Artist Spotlight: Billie Zangewa
Bold, meticulous, and honest tapestries are a reflection of Billie Zangewa’s interaction with her environment and emotions.
A drawing a childhood friend had made inspired Zangewa to spend her days perfecting the skill in elementary school. Her love of art carried her through high school where she was able to focus and hone her skill. Her parents, initially skeptical of her desire to study fine arts, eventually came around as she expressed her refusal to do anything else. At this time she attended Rhodes University in Grahamstown and graduated with a BFA in graphics and printmaking.
After university she moved back to her hometown in the suburbs of Botswana. Here she explored pastels and the relationship between woman and environment. She studied native fauna which was the start of her intrigue with environment. This shows a continuity between her old work and new. After moving to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1997, she began to explore textiles while working in fashion and advertising. Her transition into textiles was natural; she described it as embracing her femininity through her choice of medium. It was also reminiscent of fluffy comforters and soft curtains that sparked a sense of comfort and nostalgia. Her tapestries began as simplistic blocks of color as she was learning about the nature of fabric. As she became more experienced, she was able to express herself more intricately. The process is laborious as there is layer upon layer that results in rich and detailed figures and objects reminiscent of an oil painting. There is no preliminary sketch, but her composition gets worked out as a line drawing on a template before she begins sewing. Her silk is sourced from all over the world. A luxurious fabric that she has described as foreign to her and a reason why she is enamored with it.
The silk compliments the glamour of her imagery. Her figures stand tall and don thoughtful ensembles that Zangewa considers crucial to her story. She is inspired by Ellen Von Unwerth and Kerry James Marshall. Ellen is a fashion photographer known for her fun and lively shoots. She encourages movement and nudity. Zangewa is attracted to her images because of the narrative that is not often present in fashion photography. She loves the duality of glamour, model, and story. Zangewa aims at highlighting fashion as well. She considers it sculptural and as much a part of fine art as painting and other media. She had a stint making handbags in 2004 where she depicted Johannesburg landscapes titled, “Faith Love and Hope.” Kerry James Marshall is an American oil painter who depicts black identity that is absent from western fine art. He paints flat areas in saturated colors that depict figures in everyday environments. The significance of African culture shines through visually and contextually in both artists work.
- Leg pull: Bumpy Slide, from ‘Heimat’. Photograph: Ellen von Unwerth, Courtesy of The Guardian -
Zangewa’s work is autobiographical. It is a personal manifestation of herself. She begins by recalling an experience and the emotion that coincides. This manifests as honest depictions of failed relationships, everyday moments as a mother, or an expression of traumatic events that act as a release. Ultimately, her stories are a depiction of how she sees herself and a testament to her sense of peace. This helps her work through her feelings and acts as an opportunity to share her story.
Johannesburg makes a reoccurring appearance, mingling with her figures as an integral part of life. She describes the character of the city as beautiful, energetic, artistic, with pockets of decay. The decay is a natural transformation, she relates it to the aging of a human. It is a sign of experience in the way that wrinkles are. Her Piece, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” deals with biracial relationships and her feelings of unease in certain situations. She described the experience as a stark awareness of color that had not exposed itself previously. The piece invokes a sense of awkwardness and alienation.
- “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” 2013 -
A recent series from 2015 shows her thoughts on being a new mother. She focuses on everyday moments that are all together glamorous, motherly, simple, and real.
- “Exquisite Fantasy” 2014 -
-”Mother and Child” 2015 -
-”Return to Paradise” 2017 -
Hunkin, Jessica. “Creative Women: Billie Zangewa” Between 10 and 5. 2014.
Atak, Awut. “Billie Zangewa on Expressing her Black Femininity and being a Mother and Artist.” True Africa. 2015.
1:54 Forum 2014, Christine Eyene in Conversation with Billie Zangewa and Marcia Kure. 1:54 Forum Contemporary African Art Fair. 2014.