Malawi-Born, Johannesburg-based artist Billie Zangewa celebrates and explores femininity and identity through textile works expressing her own personal experience.Read More
Exhorting the mantra that 'the personal is political', the artist subtly questions gender and racial stereotypes through colourful tapestries comprised of various fabrics that present images of her own domestic life.
Born in Malawi and raised in Botswana, Zangewa moved to South Africa to study fine arts at Rhodes University, graduating in 1995. After a brief return to Botswana, Zangewa returned to South Africa, setting herself up in Johannesburg.
Billie Zangewa's art practice was initially based around printmaking, but towards the early 2000s, she began working with raw silk cut-offs. The irregular cuts of fabric first presented a challenge to present complete images; a challenge that she ultimately turned to her advantage. In works such as Temporary Reprieve (2007) and Swimming Lesson (2020), voids and tears in the fabric not only highlight the materiality of her work, they allude to the imperfections and internal wounds within a person.
Zangewa's familiarity with fabrics extends not only to her early involvement in fashion, but also her childhood, having been taught to sew by her mother. The artist has early memories of her mother participating in sewing groups, which she recognised as safe space for the women to share struggles, demonstrating the 'soft power' of sewing among African women.
As Zangewa explained, in conversation with Ocula contributor Jareh Das, 'Sewing for me represents self-empowerment. It's a way for me to express myself; to use my voice, and express my identity as a woman. It's also a form of therapy.' Silk, as a by-product of the silkworm's transformation, serves as a suitable metaphor for the transformative process of creating these works.
Zangewa's early fabric works referenced her surrounding urban environment through cityscapes such as That Day (2004), though over time her focus shifted towards the personal.
In works such as Christmas at the Ritz (2006), which refers to the artist's experience in London as a model, the male gaze is her subject. Her perspective began to shift as she sought to look at herself through her own eyes. Zangewa's pursuit of deeper self-reflection is visible in The Rebirth of Black Venus (2010), with the open pose of the figure signalling a woman who feels safe and confident in her skin.
Billie Zangewa's main body of works features herself in domestic scenes described by the artist in an interview for the Tate as an example of 'daily feminism.' Works such as Ma Vie en Rose (2015)—a tapestry on pink silk that pictures the artist preparing to feed her child in the kitchen—exemplify the unseen activities women do at home, which ultimately keep the world running.
Being a mother has been a core part of Zangewa's work, as seen in works like Swimming Lesson (2020), which continues a long theme of exploring love in terms of motherhood and the growth of her child as an individual. In doing so, the artist also challenges antiquated ideals that a woman must choose between being a mother or an artist.
Though struggling to be acknowledged on the Johannesburg art scene for several years, Zangewa's work has featured in exhibitions across the globe since the mid-2000s, including in prominent institutions such as the National Museum of African Art—Smithsonian Institute, in Washington, D.C.; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; MACAAL in Marrakech, Morocco; and the Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2020, Zangewa held her first major solo gallery show in Paris, Soldier of Love, at Templon.
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2020
Galleries have reported stronger than anticipated sales at Frieze New York's Viewing Rooms, which opened to VIPs on 6 May. The online event, initiated after the physical fair was cancelled due to COVID-19, opens to the public from 8-15 May.
Billie Zangewa discusses sewing, turning the mundane into the relatable by expanding personal histories outwards through textiles, the importance of self-care, and why she considers herself a soldier of love.
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