Malawian artist Billie Zangewa uses silk and self portraits as a symbol for the female experience.

The African female artist’s profile is rising as she has been named the focus artist for the 2018 FNB JoburgArtFair, and ARTnews has listed her among their top ten African artists to watch. Art Radar takes a closer look at her distinctive practice.

Billie Zangewa, ‘Exquisite Fantasy’, 2014, silk tapestry, 138 x 105 cm. Image courtesy the artist and blank projects.

Billie Zangewa, ‘Exquisite Fantasy’, 2014, silk tapestry, 138 x 105 cm. Image courtesy the artist and blank projects.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Born in Malawi in 1973, Billie Zangewa originally trained in printmaking and graphic design before relocating to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1997, where she now lives and works. The search for financial independence saw her briefly working in the fashion industry before being awarded the prestigious Gerard Sekoto Prize in 2004. The award was given for a triptych of handbags that she created, titled Faith, Love and Hope, depicting cityscapes of Johannesburg. This was the stepping stone for the artist’s transition back to the visual arts.

The FNB JoburgArtFair, which features contemporary African art and held its 2018 edition from 7 to 9 September 2018, selected Zangewa as its featured artist this year. Fair Director Mandla Sibeko told Art Radar:

After many years of celebrating great artists who reside elsewhere in the world as featured artists, the FNB JoburgArtFair team felt it was time to focus on an artist who lives and works in Johannesburg and expresses lives lived here. Billie Zangewa’s quiet work has been included in many prestigious collections and exhibitions worldwide, and we are excited to, this year, present a large scale work to our FNB JoburgArtFair audience.

Click here to watch FNB JoburgArtFair Conversations: Billie Zangewa, 2018 Featured Artist from Arrtlogic on Vimeo

Narratives in silk

Zangewa is known for her fabric-based pieces. She creates images that are best described as a collage of silks, carefully appliqued and hand-sewn into place. The silk used is dupion, a type of raw silk that she sources worldwide. The fabric has a lustre and sheen that produces connotations of luxury. The unevenness of the weave also means that the fabric is less likely to move around in the initial stages of placing the pieces on top of each other.

When asked how she came to work in silk, the Malawian artist says:

At some point I went with a friend, who is an interior designer, to source fabrics and I discovered little swatches of dupion silk. When I took those back home and I put them up and had a look at them, they actually reminded me of the little glass panes in the city. Especially because, as you move the little pieces of silk around, the nuance, the reflection, the change is just like the little panels in the city. So that is really how I came to start working in silk.

In interviews, Zangewa has stressed the importance of planning and preparation. The initial drawing phase is where all potential problems must be worked out. Each work can take two to three months to complete. This practice grew out of necessity; like many artists early in their career, she needed to develop a method of making work that could be done anywhere, as she did not have access to a printing press or the luxury of a studio space.

In her method of hand sewing, Zangewa pays homage to women of the past and present who are able to create in stolen moments of time. Interestingly, her work is often described incorrectly as ‘tapestry’ or ‘silk painting’, implicitly raising her practice above the domestic and mundane.

Billie Zangewa’s subject matter is largely concerned with herself and her identity as a woman, as an artist and as a parent. Her experiences are both personal and universal. A common theme is “blending the roles of mother and artist.”

Billie Zangewa, ‘Mother and Child’, 2015, silk tapestry, 125 x 137 cm. Image courtesy the artist and blank projects.

Billie Zangewa, ‘Mother and Child’, 2015, silk tapestry, 125 x 137 cm. Image courtesy the artist and blank projects.

Snapshots of motherhood

In Mother and Child (2015), Zangewa is in the picture, attending to her son in a high chair. Both mother and child have been caught by surprise, their bodies twisting to face whoever has entered the room. The background fabric is an irregular shape, as though pieces of that coloured silk have been removed and used on another project. The irregular shape is a feature that appears in many of Zangewa’s works. The artists told Art Radar,

It initially happened organically. I was working on a piece of fabric from which I had cut a piece to work on something else and I almost cut it to make a regular rectangle shape, but then I realised that I needed the extra piece for my narrative, so then in the end I didn’t cut it. Afterwards, I realised that I liked the irregular shape as it leads the viewer to the medium, which can sometimes be mistaken for painting.

As her skill developed, Zangewa’s images became more sophisticated: the skin developed a variety of tones, and the use of colours became similar to some styles of screen printing or relief printing techniques. She told Art Radar,

I think the way that I build my images is influenced by the processes of printmaking. Sometimes I also leave areas of my work as flat colour and that is a tribute to printmaking, but I also enjoy the push and pull of flat and detailed.

Billie Zangewa, ‘Return to Paradise’, 2017, silk tapestry, 157 x 135 cm. Image courtesy the artist and blank projects.

Billie Zangewa, ‘Return to Paradise’, 2017, silk tapestry, 157 x 135 cm. Image courtesy the artist and blank projects.

A medium of transformation

Zangewa’s practice reinforces the values of ordinary actions. Her images contain a narrative for her audience to read. Her subjects are elegant, physically beautiful and well-dressed. The artist pays attention to the garments being worn, the light falling on the silk imbues the subjects and their clothing with a sense of graceful movement. “I want to make the clothing come alive,” she has said.

Silk is a deceptive fibre. It can appear delicate, but in reality is one of the strongest natural fibres. Silk becomes a symbol of transformation, of a life that is somehow more glamorous. Zangewa has stated that fashion photography, particularly the narrative works of Ellen von Unwerth, have influenced her aesthetic.

It would be easy to compare the Malawian artist’s work to the selfie culture of social media. However, she says that her aim is to subvert the traditional male gaze. Instead, she chooses to reflect her internal view outwardly to the world; a view of how she imagines she looks and feels. Her self-image is one of strength, of the capable woman who can do it all. In her own words, from a 2014 discussion with Jennifer Hunkin:

…It’s a relevant discussion and, more importantly, it’s about the female gaze. How a woman sees herself as beautiful through her own eyes. My protagonist (moi!) has evolved from needing the male gaze for affirmation to this perfect powerful being that does not look for approval outside of herself.

Mariclaire Pringle

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This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Related topics: Art Radar InstituteCertificate in Art Journalism and Writing 101African artists, profiles, self, textiles, women powerevents in South Africa

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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