New artist on the block: Gabrielle Goliath
Her work around gender-based violence and other issues has led to a Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts Award
At 35, artist Gabrielle Goliath just made the cut to win this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts Award. In a career that’s seen her produce a small but considered body of multidisciplinary projects, it’s the latest in a series of accolades for the Kimberley-born artist who began her studies as a fashion student before moving into the world of fine art.
For Goliath, the award comes at a time when she acknowledges “that I work within a moment in South Africa in particular where there’s an extraordinary group of artists at work and any number of them could have been given this prize, so I’m deeply honoured and deeply humbled by it”.
Goliath’s work, which has toured internationally, has been noted for its particular focus on issues around gender-based violence and the representation of victimhood in SA society.
Previous projects include her Elegy series, a serial performance in which groups of women perform a sustained lament in commemoration of the absence of a woman or LGBTQI+ individual who has been raped and killed in SA. It’s a sobering and continuously performed piece that reflects the depressing reality of an all too brutal reality of everyday life not just in SA but also in many countries around the world.
The relationship between presence and absence in the ways in which social issues are represented and addressed is central to Goliath’s work – whether in the Elegy series or the performance Stumbling Block in which a figure wrapped in a blanket, echoing the many homeless people we see daily on the streets, is inserted into artworld happenings at places like the Nirox Sculpture Park and the opening of the Zeitz MOCA, only to be callously ignored or stepped over. This relationship is also central to Personal Accounts, in which victims of sexual abuse are filmed telling their stories but the audio of the video installation removes their voices and replaces them with sounds of breathing, throat clearing, tears and other non-verbal expressions of their traumatic histories.
Goliath’s work often involves the participation of real people and so it’s important that “I constantly work at maintaining a very ethical approach to what I do by trying to keep the subject constantly at the fore of what I do. Bearing in mind that these are real subjects, real voices, real lives, real stories, I always work to be quite sensitive and responsible to the subject and their stories.”
She’s careful to point out though that her work is not concerned with “appropriating stories. It’s more about how do we try and close and remove the gap between the one who has suffered and the one who has not? So for me it’s about a politics of relationality. So whether you have suffered or not, whether you are the survivor of rape or not, the fact this nature of violence happens and occurs on a daily basis and affects so many people has a bearing upon us all.”
Goliath has often drawn on her experiences of violence and questions of identity arising out of her upbringing as a woman of colour in Kimberley, and for her PhD that she’s currently working on, she argues “that we far too often turn to the black and brown, pained, suffering body when we’re talking about these subjects”. She adds: “We are living in a world where most people live in the most abject conditions, but how do we go about talking about these subjects? Imaging, sounding, picturing them in ways that we’re not constantly perpetuating these problematic tropes and ways of imaging certain kinds of subjectivities and so I seek out alternative ways of doing that. So in my work you will never see the actual depiction of a rape scene or the cut lip, the bruised eye.”
Goliath’s work is often the result of long periods of “researching, reading, thinking, writing and then seeing out the work. The work itself conceptually is durational and serial in nature,” and so there are often long periods between new works. However, in a serendipitous moment, the award comes at a time when she has begun to embark on a new project, which will be “performative in nature and pivots around a sound installation looking at what music means to you and how it has that ability to transport us or bring tears to your eyes or make you dance righteously on the spot and all of that nostalgic music is what I’m looking at”.
As an artist who “hardly ever makes works that can hang on walls” and who doesn’t “have a work ready every time an art fair comes round because I take years on each body of work”, Goliath understands that “particularly with contemporary art there’s a spectrum of affect that’s huge and it can leave people feeling quite alienated at times or feeling nothing”. But, she believes that her practice is driven by a desire towards “genuinely, genuinely generating something within an individual that’s not just feeling for the sake of feeling but the kind of feeling that is a catalyst for critical thinking so that we move from a state of feeling strongly about something to thinking about something”.
• Gabrielle Goliath’s Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition will premier at next year’s National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown.