Sew Amazing

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!


Visual Activism 101

A constitution is written.  Laws are enacted.  Amendments are passed.  Equal rights and equal treatment are guaranteed and bigotry and violence fade away into the distant past.  Bunnies knit rainbows out of butterfly wings and free pizza and puppies show up at everyone’s doorsteps.  Or not.  South Africa’s Constitution (adopted in 1996) prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.  In 2006, the government legalized same-sex marriage.  And each year members of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community experience discrimination, hate crimes, and violence, including over 500 (reported, more go unreported) “corrective rapes” perpetrated on lesbians each year.  Despite the progress, true equality and safety remain out of reach.

Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, South Africa in 1972.  She grew up under apartheid.  In 1991, she came out as a lesbian.  She helped found the Forem for the Empowerment of Women in 2002, a lesbian organization and a space for women to meet and organize.  Muholi began studying photography in 2003.  One year later, she had her first solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.  In 2005 she received the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts.  In 2009, Muholi graduated from Ryerson University with a MFA in Documentary Media.  That same year, she founded another organization, Inkanyiso, which facilitates LGBTQIA+ activism through the visual arts and the media.  Their mission statement is “Produce.  Educate.  Disseminate.”  Muholi has won several awards and fellowships from around the world.  She has had solo exhibits in Nigeria, Austria, Milan, London, Amsterdam, Montreal, and New York City.   Her work has been shown in group exhibitions across the globe, from Toronto to Singapore to Brazil to Mali.  In 2014, Muholi presented at the prestigious Design Indaba Conference.


But it hasn’t been all accolades and appreciation for Muholi.  In 2009, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, left an exhibition that included Muholi’s photographs of lesbians saying it was offensive and immoral.  Three years later, Muholi’s apartment was broken into and over 20 hard drives were taken.  They contained years of her work.  Nothing else of value was taken, suggesting the theft was specifically motivated by her work and activism.  Real mature, people; that’ll stop her. *eye roll*


So, what is so offensive about Zanele Muholi?  She is black; she is a lesbian; she is an artist; she is an activist.   Each one of those things would be cause for conservative undies to get in a bunch, but put it all together and you have a layer cake of controversy.  Her work, mostly photography and some video, focuses on the struggles of being black and LGBTQIA+ in South Africa.  Muholi stated, “You can’t change the laws without changing the images.  It is one thing to say we exist; it is another to show it.  Art is political, art is about activism.”  To instigate change, challenge prejudice, and raise awareness, Muholi creates series of photographs of people and daily life events in the black LGBTQIA+ community.  “Faces and Phases” is a series of more than 200 photographs of South African black lesbians.  They are striking, beautiful black and white portraits.  Muholi documents all aspects of LGBTQIA+ life: weddings, intimacy, funerals, hate crimes.  It is intense work.  “I have listened to so many people’s pain,” Muholi said, “and it meant I had to sleep with that pain…”  But by showing images of the community, by documenting its daily experiences, the LGBTQIA+ community is being seen.  It normalizes what is often seen as “other,” and challenges prejudices of gender, sexuality, and race.  Muholi, continues to challenge herself artistically.  She also, only recently, began to turn the camera on herself.  She found self-portraits to be intense and confrontational: “…you want to tell the truth, but at the same time you have reservations for confronting the self, dealing with you.”  In these portraits she often darkens her skin tone, emphasizing her blackness and its beauty.


Muholi continues to create and to fight for the black LGTBQIA+ community, and the LGBTQIA+ community on the whole.  And picture by picture, she is making a difference.  Zanele Muholi: visual activist and badass extraordinaire.