by Michael Smith (June, 2007)
Billie Zangewa makes figurative works in which she records experiences and explores ideas she finds of interest. Her works are made from fabric, sewn painstakingly onto a base in a way that allows her to build a picture and suggest the illusionism of painting or photography, but which lets the textures of the various fabrics disrupt easy consumption. Zangewa's choice of materials resonates with her abiding interest in fashion. Many of her images also take fashion and glamour as their subjects, yet she avoids placing an all-too-predictable feminist slant on the phenomenon of fashion, choosing instead to use it as a formal base from which her gentle satire and social observations flow.
Zangewa works from home, often working on her bedroom floor or on the carpet in front of the television, preferring not to have a formal studio. She says she values the freedom this working gives her of being able to work as late into the night as she needs without concerns of safety or having to drive home afterwards.
The process that underpins the production of these works is layered, and involves a fair amount of planning and forethought. Mostly working from photographic sources she generates herself, Zangewa creates compositional plans in pencil and then makes colour studies, often in watercolour. Certain works that require accuracy of portraiture will have more detailed colour plans, in which the originals are broken up into flat facets of separate colour to allow for effective translation into fabric.
Zangewa often makes use of pieces of raw silk with which to build her works. Citing a moment she experienced as she drove down Johannesburg's Commissioner Street soon after moving there from Grahamstown, Zangewa relates how she was awed by the reflective quality of a number of the high rise buildings along that street. Later, upon visiting a fabric shop, she noticed how the raw silk swatches behaved in a similar manner to the glass, their reflections changing tone and hue as they shifted. She soon began experimenting with this fabric, allowing it to assert a new, painterly identity in the context of her street scenes, group scenes and portraits. She clearly revels in the quality of the silk, credibly claiming to be more strongly influenced by Issey Miyaki than artists like Tracey Emin or Ghada Amer, who use fabric in a comparable manner.
Text, or as Sean O'Toole more accurately terms it 'the written word', functions as a key element of Zangewa's works, lending them to interpretation as diary entries.
'What I take most pleasure in, as an artist, is making beautiful things. Not the superficial kind that first comes to mind, but a truth so profound that it resonates beauty. Damien Hirst's Mother and Child, Mario Benjamin's disturbing self-portraits - each of these works is so eloquently executed that amongst everything else it is also exquisitely beautiful. So no matter what message I am trying to convey in my work, I also strive for beauty.'
'Billie's work often asks the viewer to engage with the written word as much as it does with visuals.'
Sean O'Toole, former ArtThrob editor and currently editor of Art South Africa.
'Meeting Billie Zangewa is much like seeing her art for the first time, it takes your breath away... Understandably, many people who see her out and about, assume that she's a model or in a fashion-related industry. Fashion is an industry she's tailor-made for. But... it's not the fickle trends that excite her, but the creative expression of the eccentrics within the industry, the Jean-Paul Gaultier's and Karl Lagerfeld's of the world that she admires.'
Dion Chang, trend analyst and social commentator.
Billie Zangewa is currently showing at Afronova Gallery in Newtown. The solo show has proved to be a sell-out, with one work having been sold to William Kentridge, an accolade of which Zangewa is proud.
Zangewa held a successful solo show entitled 'Hot in the City', at the Gerard Sekoto Gallery at the Alliance Française in Parktown, Johannesburg in 2005. This show was the result of winning the 2004 Absa L'Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award. The title of this show was in part a reference to her self-proclaimed adoration of Billy Idol (who produced a song of that title) during her teen years, and reveals some of Zangewa's trademark Pop-inspired playfulness.
The exhibition featured portraits, urban landscapes and also works of a tentatively narrative nature, images that utilised a comic-strip-like mode of episodic storytelling. These works made use of drawing-like embroidery, in which whimsical statements like 'Come fly with me!' played off against satirical quotations of words spoken by a former lover.
One formal aspect that developed through this body of work, and which has remained with Zangewa since, is her use of irregularly-shaped formats. Often the base fabric onto which the image is worked will be an incomplete rectangle, as if it has had a small piece cut out of it. This developed out of a practical need to use pieces of fabric at the end of rolls, but soon became part of Zangewa's visual language, lending a sense of deliberate incompleteness to the narratives presented, and inviting the viewer to participate in finishing the story.
She held a one-person show at the Alliance Française, Gaborone, Botswana called 'With a series of gestures' in 1997. Upon moving to Johannesburg in that year, Zangewa produced handbags for exhibition, and also once-off bespoke handbags as fashion accessories. It would eventually be three of these bags that secured Zangewa the 2004 Gerard Sekoto Award.
Zangewa is continuing to produce silk constructions reflecting her experiences and observations. She is currently working on some pieces for a group show at Goodman Gallery Cape in July 2007. The exhibition is entitled 'Social Fabric', and it brings Zangewa together with two other artists, Liza Kentridge and Johannes Segogela, who also utilise fabric in their work.
In general, Zangewa wishes to extend her audience, ultimately aiming to be on global shows like the Venice Biennale. She believes that quality work is the key to establishing an international presence in the art world.
Billie Zangewa was born in Blantyre, Malawi in 1973. She studied Fine Arts at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, majoring in printmaking, graduating in 1995. She worked as an artist in Botswana after graduation, participating in group shows and later mounting a solo show. In 1997 she moved to Johannesburg, and worked in fashion and advertising. She also took part in group shows, exhibiting handbags. In 2004 she picked up on fine art again, producing works that revealed a synthesis between art and fashion, the silk tapestries of her established style. In 2004 Zangewa won the Absa L'Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award.
In 2005 Zangewa opened Afronova Gallery with curator Henri Vergon. While her art career keeps her too busy for involvement in the day-to-day running of this gallery, she remains part owner of the venture.
SELECTED SOLO SHOWS
2007 Solo exhibition, Afronova Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
2005 'Hot in the City', Gerard Sekoto Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
1997 'With a series of gestures', Alliance Française, Gaborone, Botswana
2006 'Nie Meer', De Warande Kunsthalle, Turnhout, Belgium
'Dak'Art', African contemporary art Biennale, Dakar, Senegal
2005 'Black Fine Art Show', Galerie Intemporel, New York, USA
2004 Absa l'Atelier Award exhibition, Absa Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
Brett Kebble Art Award exhibition, Cape Town International Convention Centre, South Africa
Aardklop Festival, Absa Top Ten, Potchefstroom, South Africa
'A South African group exhibition', Pujol-sur-Dordogne, France
2003 Handbags, Merely Mortal, Johannesburg, South Africa
Fashion Design, Design District, Johannesburg, South Africa
Playtime Festival, Johannesburg, South Africa
2001 Group show, Spark! Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
1999 Printwork, Rhodes University print retrospective, Albany Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa
1997 Artists in Botswana, National Gallery of Botswana
1996 Group show, Gallery Anne, Gaborone, Botswana
2004 Winner of the Absa L'Atelier Gerard Sekoto Award