Billie Zangewa – the fierce feminine

Emily McDermott

Unsparing yet languorous, the Malawi-born artist's work interweaves strength and tenderness

The artist  Billie Zangewa opens her front door, saying hello through a gate. She replaces the key in her hand with a new one, turns another lock and pushes the grid of wrought iron forward. ‘We always keep everything locked, just in case,’ she says as she heads through the foyer into the living room and toward the kitchen in the open-plan house in Parkhurst, a picturesque suburb of Johannesburg. Later, before revealing her bedroom-cum-studio, Zangewa admits she’s an introverted, private person, so it’s a paradox not only that we’re in her home but also, she says, that she shares her ‘most intimate self’ with strangers through her artwork.

A version of this self is depicted in a work in progress hanging parallel to her bed: a self-portrait of the artist on a couch, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee, has been sketched with pencil on newsprint paper that has been taped to the wall. Zangewa will pin the drawing onto pieces of raw silk, cut the fabric and sew it by hand to create In My Solitude—one of five works she is currently making to present, with her Cape Town gallery blank, at Art Basel Miami Beach, where she will also be participating in a panel discussion entitled  Feminism: The Global View.

In My Solitude reflects the Malawi-born artist’s overarching practice, in which she often depicts herself, her son, and other loved ones during everyday moments through layered silk tapestries. In Ma Vie en Rose (2015), for example, against vibrant hues of yellow, orange and pink, Zangewa is shown standing in a kitchen, wearing a bathrobe and holding her baby. Muted blues, beiges, and browns, meanwhile, were used to create Domestic Scene (2016), an image of the artist and a man showering together. Another work, Temporary reprieve (2017), is a stunningly simple piece that shows her son sleeping on a blanket with a pacifier next to his head. Sitting on the patio in her backyard, Zangewa says that she believes the best way to fight the patriarchy is not by going to war with it but, rather, by showing one’s appreciation of and solidarity with domesticity and femininity.

‘If you have to fight against something, there’s a problem. There is another way we can circumvent and empower ourselves without having to go to war with the system,’ she says. ‘I use fabric and sewing, which traditionally is a female pastime, to empower myself. I tell my personal story, how it’s happening on the home front, and show the intimate life of a woman, which usually we’re not encouraged to do.’

Within these private scenes, she also addresses sociopolitical topics, including gender, race, and wealth. Her work Please Call Me (2018) speaks about the act of waiting for a call in the early stages of a relationship and simultaneously references a South African mobile app of the same name. The application allows someone to send a free text message with the titular phrase when they are out of airtime on their phone, thus enabling marginalized communities to communicate. Mood Indigo (2016) depicts a group of women sewing by hand together but also conveys a deeper message. As a child, Zangewa watched her mother and her mother’s friends work with textiles. ‘Some of those women had issues at home and then they’d come together as a group and talk about it,’ she says, before taking a sip of coffee. ‘I saw how sewing would ease some of that anxiety and pain.’ In this way, Mood Indigo speaks to finding not only a safe space and community but also a place of respite as a black woman in the world.

Even though she, too, learnt how to sew at a young age, Zangewa eventually shifted her attention and studied printmaking, with a focus on lithography, at Rhodes University in South Africa. ‘I’ve always worked with fabric,’ she says with an earnest smile. ‘I just never knew it would be my medium.’ Zangewa returned to textiles by chance a few years after graduation, around 1999, when she accompanied a friend who was sourcing fabric in Johannesburg and began collecting sample swatches herself. Lithography required a studio and expensive equipment, whereas free pieces of fabric quickly amounted to a small collection. She began making patchwork bags and quilts depicting various cityscapes. When she could afford bigger pieces of fabric, she started making the collage-type works for which she is now known, with one large piece of silk acting as the canvas onto which smaller pieces are sewn. This turn is marked by La Danse (2004), an image of a black woman in a crimson ball gown dancing with a white man in a pale grey suit set against a sky-blue background and a flirtatious exchange embroidered in black: ‘Name? Billie. Yours? What, my name? Yes silly! […] Dinner? Maybe. Tomorrow? Perhaps. Is that a “yes”?’ ‘That was the beginning of playing with a personal narrative and juxtaposing the graphic element, the flat space, that I’d learnt about while at university with a more painterly form,’ Zangewa says. ‘Instead of working with either print technique or paint technique, I was starting to combine the two.’

Translating the deeper meanings behind her works for the artworld, however, didn’t come without struggle. It wasn’t until her work made it to France in the early 2000s and later to the United States in 2013 that people began paying attention and understanding the layers. ‘In France, I felt there was a little bit of an idealizing and objectification, that I was just an object,’ she says. ‘When I showed in New York, the American people started seeing my sociopolitics. American politics are very, very complicated and the history is loaded, but I think there’s a connection between being black in America and being a black woman in the world.’ All of a sudden, after New York, she recalls, ‘everyone else was looking and going, “Oh, there are politics in Billie’s work! It’s not just her looking pretty, holding her baby.”’

Back in her bedroom, she picks up a plastic bag on the desk opposite her bed and then brings it to the kitchen table. She gently removes pieces of colorful silk delicately pinned together, waiting to be sewn. In this piece, Love Supreme, her son is depicted sitting on the living-room floor, playing with toy cars. ‘Watching something so mundane like that can fill you with so much emotion,’ she says. ‘I love being a mom. I love molding the society of the future. I have a little boy, so in him, I can create a sensitive, strong man who loves and respects women. That is my social responsibility.’ Zangewa then explains that another piece in the works will be called Buffalo Soldier and show her taking her son to school. While the title directly references the black cavalry units of the US Army that fought in the Indian Wars, recast by Bob Marley as a symbol of black resistance, it also addresses ‘how hard it is to be a single parent,’ Zangewa says, ‘but how I do it. I take care of my little man, so I’m a soldier.’

Billie Zangewa. Photo by Andrew Thomas Berry.
Billie Zangewa. Photo by Andrew Thomas Berry.

Discover more artists featured in Art Basel Miami Beach here .

Top image: Billie Zangewa, In My Solitude (detail), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and blank, Cape Town.