The artist welcomes us at her home in Johannesburg, South Africa
[Billie Zangewa]: I think the ultimate act of resistance is self-love.
My name is Billie Zangewa and I'm a visual artist based in Johannesburg specialising in textile work. I explore universal themes, predominantly happening around the home front; so domestic scenes, so to speak, or what I like to call 'daily feminism'.
By putting a focus on the things that women do at home that aren't seen or appreciated or acknowledged and she's kind of saying you know this is part of my strength, this is how I keep society moving by doing these things that nobody sees me doing.
Well, you know, I'm a mother now so I don't have that much time. So I have to make the most of it but I do like to experience the fabric, you know, it's part of it, of the creative process for me is to be in the space and be immersed in it.
Basically, when I was in primary school, in Botswana, I think I was about 9 or 10 years old. My best friend at the time, Philippa, came to school one morning and she was like: 'Billie Billie there's something I really want to show you'. And she pulled out this pencil coloured portrait drawing of Princess Diana and I know it sounds kitsch to those who don't have the 80s context but she was an icon for us and it just touched me in a place in my stomach that I can't identify and I just knew right then and there that I wanted to give people that feeling that she gave me with her drawing.
I picked up a pencil from that day on I made the most awful drawings for years and years and years and everyone laughed at me, so I truly believe determination is the recipe for you know making your dreams come true. I don't think it's really talent at the get-go.
I've always had a strength of character but I think it's also the time that I was born in the 70s where, you know, women were still struggling and so I understood very quickly that I would have to be very solid in order to be able to navigate a patriarchal society where women were treated differently.
Johannesburg. I moved to Johannesburg it was in 1997 and I basically moved here to try and have a career as an artist. I grew up in Botswana and when I graduated from university I moved back home, and I tried my utmost to have a career but they just weren't enough collectors and there wasn't enough of a support system.
I love the energy of this city and I also like the people here; people are very open-minded I feel. There's warmth and then there's just that incredible electric energy which is so inspiring. When I made the move to Johannesburg, I couldn’t survive. I mean I ran out of money but I was born in Malawi so I've seen poverty you know I've been witness to real suffering so for me that didn't deter me.
I used to do what I call 'cityscapes'. That was the first subject matter, then the images became things happening to me in the city like failed relationships and being disappointed by lovers or whatever. So it was very much around the male gaze and then one day I was just like: 'You know what, I'm tired of seeing myself through somebody else's eyes. I actually want this thing to just be about me and my experience as an individual.’
The next phase, when I was doing deeper self-examination, really kind of begins with this work which is one of my most iconic works. In this figure basically, I stand alone, the gestures with my body are very open so you can see that, you know, this is a person who feels safe they don't have to cover themselves.
Ah Mika! Mika is the love of my life! That can never change. Other people can come and go but this is like I made him. He's the fruit of my womb. What can I say? He also kind of helped me to come into the whole domestic scene, the personal as political because I wanted to share this incredible experience that I was having with this little being with the world. So this is really just about the love that a mother feels for her baby and the most wonderful moment to stare at your baby in awe is when they're sleeping so this is about one such moment when my son is taking his nap.
Home sweet home.
So this is the work that I was telling you about 'The Swimming Lesson'. It's the work of my boy at his swimming lesson where he's actually really just alone trying to navigate the treacherous landscape of emotions. Initially I wanted it to be a kind of an extension on the domestic scene so it's like the swimming lesson and then there was supposed to be his teacher over here instructing him on his next stroke and then I would be somewhere here sitting on a chair just kind of watching the lesson and waiting. But as I was kind of thinking about the new phase of life that my son was going through and how difficult the transition was for him so then I realised that this work was an opportunity for me to express that moment where, he by himself, had to navigate these waters.
This is my kitchen studio. What I think I really like is the fact that you know when I'm working, and I look there and my son is there and he's playing so I can actually see him even if I'm immersed. And then also to this side then I've got nature which just like brings me to a zen space.
My art was kind of self-therapy and silk is a by-product of transformation, so I was really basically transforming trauma and pain into a beautiful work of art and like silk is also like this thing that's left behind by a transformation of an animal. So I really do feel that it really was a case of my material was waiting for me and that I had a rendez-vous with it.
When I started doing my work, I think people didn't really understand the social issues that I was dealing with because it was so subtle and so it was really rough. I get to 'Joburg' they say: 'Oh she's just decorative and she's just a craftswoman but when I got to America they understood that it was about breaking the myth of 'Black lives'.
We're just like everybody else I did so well, beyond my expectations, I had galleries headhunting me. I don't if you head hunt an artist and I got such incredible press and then I got quite good offers: a show in Paris with Templon A show in New York with Leeman Mopin. Yes!
I think the work that I'm doing is really just to elevate the place of Black women in the world because you know we are still like the most marginalised sector of our society. The ordinary Black woman needs support from society and by creating images around her intimate personal life we're actually saying: 'listen, look, understand that this person is having these experiences. That this person exists. She's a woman with everyday struggles.
As we tour the city of Johannesburg, we learn about what inspires and influences Billie Zangewa. From the love for her son, to her experience of silk as a 'transformative material' – Zangewa's focus is largely rooted in the home and plays into what she describes as ‘daily feminism.’