Framing the debate on race:

global historiography and local flavour in Berni Searle’s Colour Me series

  • Kirk Sides
Keywords: racial, Colour Me, Berni Searle, South African art


Critiques of racial ideas, and their production and dissemination, often perpetuate a comparativist model, thereby re-inscribing the category of the nation; histories of various racial identities become entangled almost exclusively with narratives of national spaces. As part of a larger project that attempts to shift this nationalist focus in race studies towards a more ‘outer-national’ (Gilroy 1993:16, 17; Nuttall 2009:24) perspective, in this article, I focus on a series of installation works by South African artist Berni Searle. Searle’s Colour Me series, when read through this paradigm of the ‘outer-national’, productively interrogates the categorical boundaries of the nation in the historical production and subsequent life of racial identity. In my discussion, I read Searle’s work as an example of how race might be approached, not only as an identitarian category, but also as a global phenomenon.

To do so, I suggest that Searle’s use of spice powders places her work within the historical trajectories of the spice trade, and that this placement locates her work within a larger nexus that frames her performance of South African racial identities. I consider spices as compounded signifiers, simultaneously indexing the quotidian and the extraordinary, the local and the global, and the ritualistic and the historiographic. Furthermore, by reading the metaphorical relationship between race and spices in these works, I argue that the aim of Searle’s critique of race is to reveal how race as a concept can be used to deconstruct the very categorical and binary thinking that produces it in the first place. This allows for a discussion of the liminality of race and its existence at the boundaries of categories and spaces. Lastly, this territorial “in-betweenness” has certain historiographical implications. Searle’s spices construct an archive that simultaneously complicates the specifically South African inflections of coloured racial identity and de-privileges apartheid historiographical models in the post-apartheid interrogation of such categories. In other words, by not projecting a post-apartheid present into the past, Searle renders visible a multiplicity of archives through which to interrogate contemporary racial identities in South Africa. I propose that Searle’s historiographical and methodological shifts toward the ‘outer-national’ offer new ways to read local inflections and global trajectories of race.