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Artists to watch: Billie Zangewa

Jun 19, 2017 | Design and Decor, Featured, Features

Everything is in the remix for three leading South African artists who work with familiar materials to create intriguing new forms signalling original ways of being

Could it be that we are living in the era of the epic fail? Failures of democracy and governance, failures of urban and spatial planning, the failure of the fossil fuel system that powers the global economy… These are no minor glitches. There are myriad ways in which the tried and tested, timeworn ways of doing things are quite plainly drawing a big bad blank. In a world in which repetitive systematic failure is a daily reality we navigate, there’s something particularly gratifying about art that doesn’t just represent or critique reality as we know it, but takes what we’ve got, scrambles the code and comes up with something magnetically unfamiliar. I’m thinking about three artists whose work was in circulation at this year’s Cape Town Art Fair: Billie Zangewa, Igshaan Adams and Gerhard Marx. Adams and Marx have much in common in that they both explore arcane, semi-abstract languages of sign and code – calligraphy, maps, mazes and immersive (rather than objective) perspective. But aesthetically their work is far from proximate. In this article we keep the spotlight on Billie Zangewa.

Zangewa stands apart. In terms of content, her work is more directly representational, unabashedly inhabiting and playing about in the territory of pop. Take, for example, her silken self-portrait that was selected for the Bus Expo initiative at this year’s Art Paris Art Fair and circulated around the City of Love. In stitched-together cloth she depicts herself wearing a sleek turquoise blouse and pants, and a pair of slip-on black stiletto heels. So far, so glam… More incongruously, she is holding a teddy bear and a toolbox in her hands, and stands in the centre of a lounge surrounded by her son’s toys.

The two worlds of glamour and motherhood unexpectedly collide in a refreshingly sassy portrait of everyday life. In this sense, Zangewa’s work is less speculative and abstract, but in casually mashing together domestic and cosmopolitan realities she also forges a fresh vocabulary of being.

IT’S A KIND OF MAGIC

There is a sensual aspect that spans the surfaces and textures of each of these three artists’ work. But mostly it is their mode that sounds a common chord. Each of them works with known materials – stuff that comes with its own familiar clutch of associations and correspondences – breaks it down into pieces and reconstitutes it anew to propose a fresh grammar, manner or way of thinking/being. For Zangewa it is lushly hued silks and thread; for Adams it is nylon rope, string, beads and found fabric; for Marx, it is organic plant matter and archival maps. In each instance, the artist performs a kind of alchemy of making on their base materials to emerge with a fresh proposition that is alluring, provisional and hypothetical in equal measure. The open-ended phrase that seems to run between the textured layers and hum across the sculptural surfaces of their work is ‘what if’…

YOU RECENTLY HAD A SELL-OUT SHOW AT THE ART PARIS ART FAIR – WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE?

It was surreal. Really affirming but at the same time overwhelming. I am truly appreciative of all the love and support I received, not only from collectors and press, but also from the people who visited the booth and had so many positive things to say. It was an unforgettable experience.

“Along the way I discovered fashion and fell in love with the fantasy of it as well as the luxurious haute couture fabrics.”

YOU’VE BEEN REPRESENTED BY AFRONOVA GALLERY IN JOHANNESBURG FOR MANY YEARS, BUT APPARENTLY YOU’VE ALSO JUST SIGNED UP WITH BLANK PROJECTS IN CAPE TOWN. HOW DID THAT PARTNERSHIP COME ABOUT?

Jonathan [Garnham] approached me and we had a few meetings and discussions, then after a few months he suddenly made me a concrete offer. I liked his decisiveness.

HOW WOULD YOU SAY YOUR CURRENT BODY OF WORK DIFFERS FROM EARLIER CREATIONS? WHAT NEW DIRECTIONS/TECHNIQUES ARE YOU EXPLORING?

In the beginning I was trying things out, trying to find my voice. That was when I depicted cityscapes. Then I started to develop my personal narrative, which is now my preoccupation. I am using the same medium but I was more crafty and experimental in the beginning. Now I’m just totally obsessed with the silk and what it can do. For me now, silk is the hero – no acrobatics necessary.

WHAT IS YOUR WORKING STYLE?

I do most of the work in my head, working on something until I see it clearly. Then I take what I call research photos, which I use for line drawing on newsprint paper – this is where the elements of the narrative come together. From there, it’s cutting and pinning using the drawing as a template and then finally, sewing. I work everywhere in my home; in my bed, on the floor in front of the TV, on the dining table… It’s always been like that. I’m a bit allergic to any space that says ‘work’ – then I can’t do any. The sewing part is definitely like meditation in its repetition. It’s calming. I listen to music while working, mainly Beyoncé because she gives me courage with her lyricism and passion. I love Rihanna for her rebellion; Busi Mhlongo for her raw energy; Idir for his spirituality and Chet Baker for pure bliss. For the sewing part, I pretty much always watch Sex and the City. It’s a ritual.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MATERIAL AND CONTENT OF YOUR WORK?

I’m dealing with feminine issues and telling stories about a female protagonist using a technique that is traditionally a female pastime. The stories are of a strong yet delicate figure, while silk itself is visually powerful yet incredibly delicate and fragile. I also enjoy the fact that silk is a by-product of transformation and I am transforming personal experience into empowering self-expression.

WHERE DO YOU DRAW INSPIRATION FOR THE SCENES AND VIGNETTES DEPICTED IN YOUR ARTWORKS?

My scenes mainly depict personal experiences, daily life and shared universal experience, mostly on the domestic front, but in other contexts as well. Motherhood has been an important influence and my son is my biggest inspiration; with him I am having so many new life-enhancing experiences.

Credits: Photographs: Igshaan Adams/Blank Projects, Billie Zangewa/Afronova Modern and Contemporary Art, Gerhard Marx/Goodman Gallery, Text: Alexandra Dodd

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