Gabrielle Goliath: performance as a ‘different kind of inhabitance’

POSTED ON: October 3, 2019 IN Neelika Jayawardane, On Artists, Word View

by M. Neelika Jayawardane

Gabrielle Goliath’s range of works – from her earliest exhibited work, Ek is ‘n Kimberly Coloured (2007), and following that, Berenice 10-28 (2010), Stumbling Block (2011), Roulette (2012), Personal Accounts (2014), Elegy (2015), and her latest work, This Song Is For… (2019) – employ embodied or voice-centred performances, and/or installations that utilise sound and video. Her work situates itself, as she notes, “within contexts 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.” [1] The imperative to expose – to make visible that which we would otherwise wish to maintain unacknowledged, out-of-sight, or masked by veils of performative concern – is a thread that runs through each of Goliath’s projects. In drawing urgent attention to gender-based and sexual violence, and the broad, long-lasting effects of land dispossession and forced migrations, her work speaks powerfully to present day effects of seemingly distant legislative decisions, and the violent patriarchy behind much of South Africa’s present.

However, although Goliath’s projects unapologetically unmask the brutality with which we treat women, non-binary, and transgender people, they are more than a commentary that seeks to highlight systematic and systemic violence that subtend our ordinary interactions and ways of being. And whilst her works create spaces for reflection and mourning, they are more than ritualised lamentations that highlight victimhood. The endpoint for Goliath’s works is not ‘bringing attention’ to the violence that we, as individuals, communities, and nations are often not ready to address. After all, it takes more than ‘awareness building’ and ‘talking about it’ to challenge patriarchal and state violence. Instead, performance allows Goliath to create more complex possibilities, offering her means of “resisting erasure and violation of bodies routinely subjected to forms of physical, ontological and structural violence.” [2] For audiences, her projects create spaces for “opportunities for affective, relational encounters” that refute “the violence through which black, brown, feminine, queer and vulnerable bodies are routinely fixed through forms of representation.” [3]

In creating spaces of “recovery and recuperation” [4] – in which audiences are given permission to mourn, Goliath’s works become acts of powerful, poetic defiance. This is where our contemplative, courageous presences can be present with the dead, our grief, and anger towards a culture that asks us to accept violence as the norm. Though we are exhausted by deep-rooted violence, being present in the space of contemplation, helps us create pathways out. They help us imagine what it might mean to re-build our communities with a radical understanding of hospitality, love, and welcome. But just as importantly, we learn that justice – changing and challenging our broken systems of justice and our communities’ understanding of what we should accept – also requires us to have a backbone strong and straight enough for uncompromising refusal.

Goliath’s first exhibited work was a photographic triptych, Ek is ‘n Kimberly Coloured (2007), which tackles identity – and how much raciogenic training goes into the ways we read those we cannot place neatly into a particular racialised category. Goliath is often mistaken as Brazilian, French and Spanish. In a way, those who ‘misplace’ Goliath are projecting their own romanticised notions of what Brazilian, French and Spanish women might be, rather than accepting and incorporating her as what a South African woman might also be – a physical and psycho-social being whose person is a map revealing the intersecting histories that created contemporary South Africa. Though the work is playful in some ways, it also surfaces the violence of that history, and the violence of our attempts to erase that history through ‘misreading’ people.

Ek is ‘n Kimberly Coloured (triptych), 2007. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath

In each photograph, we see Goliath, engaged in playing out different ways in which women may inhabit an identity. In the first one, she poses before a deep red, flowery wallpaper, applying red lipstick, looking into a hand-held mirror to guide her. In the second, she is framed by a different vegetal background; here, she appears as a scholar, holding a book. In the third, she sets herself against a deep, black background; she is wearing a red halter-neck outfit, and blowing smoke, upwards, from a cigarette. The smoke curls around her upper lip, and over her half-closed eyes – this is a woman who lives according to her rules, with no obligation to reveal herself to interlocutors. Across each photograph is a phrase, in Spanish, in French, and in Portuguese, that translates to “I am a Kimberly Coloured” (the work’s title). Across the first photograph, we read “Sou mulata, de Kimberly”; across the second, “Je suis une personne métisse, de Kimberly”; and the third reads, “Soy una mestiza de Kimberly.” The phrase references her racialised identity as ‘mixed’, and her geographical location – firmly situated in South Africa. The ways in which we are schooled to read race, and which race belongs to a particular geo-political location – and is therefore ‘legitimate’ there – often means that we exclude those we cannot easily locate within our racial frameworks.

We know – and have known, for a long time – that imagining certain racial groups as ‘pure’ (White, or Black, for instance), and others as ‘mixed’ is, in itself, based on false race science that buttressed white supremacist ideology; we know that the ‘science’ of racial purity was subtended by the idea that ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’ has remained ‘pure’, without being ‘adulterated’ or ‘mixed’ with any other group until the European colonial period. These beliefs were the foundation for creating physical and social separations between people based on their ‘pure’ racial category. It also aided the creation of hierarchies – wherein White was placed at the top, and Black relegated to the bottom. Categorising people ‘mixed’, ‘mestiza’, and even ‘mulata’ (derived from ‘mule’ – a sterile animal that is a mix of a donkey and a horse, and known for its stubbornness and its ability to bear burdens), is in itself a violent act of erasure.

Each of Goliath’s later works explore the intersections between the history (and present) of land dispossession, deeply unjust labour practices, and how that violence is threaded through gender-based and sexual violence in South Africa in the present moment. For instance, Stumbling Block recalls the sleeping form of a homeless person. This – homeless people, bodies and heads wrapped tightly in blankets against the cold, lying on cardboard boxes, or on bare concrete pavements – is a pervasive sight in Lower Woodstock, the site of rapid gentrification (and where many of Cape Town’s internationally-renowned art galleries are now located). Goliath’s forms reproduce, performatively, actual homeless people, who are present and hyper-visible in the many South African and international locations in which her work has been shown. It is a well-known fact that in South Africa’s urban and rural socio-political geography, it is nearly impossible to avoid connecting present day land-dispossession and evictions in this geographical region to past dispossessions. Today, present-day evictions in the same neighbourhoods – into which upscale galleries, cafés, and “farmers’ markets” with impossibly-overpriced goods aimed at exclusive clientele have moved – displace working class tenants who have lived in those locales for generations. This new wave of dispossession can be seen as a result of gentrification – itself an offshoot of rapacious neo-liberalism or capitalism – rather than settler-colonial imperatives, but both models are dependent on a violent view of the world; both practices are subtended by the philosophy that a more powerful group – whether militarily or financially advantaged – has the moral imperative to sanitise, “improve”, and “maximise the value” of a given location, in ways that those already existing on that location cannot or will not.

Yet, those who attend cultural events know how to negotiate the line between their publicly professed concern for the aesthetic, the political, and for the welfare of all, and palpable reminders of our hypocrisy. These are the unspoken, exclusionary practices that are a feature of the capitalist and elitist institutions (both public and private) that position art, artists and creativity within capitalist model. In each location in which this performance has taken place – be it the glass entryway to the Goodman Gallery Cape Town (2017), the glitzy red carpet entrance to Zeitz MOCAA (2017), or Nirox Sculpture Garden’s VIP section deck, food tent, or island, where other patrons coolly spread their blankets and consumed picnic lunches next to the swaddled body – we are reminded of the ways that we make invisible that which is an inconvenient reminder of the violence required for our privilege. Because Stumbling Block requires our response – because we must decide whether to “skirt or step-over the blanketed form,” or even sit with it, as if it was not present – Goliath’s work forces an encounter we would ordinarily wish to avoid. Through placing this blanket-swaddled, prone body in locations where the public cannot avoid seeing it, or stepping over it, she addresses the ways passers-by encounter (or pretended not to) deep structural inequalities.

Stumbling Block, 2018. Nirox Sculpture Garden – Entrance, Johannesburg. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath and Goodman Gallery

Stumbling Block, 2011. Alterating Conditions, Goethe on Main, Johannesburg. Courtesy:Gabrielle Goliath and Goodman Gallery



Since 2010 her works have focused on addressing epidemic levels of femicide, and gender-based and sexual violence. Berenice 10-28 (2010), recalls the life of a childhood friend of the artist – who was shot dead in what we euphemistically call a “domestic incident” on Christmas eve, 1991. The actual circumstances surrounding Berenice’s death were not made clear to her; instead, what was conveyed were the elisions and circumnavigations surrounding violence against women and children.

Goliath noted, in a recent talk,

“the details of what occurred that night is known only to those family members who were present. As is often the case, practices of non-disclosure – be it on account of stigma, personal trauma, or the fear of reprisal – attend and perpetuate this kind of violence, whereby subjects are both physically violated and symbolically erased.” [5]

When Goliath’s mother took her to her friend’s home, as a way for her to come to terms with the loss of her friend, “Berenice’s mother called out her daughter’s name, and then crying, held me for hours and hours, or at least that’s how it felt.” [6] In a way, a mother, in her unbearable grief, was projecting her daughter on to her living friend, who must have reminded her of her own beautiful child. But at the same time, Goliath, as an adult, and artist, understood that she had to work with the complications that such “surrogacy” brings – it is a gift, to present oneself as a “substitute,” but a gesture that is never able to come to full fruition. Thinking about how to produce work that honoured Berenice’s memory, rather than instrumentalise her death in artwork, Goliath wanted to ensure that she responded to the specificity of this particular instance of violence, enacted upon a particular person, as well as “the extension of that violence within a familial and social context.” [7] It meant that Goliath had to begin by articulating this question: how does one “work in the wake of violence – with ‘absence’, and a profound absence, as one marked by this kind of systematic erasure?” [8]

Berenice 16, 2010. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath

Berenice 17, 2010. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath

Goliath set upon creating a work that consists of 19 photographic images of women. They have a uniform quality: each wears the same white vest, and their portraits are set against the same blank background. Each portrait is given the title, ‘BERENICE’ at the bottom, and numbered from 10-28 – a portrait for each year from the year after Berenice’s death to that of the work’s realisation in 2010. One could imagine that each woman, in giving of themselves as “surrogate representations,” creates an invocation. Together, they form an amalgam of the young woman that Berenice never got to grow up to be. Yet, though their portraits highlight their presence, subjectivity and selfhood – after all, that is a beautiful feature of what portraiture is capable of doing – the fact of their being here accentuates Berenice’s absence, though she is what their presence is meant to signify. Rather, Goliath’s aim, in creating Berenice 10-28,

“…was not so much to chronicle or bear witness to that violence – although it is everywhere present – as it was to facilitate a certain work of recovery. Which is to say a ‘recovery’ of the subject, performed as it were in the context of absence, of loss, and in such a way as to draw viewers in to a more inter-relational, and so affectively, ethically and politically involved encounter.” [9]

A subsequent work, Roulette (2012) – hyper-real, larger than life, close-up photographic portraits of both men and women, each of whom may, or may not have experienced domestic abuse – was informed by the impact of learning that every six hours, a woman in South Africa is killed by a current or former intimate partner. Before the portraits is a placemat and a pair of headphones that invites us to stand before the portraits and listen; but we are also forewarned by the following statement, printed on each mat: “DISCLAIMER: LISTENING IN MAY RESULT IN SEVERE RINGING OF THE EARS OR EVEN PERMANENT AURAL DAMAGE.” The headphones crackle with static for the most part, but every six hours, that silence is broken by the horrific, close-up recording of gunshot. For each portrait, Goliath achieves an eerie symmetry – only one side of each subject’s face was photographed, then digitally stitched together to form both sides. This mirrored symmetry allows us to imagine each face as a reflection of itself – a metaphor, of sorts, for regarding at these faces – and their experiences – as our own. ‘Domestic’ abuse – assault and murder that happens in the closed quarters of the home – remains largely hidden; the statistics – whilst bringing attention to the epidemic of violence in South Africa – also elides the everyday-ness of this violence behind numbers. Goliath attempts, here, to counter invisibility created by that statistic by showing us individuals, and by bringing us face-to-face with this violence as an intimate part of our own experiences.


Although Goliath was deeply affected by prevailing cultural conditions that made gender-based violence so pervasive, and wished to respond, as an artist, she grappled with the impossibility of representing rape. Goliath references cultural theorist Pumla Gqola’s assessment about why we often deny rape: Gqola argues that because of shaming, silencing, denial of violence, because we build normative language around gendered violence and sexual assault are part of how patriarchy and rape-culture works, and because we have been so acculturated to accept violent conditions and violations as normative, it may seem as though women and other vulnerable people are “impossible to rape.” [10]

The very things we have normalised – and in fact often celebrate – are the same things that are part of patriarchy and rape culture. It is normalised to such an extent that we don’t see it in our own social structures and social groups – but tend to see it as a problem that happens elsewhere, in other locations where people are less civilised where violence against women is a norm that we would never accept. For instance, in universities that celebrate a male sporting culture, and fraternity culture – there is patriarchy and rape culture. There is racism and racist structures and violence against women imbedded into how we celebrate. But we would typically never see it as such. As Gqola contends:

“Rape has survived as long as it has because it works to keep patriarchy intact. It communicates clearly who matters and who is disposable…Rape is the communication of patriarchal power…enforcing submission and punishing defiance…It is an extreme act of aggression and power, always gendered and enacted against the feminine. The feminine may not always be embodied in a women’s body: it may be enacted against a child of any gender, a man who is considered inappropriately masculine and any gender non-conforming people.” [11]

In the face of a pervasive culture of normalising patriarchal violence, Goliath wondered how one could respond, as an artist, to the “violation of women’s bodies, social, and psychological selves,” when “our texts…have lost the ability to identify acts of violence for what they are.” [12] In conceptualising her own work, Goliath had to consider the fact that rape culture is augmented and supported by artistic representations of rape. That makes it difficult for an artist to address gender-based violence in a critical way. Goliath references Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver, here, to explain the dilemma she faced:

“The process of unravelling the cultural texts that have obsessively made rape so pervasive and so invisible a theme – made it ‘unreadable’ – is multi-layered. It involves listening not only to who speaks and in what circumstances, but who does not speak and why. It requires that we listen for those stories that differ from the master(‘s) story; that we recuperate what has too often been left out: the physical violation and the women who find ways to speak it.” [13]

Higgins and Silver contend that (deeply problematic) literary and artistic representations of rape not only contribute to how we think about rape, but also shape our understanding of “rape and rapeability” of an individual. [14] Moreover, they argue that artistic representations not only inform us about our level of vulnerability to rape, but how that hierarchy of violatability is tied to the ways in which we construct “gender identity…subjectivity…and sense of ourselves as sexual beings.” [15]

In an attempt to respond to these dilemmas in a cultural milieu that distorts gender-based violence and deliberately silences survivors, Goliath began to experiment with sound, voice, and the metaphoric power of voice in her 5-channel video installation, Personal Accounts (2014). Rather than demonstrating the power of voices that speak clearly and legibly, she incorporates fractures, fissures, and breaks in voice.

Personal Accounts (video still), 2014. 5-channel video installation. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath

Each channel presents a video portrait of a different woman, speaking about “her experience of domestic violence, and in some instances rape,” shared with the artist “in private and with their full consent.” We, as listeners, can hear that each woman is attempting to narrate something – quietly and methodically. One senses that what each woman is attempting to say concerns something painful. Sometimes, it seems as though they are not in the present, no longer in front of the video camera; rather, we see them looking inward, attempting to make something that is essentially illegible possible for their interlocutor to understand.

In order to communicate the many ways through which we silence and distort women’s testimonies and experiences, Goliath – with the consent of the women in the videos – purposefully ‘censors’ their accounts; she extracts sections of “the spoken words of these personal accounts,” problematically making them illegible. As each woman speaks, her voice breaks – not because she is overcome with emotion, but because the video is deliberately ‘broken’, distorting the movement of her face and head as she expresses herself. What we hear are their inhalations and exhalations, throat-clearing and swallowed words. We might attempt to hear and understand what the women are saying, but come to the realisation that comprehending their narratives is impossible. But, Goliath insists, it is the “stream of gaps, of absences” that the women voice that nevertheless emphasises “the bodily presence of the women themselves…Brenda, Charmaine, Christolene, Mercia and Zipho – each one the living, breathing, but also resisting, palimpsest of a violence of inscription and erasure.”

Goliath’s methodology, in conveying the impossible presence of women – living, and vocalising, despite the irreparability and persistent effects of the violation and damage they experienced – counters “the cultural and political circulation of this violence,” and actively deconstructs “rape’s cultural encodement” in silence. [16] In “re-reading rape” – and doing the work of “excavation and recovery,” as Higgins and Silver call the work of those who attempt to intervene in silences, distortions, and “cultural cover up[s]” – Goliath helps us “break through the discourses that have circumscribed [our own] perceptions.” [17]


With Elegy, Goliath commemorates a specific South African woman or LGBTQIA+ individual whose life ended as a result of gendered, racialised, and sexualised violence. As an ongoing, long-term project, of which she has staged live performances since 2015, Elegy has been performed in South Africa, Brazil, as well as in the US and Europe. [18]

Elegy / Eunice Ntombifuthi Dube, Centre for the Less Good Idea, Johannesburg, 2018. Photo by Stella Tate. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath

Once again responding to the physical, ontological and structural outworkings of rape-culture in South Africa, Elegy performances recall 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. With each performance commemorating a specific woman or LGBTQI+ individual subjected to fatal acts of gendered and sexualised violence, significant to the work is how loss becomes a site for community, and for empathic, cross-cultural and cross-national encounters. Seeking to work around the kinds of symbolic violence through which traumatised black and brown bodies are routinely objectified, Elegy performances open an alternative intersectional space, wherein mourning is presented as a social and politically productive work – not in the sense of healing or ‘closure’, but as a necessary and sustained irresolution. [19] Together, the performances and the recordings lend weight – a materiality – to existences that were meant to be expunged from our memory.

Each performance brings “a group of female vocal performers who collectively enact a ritual of mourning” emphasising the collective nature of loss. [20] The performances are durationally “…and physically taxing,” a sustained “…kind of sung cry – evoking the presence of an absent individual.” [21] Goliath documents the work of the performers “as a kind of archive of mourning.” [22] Together, the performances and the recordings lend weight – a materiality – to existences that were meant to be expunged from our memory.

Elegy may commemorate a historical individual, such as Louisa van de Caab. More often, however, the performances commemorate our contemporaries, whose lives were taken: Eunice Ntombifuthi Dube; [23] Sizakele Sigasa & Salome Masooa; [24] Joan Thabeng; [25] Camron Britz; [26] Hannah Cornelius; [27] Lerato ‘Tambai’ Moloi; [28] Lekita Moore; Noluvo Swelindawo; Koketso ‘Queen’; [29] Sinoxolo Mafevuka; Ipeleng Christine Moholane. [30]

Notably, an iteration of Elegy was sselected for the Future Generation Art Prize, and subsequently shown at the Venice Biennale in 2019. Elegy – Kagiso Maema – is a multi-channel, open-sound video installation of seven performances, commemorating the life of Kagiso Maema, a transgender woman who was brutally murdered in 2018. The work is a social and political work of grief and mourning for a life that faced enormous odds against its existence, and which met such a violent end. It 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,” as she writes. [31] As with Goliath’s other works, Elegy is part of her attempt at “recuperative engagements,” and intended to “facilitate a certain work of recovery…a ‘recovery’ of the subject, performed as it were in the context of absence, of loss, and in such a way as to draw viewers in to a more inter-relational, and so affectively, ethically and politically involved encounter.” [32]

The installation consists of seven screens that are about 190cm tall, which stand on the ground in an arc, in portrait orientation. On each screen, a different female performer appears out of a velvet-dark background, each emanating a single, clear, high note, held for as long as the performer is capable of vocalising. Because the screens are tall, and each projects a performer who is life-size, visitors to the pavilion experience the vocalised notes emanating from each of the seven screens as a resonating chorus. It gives viewers a feeling of being immersed in the performance, the way one would be in traditional or “classical” theatre, where the audience mingled with performers, and became part of the narrative being conveyed. As each performer’s voice and breath empties from her, she steps down from a low podium, and exits to her right. As she begins to step down, and as the note she vocalises trails off, another performer steps up behind her, beginning to vocalise the same note. It grows in power as she fully faces the imagined audience. This note ebbs and rises, as it is vocalised by each performer with her own tessitura and timbre. It sounds out as purely—and for about the same length of time—as a struck tuning fork.

In deciding on the particularities of the note she wished to have performers vocalise, Goliath found that “women opera singers, soprano to contralto, are able with varying degrees of effort, to sustain the B-natural note,” which is accessible to a range of opera singers, who need no mechanical amplification to their voices. She states,

“The note becomes…a location of sorts for a collective vocalized, ritualized labour. 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.” [33]

Collectively, the performers create a singular, continuous, and powerful lamentation that memorialises Maema, reminding us that we must create an honourable space to hold her up high, to embrace her with the love and dignity that our cultural geography did not permit her to have in life.

Each Elegy performance is spare and minimalistic, yet complex. It is dependent 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 performers vocalise conveys a life – an agency, a subjectivity – that could not be erased. That single, beautiful, powerful note will resonate within us, long after the performers have exited the podium.


In her latest work, Goliath returns to experiment with the metaphoric power – and vulnerability – that voice, sound, and musical notes are able to convey. With This song is for… (2019), she repurposes the trope of the radio-show dedication song, referencing their power to re-call specific moments and emotional states in our lives.

In being able to return us to lost spaces, songs can make us time travellers. Whether we are wandering the aisles of a grocery shop, or cruising down a road half listening to the car radio, they pluck us from our present circumstances, and return us to physical, experiential, and emotional locations we may have thought we left forever behind. Even as the “first note, opening riff or lyric” emerges, as Goliath notes, we are instantly conveyed to another space. [34] When we “dedicate” these powerful transporting devices, we are calling out to those we love (but do not have the courage to tell so to their faces) to come with us on that journey. We dedicate songs in order to commemorate a lost love, or to mark a continuing and abiding love. We dedicate songs to say: I love you. I recall you back to my life. We dedicate to say: I return you to the person that you were, the person you could be. I recall you to your inherent value, even if you are not able to see that in yourself right now.

The installation consists of a 2-channel video and sound installation, showing a closeup of a different vocalist, each of whom is singing a different song. Each video takes on a colour as chosen by the collaborating survivors – at times casting the screen and its surroundings in deep purple, or a buttercup yellow – immersing the audience in the experience and emotions conveyed by the song. It runs for over three hours, with the “unique collection of dedication songs” playing “sequentially within the immersive, sonic space of the installation.” [35] The songs themselves were chosen by ten survivors of rape, for their personal significance, and for their ability to return them to a particular time and place, to evocative emotional spaces. Each of these songs are recognisable pop tunes – such was their popularity in their heyday. Upon hearing these songs, we, too will be transported to our own remembrances of times (and selves) past.

This song is for…, 2019. Multi-channel video and sound installation, Pinchuk Art Centre. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath and Goodman Gallery

This song is for…, 2019. Multi-channel video and sound installation, Pinchuk Art Centre. Courtesy: Gabrielle Goliath and Goodman Gallery

But Goliath did not simply replay an original recording by the respective popstar. Instead, she enlisted South African vocalists – a group of women and gender-queer-led musical ensembles – to re-perform the popular song, re-configuring the musical arrangement and emotional tone that each song conveys. One song, Ave Maria (by Charles-François Gounod) performed by Jacobi de Villiers and Eric Dippenaar, is “for… a woman who chooses to withhold her name”; another, “Everybody Hurts” (originally performed by Solange) – and re-recorded by Dope Saint Jude and Bujin, is dedicated to a person identified as “Flow.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the version recorded by The Braids; original by Queen) – performed by Nonku Phiri & Dion Monti is dedicated to Nondumiso Msimanga.

These newly produced cover-versions are also interrupted by ‘sonic disruptions’ at a particular point within each song; it is “a recurring musical rupture recalling the ‘broken record’ effect of a scratched vinyl LP.” [36] Gender-based and sexualised violence leaves many deeply traumatised; they too will remain irreparable ‘broken records’, fixated on the moment of damage. As Gqola writes, these “inserted breaks and repetitions”…disrupt audience members’ listening experiences “in the manner of a stuck record;” they “jar [them] into experiencing how rape continues to interject itself into the lives of eight women” and shows “how each rape ‘forever created a scratch in the lives of the survivors’.” [37]

But our discomfort, in the space of such awful re-call, also presents – in Goliath’s words – an opportunity “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.” [38] These disruptions in voice and sound are also indicative of survival and presence, in spite of the deep injuries we continue to carry in the wake of violence. Although “Death knocked on my door,” and though “He took away my innocence for sure…[and] left me on the sewer floor/With a soul no more,” as Dope Saint Jude and Bujin emote – this is also a space of powerful recovery.


Goliath’s methodology, in creating artworks about subjects who have experienced deep trauma and violence create necessary discussion about the ethics of representation – particularly when artists work with representations of others’ pain. Her practice is necessarily deeply ethical; much goes into considering the spaces in which her works are performed or shown, “approach[ing] the victim’s family of close community” whenever she begins working on a commemoration, to “request a scripted tribute, which is made available at the performance.” [39] She is well aware of the weight of the stories with which she is engaging, the effect that the hour-long performance has on the vocalisers – the exhaustion (both physical and emotional) that they experience as they take on this labour – and on audience members.

Given the subject matter with which each of Goliath’s works, she is often asked whether she wishes to have her work have an impact – socio-political effects, or a transformative impact on society. But she notes, in an interview, that her work as an artist “is not the same as advocacy and activism.” However, whereas a journalist may have ethical responsibility to cover “all angles,” being an artist allows her to focus on an individual – and solely on narratives and experiences that have, historically, been marginalised or (nearly) erased. Her work also helps counter prevailing ways of speaking about violence against women, LGBTQ people, and marginalised groups, which often addressed as though it is devoid of history. She notes,

“When I speak about racialised, gendered, and sexualised forms of violence, it gets “silo-d”, sectioned off into a separate spaces with no context. Having no causality. Yet we can go back to a history that has make patriarchy possible, and rape culture the norm.”

Her works show us that we cannot extract ourselves from violence; no matter how distant our lives may seem from the location of that violence, it is deeply entrenched in the particularities of our histories and legacies.

In her own scholarly writing, Goliath calls attention to the epidemic of violence against women and LGBTQIA+ persons, and systematic efforts at erasing their existences, agency, and subjectivity. Although her works often commemorate a single individual at a time, so that they are not rendered invisible as a hypervisible statistic, she is clear that behind each death is historically embedded, “physical and ontological violence” intended to nullify powerful presences and voices. [40] Goliath emphasises that even though rape and gendered violence is “deeply embedded within [her] own context of 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” – she rejects the notion that the country can be seen as an “exceptional” geo-political location of gendered violence.

Goliath’s works hail us. They call us to gather together, be mindful and conscious in the space of mourning. Being so immediately present in loss and pain tethers us to others’ experiences, bodies, and woundedness, however tenuous our connection may be, and despite the fact that – as Goliath maintains – the “injury of pain is always such that the pain one feels is never, and can never be, felt by another.” [41] Even if pain cannot be felt as a commensurate experience, engaging with performance facilitates a “difficult and complex…intersubjective encounter that unsettles” our passive viewership; we become, as Goliath asserts, “implicated subjects” wherein our bodily, emotional, and psychological selves are drawn into “ethical, political and often uncomfortable situations.” [42] It is here, in the performative moment – in the presence of discomfort and interconnection – that we begin the work of excavation and rebuilding. It is what Goliath – informed by Sara Ahmed [43] – calls a “different kind of inhabitance.” [44]

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.


[1] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[2] Goliath, “‘A Different Kind of Inhabitance’”, 125.
[3] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[4] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape,” 4.
[5] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[6] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[7] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[8] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[9] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[10] Gqola, Rape, 5.
[11] Gqola, Rape, 21.
[12] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape”, 3.
[13] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape”, 3.
[14] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape”, 3.
[15] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape”, 3.
[16] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape”, 3.
[17] Higgins, “Introduction: Rereading Rape”, 4.
[18] In South Africa, it was performed at the ICA Live Art Festival ’17, Cape Town (2017); Iziko Slave Lodge, Cape Town (2018), Centre for the Less Good Idea, Johannesburg (2018); at Verbo Performance Art Festival, Galeria Vermelho & Videobrasil, São Paulo, Brazil (2018); Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (2018).
[19] Goliath, “Elegy.”
[20] Goliath, “Elegy.”
[21] Goliath, “Elegy.”
[22] Goliath, Gabrielle. Email correspondence. April 22, 2019.
[23] Goliath, “Elegy – Eunice Ntombifuthi Dube.” Tribute by Thulisile Portia Dube. Centre for the Less Good Idea, Johannesburg, 2018.
[24] Goliath, “Elegy – Sizakele Sigasa & Salome Masooa.” Tribute by Khumo Modisane. Galeria Vermelho & Videobrasil, São Paulo, 2018.
[25] Goliath, “Elegy – Joan Thabeng.” Tribute by Phodiso Aphane. National Arts Festival, Makhanda, 2018.
[26] Goliath, “Elegy – Camron Britz.” Tribute by Mrs Britz. St Johannes Church (Spielart Festival), Munich, 2017.
[27] Goliath, “Elegy – Hannah Cornelius.” Tribute by Mr & Mrs Cornelius. Zeitz MOCCA, Cape Town, 2017.
[28] Goliath, “Elegy – Lerato ‘Tambai’ Moloi.” Tribute by Zandile Motsoeneng. Zeitz MOCCA. Cape Town. 2017.
[29] Goliath, “Elegy – Koketso ‘Queen’.” Tribute by a Friend. Gwen Frostic Art Centre, Michigan, 2016.
[30] Goliath, “Elegy – Ipeleng Christine Moholane.” Tribute by Isaac Sello Moholane. Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, 2015.
[31] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[32] Goliath, “Performing Loss”
[33] Goliath, Gabrielle. WhatsApp communication with author. May 14, 2019.
[34] Goliath, Gabrielle. Opening address. Johannesburg: Standard Bank Young Artist Exhibition, 2019.
[35] Goliath, “This song is for…”
[36] Goliath, “This song is for…”
[37] Gqola, “Gabrielle Goliath creates songs for survivors in scratched melodies.”
[38] Goliath, “This song is for…”
[39] Goliath, Gabrielle. Email correspondence. April 22, 2019.
[40] Goliath, Gabrielle. Email correspondence. April 22, 2019.
[41] Goliath, “‘A Different Kind of Inhabitance’,” 128.
[42] Goliath, “‘A Different Kind of Inhabitance’,” 131.
[43] Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 39.
[44] Goliath, “‘A Different Kind of Inhabitance’,” 131.


Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2015).

Goliath, Gabrielle. “‘A Different Kind of Inhabitance’: Invocation and the Politics of Mourning in Performance Work by Tracy Rose and Donna Kukama,” in Acts of Transgression: Contemporary Live Art in South Africa, eds. Catherine Boulle and Jay Bather (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2019): 124 – 147.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Eunice Ntombifuthi Dube.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Sizakele Sigasa & Salome Masooa.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Joan Thabeng.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Camron Britz.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Hannah Cornelius.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Lerato ‘Tambai’ Moloi.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Koketso ‘Queen’.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Elegy – Ipeleng Christine Moholane.” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “This song is for…” Gabrielle Goliath. Accessed April, 2019.

Goliath, Gabrielle. “Performing Loss / Gathering Communities: Some reflections on invocation, inhabitance, and the politics of mourning.” Public talk. SUNY Oswego. March 1, 2019.

Gqola, Pumla. Rape: A South African Nightmare (Johannesburg: MF Books, 2015).

Gqola, Pumla. “Gabrielle Goliath creates songs for survivors in scratched melodies.” New Frame. July 2, 2019.

Higgins, Lynn and Brenda Silver, eds. “Introduction: Rereading Rape,” in Rape and Representation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).