For most visual art admirers outside Malawi, they have feasted on magical pieces of embroidery by one Billie Zangewa. Her intricate tapestries mostly depict scenes about life such as women, children and nature.
Talk of theme of identity, this has been a reoccurring subject as she continues to turn pieces of raw silk into intimate portraits.
While she may be little known, Zangewa, an artist who has been making it big globally, including in Europe’s art capitals, is Malawian.
“I was born in Malawi and grew up in Botswana. I attended university in South Africa where I currently reside. I am in touch with some of my family, but haven’t been to Malawi for years,” she said in an interview.
Originally, the artist trained in printmaking and graphic design before relocating to Johannesburg. After a short stint with fashion, she transitioned back to visual arts.
“I knew that I wanted to be an artist when I was very young and so everything I did everyday was to make my dream come true,” said Zangewa.
To date, she is one of the most revered visual artists in South Africa and a constant feature on art exhibition installation views.
She said: “Much later, I knew that there was such a thing as an artist and that one could study it at university, which is what I went on to do. After graduating, I went out into the world to try and make a living as an artist. It was a challenging road, but finally I got to where I am today.”
The artist has been around for close to three decades showcasing her work on the African continent.
She makes her art pieces using fabric.
“It is narrative-based centred on daily life and the mundane. I use myself and my own experiences as the centre of my stories,” said Zangewa.
The artist said she uses textile, mainly raw silk.
The last few years have seen her works rise on the European art scene and currently, she is part of the artists participating in the Africa 2020 Season Women Focus at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
“The exhibition is called Morning Glory, which is about my appreciation of a new day,” said Zangewa.
The exhibition runs from January 22 to May 30, gathering the works of 16 women artists from several countries on the African continent and in the Diaspora.
It is exploring a contemporary African art scene that is little represented in France, according to the exhibition’s website https://frenchculture.org/events/12802-africa-2020-power-my-hands.
Introductory information on the website reads: “Based on personal stories, the artists address social issues for women, including, body, sexuality, self-representation, maternity, and beliefs. The exhibition explores the relationship of black women to public and private space. This is through unspoken realities and their own relationships with the world. The creations presented-painting, pottery, photography, video, performance, embroidery etc. —celebrate the emancipator energy of the ‘power of their hands.”
The journey, in general, has been rewarding the artist says, while looking forward to more moments.
“It’s been very exciting and affirming. I feel that if today was to be my last day on earth, that I would be content, knowing that against the odds, I made my dream and passion come true,” said Zangewa.
As an artist best known for figurative works, depicting last year’s lockdown in South Africa saw her capturing life during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My work is autobiographical, using my own experiences. The fact that I am representing a black female body immediately creates a specific configuration of human identity. My themes are universal so that anyone anywhere in the world can relate and see themselves in my work.”
However, the artist confessed that her Malawian side does not come out directly in her tapestries.
“I left Malawi when I was young and had a very multi-cultural upbringing and this is what comes through in my work and that is why I focus on universal themes,” she said.