Gabrielle Goliath is this year’s Young Artist for Visual Art. She is a multidisciplinary artist who is known for sensitively negotiating complex social concerns in her work, particularly relating to gender-based and sexual violence.
You have exhibited extensively, with solo shows at Goodman Gallery, Circa and at Gallery Momo; as well as internationally in New York, Paris, Bamako and elsewhere. While your work combines the use of photography, music, video and live performance, you are the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in the Visual Art category. How does performance drive the visual?
Art is traditionally bound to the visual, to the formal conventions of painting, drawing, sculpture and so forth. This association, however, has been challenged and thoroughly deconstructed over many decades now – just think of Yoko Ono’s 1960s instruction pieces, which are text-based and entirely conceptual. For me, embracing a more capacious approach to art is important, and involves being open to an expanded field of sound, touch, ritual, performance and more.
And there is a politics to this, which I would claim as decolonial and intersectional. I say this because opening art to other affective and sensory registers allows for creative practices that don’t necessarily subscribe to the strict imperative of visual representation (which is a very Western preoccupation). Also, this kind of openness implies that art can be known or experienced in different ways, and not just through a kind of cultivated ‘looking’ – which assumes a certain removed and very privileged witness, that is strongly connected to the patriarchal and essentially colonial logic of the ‘Enlightened’ white, male, rational, political subject.
So, to answer your question, I don’t think performance drives the visual as such – not in my work at least. Rather, I would suggest that performance complicates traditional understandings of ‘Visual Art’, as the proximity of performing bodies – and especially black, brown, feminine and queer bodies – insists on a more socially and politically involved encounter.
In your work, you explore complex sociopolitical concerns, especially gendered and sexualised violence, engaging the viewer in a sensory, even physical sense. What do you regard as your most important responsibilities as an artist in South Africa? What is your view on the relationship between an artist and audience?
I am not a very prolific artist, and this is intentional. Mindful of how regularly violence is perpetuated and normalised through forms of representation, I am careful about what I put out there, and spend a long time, sometimes years, on each body of work. Each project presents new challenges, and requires me to navigate a complex ethical field, one with no guarantee of a ‘right way of working’. In this sense, art making plays out within a space of ethical risk, in which every decision holds within it as much the capacity to heal as to harm.
A guiding principle for me is to ensure that my work is always subject-centred, and open to the specificity and accountability that demands. My process is often highly collaborative and social, in the sense that a project like THIS SONG IS FOR…, for example, calls for extensive dialogue and forms of co-operative labour. There’s a lot of research involved – and given the traumatic experiences of individuals subjected to gendered and sexualised violence, and its repercussions – a lot of conversation: difficult conversations, but ones that inform what I think and do in the most profound and humbling ways.
Do I care about the relationship of artist to audience? Absolutely. And this is all the more critical in that in most of my work, I call viewers into a more performative, and participative engagement – to involve themselves in a kind of work. In my performance project Elegy, for example, this involves a collective act of mourning. So in this way, there is the possibility of us sharing in something – which really grounds me as an artist, and is something I see as quite contrary to the mythologised figure of the isolated ‘genius’ artist whose creations exists only to be marvelled at.
You were recently named a Special Prize winner of the Future Generation Art Prize, a global award for artists under 35. The judges said they admired your ‘handling of such difficult and important subject matter in a touching yet sharp manner’. Much of your work involves personal testimonies — what are your most important considerations when telling someone else’s story?
Personally, it is not my objective to tell other people’s stories, which can be a complicated and often violating undertaking. As people in the world, however, we do share in each other’s stories. My story has a bearing on you, and yours on me, and art does allow for ways in which we can approach and in some way relate to the experiences of others, and not as a kind of voyeuristic ‘dipping in’, but as an ethically demanding interaction. In this sense, projects such as Elegy and This song is for… do not tell stories, nor do they appropriate stories – which is something I am against, and which is why I work so relationally, conversationally and collaboratively. What such works do enable, in my view, are opportunities for audiences to acknowledge the lived experiences of others, and to account for the ways in which they are socially and politically implicated in lived realities of racialised, gendered and sexualised violence.
Your 2015 piece Elegy, a ‘durational performance’ which brings together a group of vocal performers to enact a ritual of mourning, was performed at last year’s National Arts Festival to critical acclaim. Can you tell us more about THIS SONG IS FOR…, your work on the Main programme this year? What was your motivation for creating it?
In THIS SONG IS FOR…, I turn to the convention of the dedication song. This is a unique collection of dedication songs, each chosen by a survivor of rape and performed as a newly produced cover-version, in close collaboration with a group of women-led and/or gender-nonconforming ensembles. These are songs of personal significance to the survivors – songs that transport them back to a particular time and place, evoke a sensory world of memory and feeling. A sonic disruption is introduced at a point within each song; a recurring musical rupture recalling the ‘broken record’ effect of a repeating, 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 becomes painfully entangled with personal and political claims to life, dignity, hope, faith, even joy.
Making this work has profoundly affected me, and has shifted how I think and feel about so much, and I do hope that those who engage with it in Makhanda and elsewhere, will be touched in ways that are similarly transforming.
I can honestly say that as a project, THIS SONG IS FOR… is motivated by the extraordinary encounters I have shared with survivors of rape, whose collaboration is absolutely central. In producing the work, it has also been an honour for me to work with some of this country’s most exceptional musical talents. In approaching and reinterpreting the dedication songs, the care and commitment they have shown, and the grit they have brought to some very technically demanding performances, is truly inspiring. My heartfelt thanks to Dope Saint Jude & BŪJIN, Desire Marea, Msaki, Gabi Motuba, Nonku Phiri, Jacobi de Villiers, and their brilliant producers, partners and accompanists.
You are currently a PhD candidate and fellow at the Institute for Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town. What are your working on next? Any exciting collaborations? What do you think winning the Standard Bank Young Artist award will mean to your career?
This year has been an extraordinarily busy year for me, but in the best sense. The Standard Bank Award is a really affirming one for me and, as you know, will involve a touring exhibition here in South Africa. I am also working towards the Venice iteration of the Future Generations Art Prize.
I was in Basel, Switzerland in April, where I staged Elegy / Kagiso Maema as part of the “It’s the real thing” performance festival. For me, it is such a privilege to continue to be given the opportunity to stage this work in transnational contexts, and with transnational casts. In this particular instance I am working with performers hailing from Pretoria, Cape Town, Paris and Munich! I am also excited about a number of Elegy performances that I have been invited to realise in the Netherlands, the US and elsewhere.
And then there’s my PhD – Profs Jay Pather and Sandra Young, here I come…