Gabrielle Goliath’s ‘Elegy’ is a Powerful Lamentation for Victims of Sexual Violence

Winner of the Future Generation Special Prize, the artist sheds a light on rape culture in South Africa and around the world

BY M. Neelika Jayawardane in Critic's Guides | 31 MAY 19

A single, sustained note can sometimes be capable of evoking powerful emotions. South African artist Gabrielle Goliath’s multi-channel, open-sound video installation Elegy (2019) comprises recordings of seven performances in which different female performers emerge from velvet-dark backgrounds and hold a single, clear, high note for as long as they can. As each performer begins to lose breath, she steps down from a low podium and exits to her right, and another performer steps up behind her, holding the same note, which ebbs and rises with the tessitura and timbre of her voice. Projected life-size on seven screens arranged in an arc, the performers constitute a resonating chorus, reminiscent of Greek and Roman theatre. Their shared note sounds out as purely – and for about the same duration – as a struck tuning fork.

Goliath has been staging live performances of Elegy since 2015. Each commemorates a specific South African woman or LGBTQIA+ individual whose life was claimed by gendered, racialised or sexualised violence. These have taken place in South Africa, Brazil, the US and Europe. Goliath told me that for each iteration of the piece, she documents the work of the performers ‘as a kind of archive of mourning’. Together, the performances and the recordings give voice to lives that were meant to be expunged from our memory.

Gabrielle Goliath, Elegy (video installation), 2019, 7-Channel HD video, sound, colour. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Goliath was recently awarded a Future Generation Special Prize, and Elegy is currently on view in Venice alongside works by the other award nominees.  There, the work explicitly acknowledges the victims of gender-based violence it commemorates by including their names in the title, along with a brief framing statement. Goliath’s decision to avoid more overt references allows viewers to experience the unadulterated emotions a mournful note evokes. By subtly creating a lineage between historical individuals like Louisa van de Caab – an enslaved woman who was killed by her intimate partner in 1786, and those whose lives were taken in more recent times, including Kagiso Maema (a transgender woman who was brutally murdered in 2018) and Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa (a same-sex couple who are commemorated together) – Goliath also helps us reflect on the links between historical and contemporary violence. The work is ‘taken under the conviction that art has, despite its capacity to re-inscribe harm, the possibility also of facilitating transforming aesthetic and inter-relational encounters,’ Goliath said in a public talk in March at SUNY Oswego. As with her other works, Elegy is intended to ‘facilitate a certain…"recovery" of the subject, performed in the context of absence, of loss, and in such a way as to draw viewers into a more relational, and so affectively, ethically and politically-involved encounter.’

In her research, Goliath found that a range of opera singers, who require no mechanical amplification, are able to sustain a B-natural for prolonged periods. ‘The note becomes…a location of sorts for a collective vocalized, ritualized labour,’ she explained. ‘So what is important is not any symbolic or referential aspect to the note, but rather its melodic irresolution, non-narrative form, the duration and repetition by which it is sustained.’ That labour is both physically and emotionally exhausting, a sense the performers pass on to their audience. With their singular, continuous lamentation, they remind us that we must create a space to honour each South African woman or LGBTQIA+ individual and grant them the love and dignity they were denied in life.

Gabrielle Goliath, Elegy (video installation), 2019, 7-Channel HD video, sound, colour. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Goliath is sensitive to the spaces and cultural contexts in which her works are presented. This includes contacting the victim’s family or community for a scripted tribute, to be made available at the performance. In a recent essay, ‘“A Different Kind of Inhabitance”: Invocation and the Politics of Mourning in Performance Work by Tracey Rose and Donna Kukama’ (2019), the artist considers how physical and cultural violence resonates both internationally and in South Africa, ‘a country marked by the traces, disparities and as-of-yet unreconciled traumas of colonialism and apartheid, as well as socially entrenched structures of patriarchal power and rape-culture.’ Yet she invokes the words of literary theorist Pumla Gqola to assert that rape is not a ‘South African invention’; rather, gendered forms of violence are ‘a global phenomenon…[that have] survived as long as [they have] because [they] work to keep patriarchy intact’, communicating ‘who matters and who is disposable.’

Elegy is spare yet complex. It depends almost solely on the power of voice. When we cannot articulate pain, when words and language are insufficient, we turn to wordless cries. The singular note that Elegy’s performers vocalise conveys a life – an agency, a subjectivity – that cannot be erased. That note resonates powerfully within us, long after the performers have exited the podium, and long after we leave the pavilion.

‘Future Generation Art Prize 2019 @ Venice’, runs at Università IUAV di Venezia, Ca’ Tron, until 18 August 2019.

Main image: Gabrielle Goliath, Elegy (video installation), 2019, 7-Channel HD video, sound, colour. Courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD), University of Johannesburg (South Africa). She is a recipient of the 2018 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for a book project on Afrapix, a South African photographers’ agency that operated during the last decade of apartheid.