For many of us, the past year has proven to be an unexpected impetus for introspection and contemplation. For textile artist Billie Zangewa, a homebody, lockdown has been a moment of poignant reflection on her own life, out of which has come the narratives of her silk tapestries. Her most recent work is a glimpse into how she navigates her interior world. Here, the viewer finds kinship in shared vulnerabilities, especially during the pandemic. Unapologetically centred in the domestic space, her work amplifies the theme of women and their interiority.
The household has often been depicted as a space occupied by women’s “timid” efforts in a world that has struggled historically to embrace them fully. But Zangewa describes her home as her safe space, in which she found her grounding eight years ago when her son was born. Her work honours the home, and women’s place within it, as a space of creativity and self-actualisation. Connecting with me via Google Meets from her home in Johannesburg, she is candid about the struggles she has faced in acclimatising to new ways of existing as a family within the home space during lockdown — something with which many parents will find resonance.
For Zangewa, the kitchen conjures up feelings of warmth and intimacy. “I think just the connecting ceremony of a family sitting down together to eat food is a very spiritual experience.” Her multi-purpose, light-filled kitchen is her preferred place of work. Zangewa traces the fluidity with which she experiences her home — as a place to live, and to create and enjoy work — to a childhood home in Zomba, Malawi. “Working in the kitchen for me is a kind of evocation of my childhood, because I always worked at home, in the domestic space. So even if it was in the TV room, while the rest of my family were watching TV or playing games, it was always in the comfort of this space.”
Some of her pieces also speak to the many ways we have all had to think about keeping a space for ourselves and each other without the support of our extended communities. “There are so many of us around the world dealing with the same challenges: losing someone close, and mourning during lockdown when you can’t bid the person farewell. These are things that many other people are experiencing too.”
At the beginning of her career, Zangewa dedicated herself to a medium that would subvert ideas of what was perceived as “serious” art, making handbags depicting cityscapes. Historically, terminologies like “high” and “low” art created a negative power chasm where weaving, sewing, and textile work were undervalued, categorised as craft, and dismissed as women’s work.
One of the first winners of the Absa L’Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award (2004), Zangewa set out to explore her identity and challenge this status quo. Looking at her pieces, one notices the sharp and rugged framing, contrasting with the delicacy of the silk. “What I’m trying to say is, ‘Let’s love that part of ourselves [that we find shameful] just as much as we love the part of ourselves that the world accepts.’ To just come out into the world and say, ‘Yes, I’m a wounded person. But I have so much hope. And I have love.’ That is important.”
Billie Zangewa, A Thread for a Web Begun, curated by Dexter Wimberly, is showing at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco.
Date: 20 October 2021 to 27 February 2022
The show is a survey of selected works from her most recent Wings of Change (2020) series and her earlier Rebirth of the Black Venus (2010) series