Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town
25.10.2019 – 27.04.2020
Somewhere someone is singing Everybody Hurts, and catching on the same line. Here, in this country, where violence stains not only lives but the most commonplace of places and objects. It pools in open fields, classrooms, municipal buildings, public toilets, homes. Here, where a state-issued postal scale turns state evidence, and the line, borrowed from a play – He acts out a rape, using the broomstick and a load of bread – appears in a national school exam paper. Where everywhere people trade trauma like talismans. And one’s mind returns always to the same names – to Tshepang, Booysen, Khwezi, Uyinene – to those whose stories punctured our complacency, spilt unwelcome into our lives and worst imaginings. To those who have come to represent so many others. One woman every six minutes. We are numbed to numbers, fail to comprehend them as lived fact. Too many names, too many lives lost. At the protests the speakers deliver a liturgy of horror. And the president says to the women of the country “I know how you are feeling.” And all that is left are platitudes and catchphrases. There are no words, and only words (words will never be as heavy as a body). And everybody hurts, and everybody hurts, and everybody hurts.
Gabrielle Goliath’s This song is for… is insensible to our apathy, our fatigue, the distance we place between our own lives and the lives of others. It is a work of stark simplicity: halting a song in its progress, keeping the singers and musicians working at the same line, over and over, again and again. Minutes pass, the music continues, looping on a single bar. “Like a stuck record,” the wall text says. It is a simile that moves beyond sound to the damaged vinyl itself, to the presence of a single hairline scratch, which catches the player’s needle as it moves across the record’s surface. Curator Ernestine White-Mifetu likens Goliath’s aural disruption to the trauma of rape, which “forever created a scratch in the lives of the survivors.” Extending this metaphor, author Pumla Dineo Gqola writes:
“A scratched record irreparably alters a song as rape does its afterlives, disrupting the ease of seamlessness. The scratch is permanently etched on to the psyche. Rape may not define a survivor’s life. After all, the survivor continues to feel and experience a range of other life textures and emotions. Still, there is no escape; the song cycle returns to the moment of disruption in each song. Each return is recall – sometimes expected, often unannounced.”
Here, each song is reimagined as a dedication, played at the request of one of the ten survivors of rape who offer their stories in white text on the gallery’s purple walls. Rearranged and performed by local musicians, the songs are at once a supplication to healing and an expression of pain’s persistence. The songs and their images play to a darkened room on dual-screens, one after the other, each accompanied by a distinct anticipation. The viewer is forewarned: each song will catch in the ‘scratch’. And when it does, repeating a single line until it feels it might break, there is the expectant waiting for the singers to move past it, to continue on to the closing bar. The relief when they do, however, is only momentary. The next song soon follows and with it its accompanying anxieties, each an obscure ritual in their repetition and duration, in their predictable uncertainty.
There is a shared sparseness to all Goliath’s works, where nothing is extraneous and everything necessary. With sensitivity and precision, Goliath negotiates the complex social concerns of violence against vulnerable bodies. Here, where each element is distilled, considered. Given her subject, Goliath’s work is necessarily engaged with a politics of representation. “Art making plays out within a space of ethical risk,” she says, “in which every decision holds within it as much the capacity to heal as to harm.” What is said and what is left unspoken reveal themselves to be of equal consequence. Think only of Goliath’s Personal Accounts (2014), where filmed interviews with survivors of gender-based violence have been edited to exclude all spoken words, becoming instead a series of inhales and sighs.
Sound is primary in much of Goliath’s work. Resisting the spectacle of violence, she finds in sound a medium that is neither figurative nor representational, an expression of feeling that accommodates the complexities of her subject. In Elegy (2015 – ongoing), singers pass a single shared note between one another, each singing for a single breath at a time. The note becomes “a collective vocalized, ritualized labour,” Goliath said in an interview published by Frieze earlier this year. “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.” Collaboration becomes collective labour, each singer working to the edge of their ability, to edge of breath. In This song is for…, the labour of voice becomes similarly apparent as a medium at once exhausted and persistent. Together, the songs are a shared lamentation, a dedication. A testament to survival, however fragile. There is too the familiarity of the songs in This song is for…, which not only elicits nostalgia’s depth-charge, but also makes ‘shareable’ experience – be it traumatic recall, or defiant survival.
With voice and song, Goliath offers a tender and indirect engagement with gender-based violence. Paired with her visuals and music in the dark space of the spot-lit gallery are the words and names of ten survivors of rape written in white on the purple walls. Some offer a description of their violation, others their continued struggle. There are words of defeat and words of defiance. And so the work exists between these two points, between the illegible and the legible, the evocative and the didactic; between the words written and the songs sung. Among the names written the gallery’s walls are Nondumiso Msimanga, Flow, Pat Hutchison, Sinesipho Lakani, Gabriel Xavier, Deborah Ho-Chung, Corey Spengler-Gathercole and Karen Howell. In returning to these survivors of gendered and sexualised violence their names and stories, Goliath recalls and restores “the identity of individuals whose subjectivities have been fundamentally violated – and who are, as such, all too easily consigned to a generic, all-encompassing victimhood.” Two of the survivors remain nameless; their words left unattributed. This song is for… – their dedications read – a woman who chooses to withhold her name.
The day after the protests against gender-based violence in Cape Town earlier this year, a group of students returned to sing beneath the statue of Louis Botha. A man with bagpipes was there, playing Scotland the Brave to their outrage. A television crew arrived to film the students as they sang. Someone with an Israeli flag jostled into frame. In the background, municipal workers began removing the signs and flowers left on parliament’s gates. Passers-by paused to catch the scene on cellphones. It was Friday, September 6th. Nene would be buried the following day, and Jesse too. A single police car idled at the curb. The morning was still and warm, and defeat hung heavy in the air.
There has been no national reckoning since, no meaningful change. In its absence, Goliath offers a holding space for our collective grief and anger – offers something other than statistics, than lost dockets and disbelief. Her work inspires something less ready-made than sympathy, something more immediate and bare. Call it a momentary understanding, or the raw material of empathy. She invites the viewer into an affective encounter with the subject, with the ten survivors of rape who lend us their stories, that the viewer might, as she suggests, “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.” This song is for… is a work of monumental importance and feeling.