one realises what the full message - usually hinted at in the title - actually is.

This is often the case with Searle - a work can be simultaneously beautiful while carrying a disturbing message. Apartheid may be over, but questions of identity remain.

New Zealand's experience of racial discrimination is, with notable exceptions, less brutal, and certainly less systematised.

However, widespread grabbing of the most fertile land by the colonisers took place.

Jacqueline Fraser was born in New Zealand in 1956. Some of her works are intricate installations using wires, rich fabrics and text.

Her works have explored social and political concerns, including, as with Searle, issues of identity.

Mixing stories and myths with high fashion and current events, her works often have a sting in the tail.

For Moving Collection she made a small work consisting of a piece of ornate fabric on which she copied a woman's high-heeled shoe, taken from the French Vogue magazine.

Underneath is written the words 'Fentanyl derivative' - the name of the gas used to break the Moscow theatre siege of November 2002.

For her first exhibition in New York last year, Jacqueline created A Portrait of the Lost Boys (in five parts deftly and with six details of straining).

This was a walk-through architectural installation with rich billowing drapes of pink, black and brown fabrics.

At intervals, the person walking through was confronted with full-sized shrouded female figure standing pinned above or below the heads of a boy sculpted in wire.

A light-box text reveals that the work is a form of memorial, 'To Our Lost Boy Ivan, carbon monoxide gassed 1998,' and to all the adolescent men from throughout the world who are driven by despair to commit suicide.

The quiet beauty of the installation contrasts with the horror of the unnecessary deaths, and rage against the social contexts that may have caused them.

Writing in the New York Times, Jill Conner commented, 'Fraser's use of common materials such as swatches of fabric, wire and nails also inserts this depicted tragedy within our daily lives.'

The two artists sometimes use startling shock tactics to help their work make an impact - images of great beauty thinly cover up unpalatable messages which may affect the way you think about the world. Both artists are examining issues that, while superficially specific to their own societies, have universal resonance - a resonance that is especially loud within Wales.

It will be fascinating to see how the two very different artists use their space in the National Museum and Gallery of Wales.

The Maori proverb 'He whakatauiki: He toi whakairo, he mana tangata' (where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity) certainly applies forcefully to both of them.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 12, 2003
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