Artist | Billie Zangewa, produces silk tapestries
BILLIE ZANGEWA | Malawi/England
by Michael Smith
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.'