Billie Zangewa on creating art that’s accessible.

Billie is a Malawian-born artist who lives and practices in Johannesburg. She was chosen as the “Featured Artist” at the recent FNB Joburg Art Fair. The artist chats to us about her art and inspirations.

By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti / Jozi Jols
Main Picture:  Afternoon Delight I, 110 x 198cm, 2018 (By Billie Zangewa)
All images courtesy of Blank Projects

Billie’s work stands out with its simplicity and palpable personal narrative. Using raw silk offcuts, hand-stitched collages with evocative colours, she documents her personal world as she goes through mundane daily activities. The work may be very personal but it also has a strong universal narrative that depicts a world where women are heroes in their own worlds.

Billie Zangewa [Photo by: Andrew Thomas Berry]
I met the artist at this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair (6 September), where she was one of the main stars. “It’s a bit overwhelming, but also exciting,” she says about being chosen as this year’s “Featured Artist”.

“It does put you out there and makes you kind of vulnerable. But also, being an artist is about being vulnerable. We expose ourselves to criticism everyday.

“Beyond that feeling, there is a lot of gratitude. I have been working so hard, doing what I do quietly and to be recognised [at home] is amazing.”

While it may appear that the attention at the fair may have been slightly wearing her down, she still graceful moved from one interview to another without any complaints. “I don’t think I need coffee, maybe a glass of Champagne might do,” she jokes after I suggest that coffee might get her through the day.

We sat down and what unfolded was a story of an artist who through self-examination has created an applaudable connection with people.

What does your work communicate to you?
Billie: For me, it’s about self-exploration. I am acknowledging myself and my life. In a weird way, it’s like reading my own diary.

What urged you to explore the themes you unpack with your work?
Billie: I used to do cityscapes and then I started examining myself. The experiences I was having at the time forced me to look deeper into why I was having those kinds of experiences and also my reactions to them. A couple of years later I started psychotherapy. That opened me up to why I was interested in creating images of women and why I chose a career that requires freedom and vulnerability. Since then, my journey has been a journey of self-discovery. The work sort of reflects my personal journey and personal growth.

What has been the common response from people who have interacted with your work?
Billie: They enjoy it because silk is such a joyful medium – visually – it’s really radiant. They also love the subject matter, too, because I am dealing with everyday life themes. I put up some images that imply certain cultural things, like my son’s Spiderman pyjamas, everybody recognises the Spiderman image. I think they love that it has relatability to it. I always try to not make my work exclusive, it needs to be accessible.

Afternoon delight III, 112 x 153cm, 2018 [by Billie Zangewa].

And we do have that problem of people feeling like art is only for the intellectual.
Billie: I love reading books too and to be honest, at times I find intellectuals a bit difficult. I feel like they regurgitate things they have read and as an emotionally and instinctively driven person I want you to look into your soul and tell me what it’s telling you. Don’t read a book and tell me what the book is telling you. And that’s where I struggle with intellectuality, which is why my work is not intellectual because it’s not the person I am. I don’t like to make people feel inferior because they didn’t read the books I read or didn’t get the same education I got. For me it’s all about connection.

When did you make that decision to fully embrace that you are an “artist”?
Billie: When I was about nine or ten I wanted to be an artist. I went to high school and I still loved art then went to University and I studied art. But then I had to make a living and that’s when I explored other avenues. I went into fashion retail, did modelling, became a singer, worked at an advertising agency and then I realised I was wasting my time. I do understand that the whole journey was important because I had to be independent, it was crucial for me. My parents spent so many years taking care of me, they even paid for my degree, and it just didn’t feel right to continue living off them. I did all the things I did to take care of myself but eventually I got bored. It was providing but not challenging. I asked myself: ‘what is the thing that will always challenge you?’ and that’s art.

‘Date night’ (2017) Silk collage, 101 x 110.5cm [By Billie Zangewa].
Are you always seeking new ways of approaching your art?
Billie: I did some 3D pieces. I have not done anything in 3D (Three Dimensions) in 25 years. Last time I did something sort of 3D was when I made an installation in Varsity, for my degree. I had a lot of fear because I had not done something like this before and I ran the risk of failure. But that fear and taking chance makes you grow as a person. I am looking forward to taking more risks.

What would say has been the main ingredient to your success?
Billie: I have always stayed true to myself. When things became trendy in the art world, I never bought into any of it because I don’t do anything which doesn’t feel authentic to me. I believe people see that there is no pretension and they appreciate that.

More of Billie’s work:

For more info on Billie go to: blankprojects.com

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