Gabrielle Goliath is this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art. This is the speech she gave at the opening of the visual art exhibitions on Friday 28 June. Her exhibition in the Monument Gallery is called This Song is For…

Bohemian Rhapsody… This song is for… Nondumiso Msimanga
Ave Maria… This song is for… A woman who chooses to withhold her name
Don’t wish me well… This song is for… Flow
Uyesu Ulithemba Lam… This song is for… A woman who chooses to withhold her name
Everybody Hurts… This song is for… Deborah Ho-Chung
Black Hole Sun… This song is for… Gabriel Xavier
Fight Song… This song is for… Corey Spengler-Gathercole
Save the Hero… This song is for… Sinesipho Lakani

We all have songs, those special songs that mean something to us – the moment the first notes sounds – that riff or melody or lyric emerges – and we’re transported: taken back to a moment in time and space. So much is evoked: colours, sounds, smells – a sensorial world of memory and feeling. This is for me a unique capacity of song, and it is something more than a nostalgic tug, although that may be part of it. Rather it is how resonance, movement and rapture work to somehow enable us not simply to narrativise our life experiences to some kind of backing-track, but to affectively and imaginatively revisit, and even re-inhabit them.

In my new body of work – This Song is For … – which you can experience in the Monument Gallery – I draw on this quality of music, and particularly the way in which it is made shareable through the convention or tradition of the dedication song. The installation is essentially a song-cycle – and in this iteration comprises of eight dedication songs, each one chosen by a survivor of rape. These are songs of particular significance to these individuals – in some cases speaking to experiences of horror, in others to journeys of healing, or the complex entanglement of both. As collaborators, these survivors shared their songs with me, as well as a colour of their choosing, and a written reflection: be it a poem, a narrative account or exhortation. They also expressed their individual agency through opting to disclose or withhold their names. I then worked in very close collaboration with a group of women and gender-queer led musical ensembles, to reinterpret and re-perform the songs.

And I can hardly express the depth of my gratitude for the sensitivity and commitment these musicians displayed in the process: to Nonku Phiri, Desire Marea, Msaki, Gabi Motuba, Dope Saint Jude and BŪJIN and Jacobi de Villers, my heartfelt thanks.

During the course of each song, a sonic disruption is introduced; a recurring musical rupture
recalling the ‘broken record’ effect of a scratched vinyl LP. Presented in this performed disruption is an opportunity for listeners to affectively inhabit a contested space of traumatic recall – one in which the de-subjectifying violence of rape and its psychic afterlives become painfully entangled with personal and political claims to life, dignity, hope, faith, even joy.

The installation runs over two-and-a-half hours in total, and so I would encourage you to linger in the space, to read the accounts – to take time, and if you are able, to return…

As an artist, I see my practice as so many recuperative engagements within a contested cultural and political field of representation – one marked by the vestigial traces, disparities and as-of-yet unreconciled traumas of colonialism and apartheid, as well as socially entrenched structures of patriarchal power and rape-culture. And I am conscious of this space, of representation, as one in which violence plays out readily and insidiously, and in which every artistic gesture and tactic bears with it the possibility of some symbolic perpetuation: of traumatic recall, of painful citation, of some sort of wounding.

How I perform, image, write, sound and speak is subject then to a certain ethics, or politics, in which the differences that mark our experiences of the world become – in all their vulnerability, hurt and contradiction – the grounds for our mutual acknowledgement and care. Resisting the self-perpetuating logics of racism and patriarchy, I seek to work around the violence through which traumatised black, brown, feminine, queer, and vulnerable bodies are systematically objectified, and for all their ‘hyper-visibility’ rendered indistinguishable. Sound, voice, invocation and performance, become for me affective registers through which to enable a more collective, performative and ethically-involved relation – calling for, as Sara Ahmed so eloquently phrases it, “a different kind of inhabitance”.

It is an honour for me to be this year’s Standard Bank Artist of the Year, and as part of that award, This Song is For… will be travelling on to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and other locations across the country – including, I hope, my home town of Kimberley. As with most of my work, it is a long-term project, and so will continue to grow as new songs are added to the cycle.

Allow me this opportunity to thank Nobesuthu Rayi, Dr Same Mdluli, Dianne Granney and the team at Standard Bank, Anne Torien and the team at Total Exposure, Justin Davy from Goodman Gallery, Ernestine White for her continued support, TEARS and the very special Rape Support Group I have been working with, and of course the marvelous logistical team here in Makhanda: the fabulous Nicci Spalding, Bie Venter and all of their chickens! They’re quite heroic really.

The opening of the art events at this year’s Festival is made especially meaningful for me by the inclusion of two formidable woman artists: Berni Searle and Thania Peterson. I feel honoured to be in such company, and am looking forward to engaging with the works – as well as that of Sikhumbuzo Makandula, and other exhibitions included in the programme.

Photo: Gabrielle Goliath / Mark Wessels