Billie Zangewa was the featured artist the 2018 FNB Joburg Art Fair. Her presentation was an immersive environment of jungly plants surrounding her stitched silk works, which was called ‘The Garden’
ArtThrob: ‘The Garden’ is an immersive environment, which is a mode you don’t often work in…
Billie Zangewa: The last time I did it was in university for my final exam. I haven’t dared to do it again since.
I just thought that I could do the same thing I always do: an exhibition space with stuff on the wall. But it just felt boring, even for me it’s boring. I noticed with the work I was making that I had a thing for nature, and I wanted to incorporate that. I had this idea to include plants, but the idea hadn’t developed fully. I didn’t have the clarity. But this time, it just felt right. And I thought, why not take a risk? When you are a featured artist, when you get that title you have to meet your edge, put yourself into that uncomfortable space.
Has being the featured artist felt like an uncomfortable space?
These last few months have been very difficult for me. It’s a bit like your light and dark side duelling. The part of me that’s confident and the part that feels like I’m not enough were having a battle. But thankfully the part that feels like I’m not enough lost. But having a kind of accolade, it activates insecurity.
‘The Garden’ is a personal space, your own garden. But in a broader sense, a garden as space of leisure also has an overtone of wealth and middle class.
It’s a space of privilege. When you go into the townships, there’s no trees. It’s the weirdest thing to see. No grass. It’s always so barren, which is a reflection of poverty. For a long time, after I left my son’s father, we were staying in a cottage where we had a parking lot. When we sat on the porch we looked over a parking lot. We had no green space. I moved into my house, which I can barely afford, but the garden is exquisite. It is true that there is a connotation of privilege, and I feel very privileged to have a garden. It’s a source of pleasure.
The idea stemmed from me looking at my work and realising I have a thing for nature. In a lot of the work where nature is involved, it’s me trying to escape the pressures of modern life, and go back to a simpler pastoral life, like my ancestors lived. So there is definitely that connection: in my genetic memory I remember a similar time, when we were at one with nature. There is a yearning.
One of the things I noticed is that your are depicting an idyllic space, both in the installation but also in the stitched works: which depict leisure and relaxation, and they are very beautiful. But most of the works are ripped, or falling apart or fragmented in some form. Do you want speak to the tension between these two things?
That’s my trauma, my fracture. This whole creative journey for me has been about how to deal with the traumas of life. I think we all have traumas to some degree, some more than others. I think subconsciously that is what I’m speaking to, that in the beauty there is a little bit of the broken. I could convey a facade of perfection, but its not true, I have wounds that I am trying to heal.
Your work is generally, if not narrative, then very personal, from private moments and photographs. Do you feel vulnerable putting this moments out into the world?
Creativity is such a vulnerable space. Whether you are making abstract work or conceptual work, I think the whole thing is very hard and artists are very brave people. But I share the intimacies of my life because firstly, I fell that my story is the only one I can tell with true authenticity. But also, my work is about humanising women, so that the men who perpetuate violence again women can see… if you humanise someone, you can’t hurt them, but if you see someone as the other you can hurt them without feeling anything. Psychologically the idea is that when you show someone being vulnerable in an intimate space, then they become human, they’re not an object. It’s political in a very gentle way. On the other hand, I am also sharing with other women, to say ‘Let’s share our stories.’ The things that happen, how we love our kids, the challenges we have in our relationships and our homes.
The silk and the trees, the exotic garden stuff, seem to come through a trade route, an international network of goods. Do you see your work fitting into this network?
I like the idea that I have appropriated something, and made it mine, as an African. Usually other people appropriate what’s ours and make it theirs. I’m having a contemporary conversation about things that are not so far away anymore. A material that used to be exclusively for kings and queens and comes from Asia is accessible to me here and I can incorporate it and use it for my creative self-expression. But I also like the idea that silk is a by-product of transformation, and that it comes from a cocoon. My mind really loves that. You can feel the energy of what came out of it. It’s also rubbish: not only the by-product, it’s the rubbish of a moth or a butterfly. It’s the most beautiful delicate thing.