'Sweet Dreams', 2010, Billie Zangewa, Hand-stitched silk collage
Guest edited by Deborah Nash
On show at Brighton CCA, 24 February – 13 May 2023
Brighton CCA Billie Zangewa North Gallery. Image courtesy of Rob Harris
Born in Malawi, brought up in Botswana and resident in Johannesburg, artist Billie Zangewa brings a capsule collection of her works in silk to Brighton’s Centre for Contemporary Arts for her first solo exhibition in the UK, which will tour to John Hansard Gallery, Southampton and The Tramway, Glasgow. Seven textile collages of dupion silk depicting scenes from the artist’s every-day life are displayed in the North Gallery. In the adjoining South Gallery is a newly commissioned work, Paradise Revisited, featuring mother and child (Zangewa and her son Mika) relaxing in an empty holiday resort, while the swimming-pool setting repeats in a neighbouring work Game. Unusually, prints of Zangewa’s working drawings taken from photographs are included to give a complete picture of her practice.
Artistic director of Brighton CCA, Ben Roberts, says of the exhibition: “It is a challenge to the often reductive prejudicial view of black women in culture and the media generally, replacing it with something more rounded and three-dimensional.”
Zangewa’s silk pieces illustrate the extent to which textiles have joined the fine art canon. Her domestic subject matter, occasionally tipping towards the banal, are elevated by the sumptuousness of the silk, creating pictures of ‘daily feminism’, showing how women keep family and society running smoothly. The exhibition title, A Quiet Fire, suggests gentleness as well as strength as women go about their daily lives.
I interviewed Billie Zangewa at Brighton CCA’s press view in February 2023 and her answers are thematically arranged below.
'Paradise Revisited', 2023, Billie Zangewa, Silk Collage, Brighton CCA South Gallery. Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery
Paradise Revisited offers a view of sunny skies and pool of water in a holiday resort. In the distance, loungers are lined up, empty but expectant-looking; in the foreground, two are occupied by the relaxed form of a mother, her legs repeating the curve of the lounger arms as she lies next to her son. Sun shades sprout like palm trees, some open, others closed, beneath tropical foliage. The grain and creasing of the silk cut-outs inspire a sensation of a moving breathing world; you can almost feel a breeze stir the leaves or the sunshades; you can almost imagine the shimmering light retreating from the misty blue sky.
As Brighton is a seaside resort, I asked about this connection to Paradise Revisited.
“I love to shower, I love to bath, I love to swim and be near the sea,” Zangewa laughs. “Water is a powerful element, but I decided not to be too literal about it. I wanted to give people a reprieve – it’s cold outside, the sea is grey but when they come here, they can get lost in this little fantasy of a moment in the sun…”
Zangewa studied fine art at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, where famously a strange fish was found by the captain of a fishing trawler in the estuary, later identified as a coelacanth, believed to be extinct. “I saw the coelacanth in the geology department there. We used to hitch to the coast. I went to the sea a lot when I was a student,” she says.
Paradise Revisited is distinctly different from the other works in the exhibition: modernist in style, with a focus on formal abstraction where shapes are the main concern above facial features, light and cast shadows.
SILK & SEWING & SIGNATURE
'Sweetest Devotion', 2021, Billie Zangewa, hand-stitched silk collage
The artist’s use of silk began with a chance visit with a friend to a fabric shop where she picked up a handful of colour swatches. “After I graduated, I found it really really hard to make a living as an artist and so I moved into fashion and retail and advertising…” she explains. Drawn to the rich reflective surfaces of dupion silk but unable to afford to buy it in bulk pushed Zangewa to forge her own language of cloth-collage, using scraps of shiny material to describe highlights on a face or the gleam of light on a wine glass or water bottle. The effect is three dimensional, almost sculptural, and carries metaphorical connotations of the collaged life-style of working mothers, who combine home-making and childcare with day job and relationships.
The way the pieces are tacked together by hand and hang on the wall, puckered and fraying, creased and crumpled, with shadowy asymmetrical edges, brings to mind the fabrics we choose to clothe our bodies in, items that are fragile and impermanent.
Zangewa reuses cut-out silk from one work to another that lends them fluidity and dynamism; these are not pictures fixed in a regular frame format; their geography is determined by previous works, in which they’re in dialogue.
“I like those irregular edges, a trauma, an intervention from the outside; we’ve all got wounds and scars…” Zangewa is quoted as saying in an interview with Ben Luke (The Art Newspaper) where she talks of working from her kitchen table with silk pieces pinned to her wall.
The artist now has an assistant to help assemble her collages for exhibition, “but if I’m not working for a show, I like to sew myself because it’s so therapeutic and peaceful…you do go into a tranquil space when you sew…”
Each collage has a tiny embroidered signature like a tattoo on flesh that verifies the piece as her own and complete. Text and labelling have appeared in The Inquisition, Rebirth Of The Black Venus (not displayed) Christmas at the Ritz (not displayed) and many others. “Words are important and add to my visual storytelling,” she says. “When I started off, I used quite a lot of text in my work and then I got more into titles…”
HOME & FAMILY ALBUM
'Every Woman', 2017, Billie Zangewa, Silk tapestry
Zangewa’s tapestries (as she calls them) have evolved from the overtly political, to the more subtle, embodying ‘the personal is political’ motto. Finding herself single and a mother meant that Zangewa spent more time at home with her young son. Through her work the domestic space became a theatrical setting for family and friends while the objects surrounding them became props. “Objects tell a story about the person,” she explains. “I love orchids and potted plants and I return to these again and again…”
In Every Woman, toys spill out onto the tiled floor while Zangewa stands statuesque and assertive in glam Louboutin shoes that show another identity beyond motherhood. “People forget your sexual side. I’m still Billie…I’m hot-blooded,” she says. Every Woman displays her multi-identity as well as multitasking, sinuous and sexy with both hands busy with picked-up objects and in the background an unfinished work is propped up on the kitchen table.
A text commissioned from Deesha Philyaw to accompany the exhibition captures this seesawing between home and the outside world:
At nap times, stepping over planes, trains, and games, you run-walk-strut from the house into the backyard, wearing your pretty peep-toe stilettos. You look, fly girl...
I ask how her son responds to her art. “He absolutely loves it,” she says. “He gets to see himself as a baby, toddler and going to school and now that he’s older he’s interested in football and we go on holidays together…I said to him, imagine, I’m creating a visual diary for you, when you’re a grown man you’ll look back on my images and it will remind you of moments in your life…”
'Sweet Dreams', 2010, Billie Zangewa, Hand-stitched silk collage
“There was no institutionalised racism or segregation in Malawi,” says Zangewa of her birth place. “I then grew up in Botswana, which was a very integrated country. When I was young, I socialised with everyone from around the world, so I didn’t have that apartheid experience. When I went to university [in South Africa] I was worried that everyone was going to see my skin tone and it was just going to be a thing the whole time…”
Women have been historically marginalised by art institutions (a 2019 study of major US art museums revealed that 12.6 % of the collections’ artworks were by women). There is currently an upsurge of black artists putting themselves in their artworks and a movement among black female artists to address this imbalance in galleries and museums. Zangewa is more concerned with self-exploration and following her own path. “It’s a personal journey for me,” she says. This too is a trend, to be oneself and not a representative of a political faction. Commenting in the FT, curator Koyo Kouoh says black female artists are moving away “from the feelings of lack or pain or loss or struggle and charge towards the reality of abundance. Of opulence. Of swag. Of aesthetics. Of delight. Of favour. Of joy. Of desire….”
A Quiet Fire is packed with luxurious colours in seductive shapes and textures. Questions hover around the use of silk in an age that is sensitive to the exploitation of the natural world. Much as I admired Billie Zangewa’s tapestries and collages, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the installation. The slatted walls, the mix of framed work and hangings, the fact that Paradise Revisited and Game looked a little lost in the South Gallery, despite their scale. Still, the exhibition offers a taste of another life in a far-off place as well as a day out in Brighton.
A Quiet Fire by Billie Zangewa is on show at Brighton CCA, 24 February – 13 May 2023.