At first glance, or from a distance, the intricate tapestries artist Billie Zangewa creates using silk could be mistaken for oil paintings.
On closer inspection their unique beauty comes to light as her skilful cutting and thread work are revealed.
Often set in the urban landscapes of Johannesburg, the city she has called home for the past 17 years, Zangewa’s tapestries seek, among other things, to explore the female gaze — how a woman sees herself as beautiful through her own eyes. “I grew up in a suburban setting in Gaborone, Botswana. It was very free and I could be a child,” says Zangewa who, through being surrounded by multiple cultures, gained exposure to many different shades of humanity.
Recalling her artistic beginnings, she says: “I was about nine or 10 years old when a drawing by a friend moved me so much that I instantly knew that I wanted to do this thing. I didn’t even know the word ‘artist’ at the time, but from then on I drew every single day.” These early drawings, a natural response to Zangewa’s love for fashion, predominantly took the form of fashion illustrations inspired by her near-religious dedication to reading Vogue and watching Video Fashion Monthly. “I am inspired by the creativity in fashion,” she says. “Designers are artists to me. A garment has the qualities of sculpture and a fashion show is like performance art.”
Zangewa graduated with a degree in fine arts from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, specialising in graphics and printmaking. Later, with no access to a printing press or a studio space, she had to adapt her practice to something that she could do anywhere. With these limitations leading the way, she began to do small-scale embroideries before arriving at her current medium: the narrative-based silk tapestry. “When I started the tapestries they were graphic and simple. Today I have a deeper understanding of my medium and am able to be more expressive with it,” says Zangewa, whose more recent works are intricately detailed and layered.
Her process culminates in a combination of order and spontaneity. “I don’t do any preliminary sketches but everything needs to be resolved in the template drawing. When cutting the material I can be spontaneous and intuitive again with the colour choices,” she explains.
Throughout her multifaceted career, Zangewa has been involved in an array of creative endeavours from working in advertising to fashion and even as a performing musician under the name of Billie Starr. Acknowledging that her experience in each of these fields has had a lasting impact on her artistic practice, she appreciates that she is now able to make a living solely from her true passion. With a desire to communicate a truth so profound that it resonates in beauty, Zangewa’s work is a product of personal experience.
“The most rewarding part,” she says, “is to see the transformation of a negative experience into something tangible and beautiful. Chrysalis to butterfly.”