Billie Zangewa was born in Blantyre, Malawi, and later moved to South Africa in 1997 in order to complete her studies in Graphics and Printmaking at the prestigious Rhodes University of Grahamstown. She was exposed to a different kind of reality with regard to the political climate that was present at the time, and did not suffer from any form of segregation. She made a diverse number of friendships that were formed without barrier, which eliminates any form of political presence in her work, but rather that of being female in a world dominated by the presence of men. “Thematically, her work revolves around the female presence in an inherently male dominated society. It’s about the affirmation of a triumphant independent African woman that translates into a brand of daily feminism”, her gallerist explain.
Every Woman, a piece displayed at the fair, is an affirmation to this statement. It depicts a working woman about to go out, dressed in fashionable attire picking up toys on her way out. There is no presence of a male figure in this scene. It is a piece where the woman depicted (as we imagine to be the artist herself) gets to explore her identity without being confined by social constraints. She turns the tables from male dominance to female dominance.
Fashion plays an important role in her work, Zangewa started out making silk cut bags stitching together scenes of derelict buildings and the homeless, depicting the scenes of Johannesburg’s CBD. The contrast with the luxurious fabric used, as well as the clientele it was meant for, is evident.
Her body of work comprises of around 120 pieces in total and only 5 are displayed, which took a lengthy 12 months to complete. That said the process is rather intricate, as she starts out with preliminary drawings as well as photographs she has taken. This gives her work sense of being part imagination, part reality. She depicts different episodes in her life ranging from periods of doubt, vulnerability and empowerment. As one notices, her work is never a perfect shape, but rather irregular. There are parts that have been cut out, which alludes to the fact that she goes against the grain in relation to what society would generally accept.
The current state of African art on the market is a global trend which continues to grow. There has been a massive shift in perception, and an explosion over the past ten years. This drive has been initiated by private collectors commissioning artists in order to explore different aspects of creation. The nonconformist Billie Zangewa is testament to this, described as “cosmopolitan, boldly courageous and fiercely independent”. Her tapestries depict episodes of her intimate life and relation to the world, her stance sets her apart from her contemporaries and her fiercely successful career continues to grow on a global scale.