The FNB Joburg Art Fair is one of Africa’s leading contemporary art fairs focusing on artists from the continent and diaspora. The 2018 edition, which took place in early September broke new ground by choosing a textile artist as their featured artist.
Billie Zangewa, born to a Malawian father and South African mother, spent her childhood in Botswana before completing her art studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She currently lives and works in Johannesburg.
Billie’s signature style of layered silk collages depicting everyday public and domestic scenes are referred to in art circles as tapestries. The term tapestry usually refers to weaving or needlepoint, but not in Billie’s case. Her work consists of layers of dupion silk embellished with hand stitching and embroidery. She does not weave her materials, but she weaves multiple strands and layers of narrative and stories of both herself and her life into her work.
“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.” Billy tells of how she came upon her favourite material while accompanying an interior designer friend on a fabric sourcing outing. Billie collected free swatches of silk, ‘an incredibly seductive, sumptuous and generous material’ while out shopping. Once home the swatches reminded Billie of the reflective glass windows of the office buildings in the CBD inspiring her to create her first cityscapes.
Billie’s projects start off by researching photographs of her topics which she then reworks into line drawings on newsprint paper. The paper drawing is pinned to the silk base fabric before she starts building the layers of silk cut-outs to create a collage. Lots of cutting, layering and pinning later, she then hand-stitch the layers together to create her tapestries.
Billie tells stories. Her own stories about race, motherhood and domestic life, as well as those of the wider social-political world of gender, skin colour, and women’s role in the home and in society. Her tapestries depict normal, mundane, everyday (non)events in the home – kitchen, bathroom and bedroom – and in the street. Her political statements are subtle. She explores women’s relationships with their own bodies, their own femininity and their motherhood from a personal perspective, not from a male, or male-dominated society’s viewpoint.
“It took me a long time to be taken seriously by the South African art world. I was told my works were too decorative.” It was only after Billie’s work started attracting recognition in Europe and the US that the South African art world started taking notice. Her international audience understood and loved the intimacy and appreciated that she was celebrating herself and her own life in minute domestic detail.
FNB Joburg Art Fair
Mandla Sibeko, director of the FNB Joburg Art Fair says: “We wanted to focus on an artist who lives and works in Johannesburg and express lives lived here.” They succeeded. They also managed to resist the temptation to pick an artist whose focus was the political history of the country.
Politics and art
Billie’s politics are personal. It is not the Apartheid politics of South Africa. “I didn’t grow up in South Africa. It is not my context.” While artists around her were dealing with local political turmoil and change in their art, Billie’s focus was on more universal themes. Themes that was not yet appreciated and could easily be dismissed as decorative. “Curators often don’t appreciate beautiful art – they want to exploit the artist’s traumatic experiences. They are not interested in healing.”
Billie’s theme at the FNB Joburg Art Fair was The Garden. “There are many narratives of the garden that inspired the project. The Garden of Eden, The Constant Gardener, The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch and The Dream by Henri Rosseau. The garden is a kind of Utopia, but nature has a double personality – it has a beautiful side and a dark side. There is danger in beauty. It is also a space for excess and indulgence, so my work speaks to the sexual potency of the garden.”
Billie Zangewa’s silk tapestries convey a sense of fragility, both in the silk material and in the intimate scenes she depicts. Her work is multilayered, not just in her choice of material, but also in terms of the themes she explores. Her method of pinning, cutting, layering, and stitching is time-consuming and labour intensive which also refers to her theme of mundane domesticity and the role of women’s work in the home and in society.
The FNB Joburg Art Fair takes place every year in September in South Africa.