Billie Zangewa was born in 1973 in Blantrye, Malawi, but she lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Zangewa combines printmaking with rich surfaces and textiles to convey social and political messages, especially ones regarding identity, gender, and race.
She uses luxurious materials to juxtapose and display life in Johannesburg. Her "cut silk collages and cotton embroidery offer a rich medium with precious textures and a sensitive palette, feminine but never quaint."
Raw Silk = Raw Inspiration
She first discovered raw silk by accident. When she did, Zangewa became fascinated with Dupion silk. The artist collected swatches of Dupion Silk to collage her experiences as a woman in South Africa because she could not afford Dupion Silk at the time. However, Zangewa's lack of access to silk in the earlier days of her career led her to discover her unique artistic process. "My creativity comes from lack - I had to work from scratch - I would never have discovered the technique if I'd been able to buy huge swathes of fabric," she said during an interview with the Times Magazine.
Zangewa's intricate silk tapestries are not done justice by photos or prints. She specifically uses silk to reflect and channel light so that her work always looks different in various settings. These qualities of silk suggest that although different women experience slightly varying versions of Zangewa's story, their stories are cut from the same cloth.
"I’m dealing firstly with identity, as well as sociopolitics around gender and skin tone, in a gentle everyday manner." - Billie Zangewa
Pieces to Make a Piece
Women in art have traditionally been passive objects, the receiver of the male gaze; the artists and the buyers have predominantly been male. While there are many esteemed female artists, many of them have steered away from addressing the charged subject of femininity, especially in South Africa where the art scene is steeped in the trauma of politics. Thus, at art school, Zangewa and her female peers "were advised to disguise our gender, never show aspects of womanhood in the work. The idea was to desexualise ourselves visually as female artists because femininity in our art would not appeal to prospective buyers unless it was tied up with trauma and angst."
Thus, when Billie Zangewa first stepped into the art scene, she was criticised for excessively "feminine art" by South African Galleries. However, Zangewa persistently expressed and celebrated femininity and the domestic environment in her artwork. She "found that telling the story of my intimate life was a kind of personal empowerment; taking charge of my own story and using my voice."
Today, her works deal with identity and the sociopolitics of gender and race, and elevate the role of women in domestic and work life to "a heroine whose daily life is revealed through the scenes she illustrates, focusing on mundane domestic preoccupations, exploring universal themes that connect women to each other." She delves into the idea of motherhood and its impact on individuals and the collective whole. The politics in Zangewa's art are not overt. However, her gentle but tenacious empowerment of women continues to lead the art scene and the perception of women toward slow but definite progress.
"My interest is female strength and how to build it to defend myself. I'm scared of patriarchy - scared of men because of the confines of patriarchy that insist on controlling and diminishing women. - Billie Zangewa