Oil paintings, charcoal drawings, and marble sculptures are all accepted as “art.” Photography, digital media, and conceptual performances are newcomers but still welcomed into the nose-in-the-air “art” fold. But what about weaving or quilting or embroidery? Those practices are usually lumped into the “craft” category or dismissed as “women’s work.” Now, when we have stopped gagging and rolling our eyes because the concept that some work is inherently feminine still exists, let’s look at this. Historically, women were denied access to instruction, materials, and safe spaces for all kinds of subjects and activities, including art and art-making. Women were instructed in how to keep a household and a family together and functional. These sorts of skills included cooking, cleaning, childcare, maintaining health, and sewing. As women demanded, and got, more access to the world outside the home the patriarchy responded by denigrated the same activities that they told women were required of them, that gave them value. These activities sneered at as “women’s work” and dismissed by big, important men. Until, that is, the men began to do those activities themselves; cooking, sewing, and care-giving gained legitimacy and appreciation over time, as long as men were doing them. Textile work could be seen as art, as long as Bernaert van Orley or Picasso created the tapestries. But, we all know, textile work is intricate and beautiful and fucking legit whether it’s made by a little, bald, syphilitic Spaniard or a brilliant, bitchin’ Malawian woman.
Billie Zangewa was born in Blantyre, Malawi in 1973. She grew up in both Malawi and Botswana. When she was a little girl she would do fashion drawings. Zangewa studied fine arts at Rhodes University, specifically print-making, graphics, and textiles. After graduating she made miniature oil paintings before beginning to experiment with fabric making purses and bags. In 1997, Zangewa moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, and worked in fashion advertising. She also wrote songs and performed them under the name “Billie Starr.” Starr-tlingly awesome. In 2004, she won the Most Stylish Person in South Africa Award. Zangewa then began to transition her textile work away from handbags and into tapestries using a sewing technique similar to appliqué. Zangewa had her first solo show in 1997 in Botswana. She has had multiple solo shows in South Africa, Paris, Tokyo, and Madrid and won the Gerard Sekoto Award at the L’Atlelier Award Exhibition, also in 2004. Zangewa’s work has been in many group shows around the world from New York to Germany to Morocco to London. She is currently represented by Afro Nova Gallery.
Zangewa begins each piece with an experience, an emotion, and/or an image. She then does research on the concept and creates a template drawing. Then comes the cutting, pinning, and finally the sewing. Her favorite material to use is silk, which is so slippery and ridiculously hard to work with that it makes her work all the more impressive. The subject matter of her pieces is personal, often autobiographical. This gives her a sense of power and agency: “I am using my own image and body to tell my story,” Zangewa said. “What could be more empowering than that?” Right on. Her work highlights the female experience, motherhood (especially her experiences with her son), and the empowerment of the female subject. Zangewa stated, “I am a woman in charge of my own stories and I encourage other women to do the same in their own special way.” Fuck yes, Billie. You super rock!