“Soldier of Love” (2020) by Billie Zangewa
DRESSED IN A KHAKI TRENCH COAT, Billie Zangewa holds her young son’s hand, escorting him to school. He wears a backpack and a school uniform. Lush green foliage crowds their path. Behind them, the sky is a luminous pink. The everyday scene is of the artist’s own making, pieced together with raw silk fabrics. Made earlier this year, the “painting” headlines her latest solo exhibition, “Soldier of Love” at Galerie Templon in Paris.
The lives and experiences of black women are at the center of Zangewa’s practice. Based in South Africa, she makes hand-sewn, silk collage paintings focused on domestic scenes, what she calls “daily feminism.” Recent work has explored her own individual life and perspective as a woman and mother and, by extensive, the narratives of other black women. Her current focus continues to prioritize womanhood, contend with gender stereotypes and racial injustice, and address more universal themes such as global humanity.
Her textile work has garnered international attention and New York representation. On May 6, Lehmann Maupin announced Zangewa has joined its roster. The New York-based gallery also has locations in Hong Kong and Seoul.
Zangewa will have her first solo show in the United States with Lehmann Maupin in September. In 2021, the artist’s first-ever solo museum exhibition will be presented at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco.
BORN IN MALAWI, Zangewa grew up in Botswana. She earned a BFA from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa (1995) and began her career in fashion and advertising. Today, she lives and works in Johannesburg.
“When I started doing my work, people, I think, didn’t understand the social issues that I was dealing with because it was very subtle. It was really rough. I get to Joburg and they say it’s just decorative and she’s just a craftswoman. When I got to America, they understood it was about breaking the myth of black lives. We are just like everyone else,” Zangewa said earlier this year in a Tate museum video.
“I think the work that I am doing is to elevate the place of black women in the world, because we are still the most marginalized sector of our society. Ordinary black women need support from society and by creating images around her intimate personal life, we are actually saying listen, look, understand that this person is having these experiences, that this person exists. She is a woman with every day struggles.”
“When I started doing my work, people, I think, didn’t understand the social issues that I was dealing with because it was very subtle.… I get to Joburg and they say it’s just decorative and she’s just a craftswoman. When I got to America, they understood it was about breaking the myth of black lives. We are just like everyone else” — Billie Zangewa
Working with textiles, the artist says, makes the work relatable. Fabric is a part of our everyday lives, from our clothing, to our bed linens, and curtains. Silk, in particular, is associated with transformation, a key element of progress in our individual lives and betterment in society at large.
The paintings—the images and their construction—are at once powerful, delicate, and compelling. Many of the works notably appear to have something missing—whole sections are extracted from the compositions. Zangewa describes this characteristic as “beauty in the imperfect.” The misshapen edges also help to define the materials, making it clear that the “paintings” are not works on canvas.
In 2018, blank projects participated in Art Basel Miami Beach for the first time and dedicated its entire booth in the Nova section of the art fair to Zangewa. Several media outlets covering the event singled her out as an artist to watch. According to sales reports after the fair, the Cape Town gallery sold four works by Zangewa at prices ranging from $20,000-$45,000.
Zengewa’s work is represented in a variety of public and private collections, including the Tate Modern in London; Centre Pompidou in Paris; Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, Ga.; and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.
She is featured in “Mass Networks,” a presentation in the collection galleries at the Tate Modern, and “I Am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” (June 20, 2019-July 5, 2020), a group exhibition at the Smithsonian museum. Her work is also currently on view in another major survey, “Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art” at Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, Norway.
In June, “The Power of My Hands” at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art will bring together works by a dozen black female artists from Africa and the wider diaspora, including Zangewa. Part of The Africa2020 Season in Paris, the exhibition considers opportunities for creativity in the activities traditionally assigned to women, their relationships to public and private spaces, and the “intermingling of memory, family, tradition, religion and imagination.”
At the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, Zengewa was among the 20 artists included in “The Progress of Love.” The 2012 exhibition explored “romantic love, self-love, friendship, familial affect, love of one’s country, and other bonds in and around the continent of Africa and the African diaspora.” Love factors in her solo show at Galerie Templon, too.
“I called the show ‘Soldier of Love’ because I feel that we live in very very difficult times where there is a lot of pain and suffering that people are inflicting against each other all over the world and I feel like we’ve forgotten the basics, which is love. Love of self. Love of humanity. Love of the world and I feel that I need to be part of that crusade or the army that brings love back,” Zangewa told France 24, a French public television station.
“The reason it’s soldiering is because, in fact, people are a bit jaded and there’s this idea that considering love as the answer to all of man’s sufferings is idealistic and I don’t believe that’s true. I actually believe it’s possible that if we all focused on first loving ourselves and then giving that love out, that a lot of the suffering that we’re experiencing today would go away.” CT
TOP IMAGE: BILLIE ZANGEWA, “Soldier of Love,” 2020 (embroidered silk, 110 x 135 cm / 43 1/4 x 53 1/8 inches). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris – Brussels
Galleries and museums around the world are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Check directly with each institution for scheduling updates.
Tate Shots: At her home and around Johannesburg, artist Billie Zangewa talks about her practice. “The ultimate act of resistance is self-love,” she says. | Video by Tate
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “Birthday Party,” 2020 (embroidered silk. 141 x 137 cm / 55 1/2 x 53 7/8 inches). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris – Brussels
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “At the end of the day,” 2020 (embroidered silk, 137 x 109 cm / 53 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris – Brussels
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “Cold shower,” 2019 (embroidered silk, 107 x 101 cm / 42 1/8 x 39 3/4 inches). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris – Brussels
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “The Swimming Lesson,” 2020 (embroidered silk, 107 x 200 cm / 42 1/8 x 78 ¾ inches). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris – Brussels
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “Return to Innocence,” 2020 (embroidered silk, 110 x 49 cm / 43 1/4 x 19 1/4 inches). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris – Brussels
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “The rebirth of the black Venus,” 2010 (embroidered silk). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy the artist and blank projects, Cape Town
BILLIE ZANGEWA, “High Hopes,” 2019 (silk embroidery, 44.09 x 39.76 inches / 112 x 101 cm). | © Billie Zangewa, Courtesy Lehmann Maupin, New York – Hong Kong – Seoul
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