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Billie Zangewa: Weaving Personal Histories, Collaging Textiles / Text Jareh Das

From woman paper fall 2019

« I say, so what? Is there something wrong with being a woman? Is there something wrong with expressing one’s femininity? Unfortunately, I have found these types of views prevailing and they really send the message that being a woman is something to be ashamed of and says a lot about how the patriarchal system works consistently to diminish women. It’s a terrible message and we should all be working together to break down these kinds of destructive ideas and beliefs. »

– Billie Zangewa

Billie Zangewa

South-African and Malawian artist, Billie Zangewa began her artistic career in printmaking which evolved into working meticulously with raw silk offcuts to create intricate hand-stitched collage textiles of variable scale that explore intersectional identity, the socio-politics of skin and gender as this relates to “women’s work.” Her textile collages capture everyday mundane acts such as working/lounging with a male companion whilst on a laptop (stolen moments, 2017), reading (In My Solitude, 2018), sunbathing (afternoon delight I & II, both from 2018) in often private moments with universal themes. Opting to work in textiles influenced by learning how to sew from her mother as a child, Zangewa describes her now signatory collages as capturing “the soft feminine power of stitching,” drawing attention to the textured surface of her works emblematic of the labor-intensive method of creation, as well as wider influences from painting, drawing, photography, film and fashion. As the central protagonist in most of her works, Zangewa seeks to challenge the historical stereotype of the black female body whilst speaking of normalising the female experience and confronting the shame that is often associated with different aspects of womanhood. In the interview that follows she discusses her beginnings in printmaking, materiality in her practice, textile traditions in both Malawi and South Africa, motherhood, alongside celebrating femininity in a thought-provoking practice weaving personal histories via textile collages. 

Jareh Das Did your previous experience as a printmaker influence how you make textile collages? 

Billie Zangewa: Definitely. Firstly, my lecturer was very adamant that we treat studio time like a regular job and keep regular daily hours, Monday to Friday. This is what has given me my discipline. We also worked with flat surfaces and detailed interludes or what I call “the push and pull” as part of the different printing techniques. I definitely allow my eye to guide me in the creative process determining where the minimal and flat or detailed should be. I have also adopted some of the stages in the technical aspect of it, starting with an idea, researching it, making what I call a template drawing on newsprint paper, which is the cheapest paper out there. This newspaper print is both useful and definitely the best for my purposes. I then include them to final artworks. The different types of paper in printmaking also opened me up to the idea of rich textured surfaces which I then adapted to silk which also has a rich textured surface.

Billie Zangewa, ‘Soldier of love’, 2020 Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels
Billie Zangewa, ‘The swimming lesson, 2020. Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels

Would you classify your practice as an expanded painting or drawing practice?  I am influenced by painting, drawing, photography and film, as well as fashion. When I was a young artist straight out of art school, I made miniature “paintings” with oil pastels in the classical tradition that I framed in decorative baroque frames, making reference to art history. For me it’s about creative self-expression using whatever visual references seem appropriate and are available at the time. I would not say that my practice is exclusively expanded painting or drawing, but I definitely draw. In fact, drawing is the most important part of my process. I absolutely love “classical painting” and I am always making reference to it, but really I’m just doing the “push and pull” I mention previously.

You began embroidering on silk in works such as City of Light, 2005, and progressed into working on larger scale with more intricate needlework in stolen moments, 2017 and vision of love, 2018. What first sparked this move to using textiles as your main medium?  I always say “that which I was seeking was seeking me” meaning that silk and I were meant to find each other, because I feel that it best describes why I started using textiles. Initially, I had no access to a printing studio, so I had to improvise but I quickly became disenchanted with what I was doing and was looking for something else. What I call “earth angels” were put on my path to guide me and point the way. It also came out of a love for fashion, needlework, embracing aspects of my female identity as well as a love of nature and then a fascination with the urban landscape. But really the spark was necessity and deprivation.

Are there any influences you draw from the history textiles from Malawi and South African, or are these more to do with your lived experiences of dual heritage?  Malawi has a rich textile history, producing and selling to the local public a textile known as the chitenge. When I was a child and living there and Kamuzu Banda was in power, for national celebrations, women had to wear the chitenge – wrapped like a sarong and a head scarf, the duku, with the Malawian flag and his image printed on it. The designs on these nation chitenges were more in the tradition of the designs found on the kanga. I have subsequently been introduced to hollandaise and other kinds of appropriated fabrics used by Africans as part of their traditional dress. My mother is Sotho and they wear the shweshwe fabric which is also a South Pacific originating textile probably brought by traders, but the Sotho people made it their own and wear it in their own fashions. There are rich textile histories on both sides of my mixed heritage, but really it was fashion itself that brought me to look at textile and I’ve approached it as a textile experience more that cultural identity.

Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels
Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels
Billie Zangewa, ‘Am I enough ‘, 2020.  Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels

Silk is an important part of African dress serving as a form of meta-language and material identity, particularly when one considers its sheen. Dogon for example, call this ‘daoula’ which is inherent to wild silk and described as a kind of “aura” of the textile that embraces the medicinal and magical properties of wild silk. Can you expand on the cultural significance of sheen in your works?  I would not say that there is a cultural significance for me. I am just drawn to the quality of the material and truly enjoy the fact that it is a by-product of the metamorphosis of the silkworm from egg to moth. I have always been drawn to rich textured surfaces and silk is the ultimate. Also, I love the historical significance of it, having been considered so precious that only kings and queens and the nobility wore it. I also completely understand when the Dogon say that it has magical and medicinal qualities, because it has bestowed its magic on my work giving it an impossible quality and it has also helped me to find healing through personal self-expression. Silk is truly a generous medium that bestows a kind of celestial light to my work.

Weaving, needlework, embroidery historically fell into ‘women’s work’ and ‘domesticity.’ As an artist working with textiles and a labor-intensive method in your practice what do you have to say to critics of works that are inherently feminine and show aspects of womanhood?
I say, so what? Is there something wrong with being a woman? Is there something wrong with expressing one’s femininity? Unfortunately, I have found these types of views prevailing and they really send the message that being a woman is something to be ashamed of and says a lot about how the patriarchal system works consistently to diminish women. It’s a terrible message and we should all be working together to break down these kinds of destructive ideas and beliefs.

Billie Zangewa, « Soldier of Love « , 2020. Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels
Billie Zangewa, « At the end of the day », 2020 Courtesy Templon, Paris – Brussels

How have black femininity and motherhood influenced your textile collages? Identity and self-examination have definitely influenced my practice. I realized very young the implications of being born not only female but black as well, which is a very challenging physicality to embody. I knew that I had to do what I could to soften the blow of the experience. In my work, I like to encourage myself and others struggling with the challenges they face. I share my personal experiences with the hope of having connection with others through the shared experience. Becoming a mother was the biggest event of my life and I was and am still compelled to share the joys and challenges of it. But also, to challenge the idea that women celebrating motherhood is a sentimental thing that should only be expressed privately. This implies shame and part of my practice is not only to normalize the female experience but also to confront the shame that is associated with different aspects of womanhood. I also can’t work the long hours that I did before the arrival of my son and this has given me a newfound appreciation of my work and I think it has actually improved my practice as I don’t have the luxury of time.

In woman paper fall 2019
Jareh Das
September 2019