A child sits at the kitchen table drawing, writing, or perhaps completing homework while their mother looks over their shoulder. This (perhaps increasingly) familiar scene is depicted by artist Billie Zangewa in her silk collage “Heart of the Home” (2020). As a child raised in Botswana, Zangewa recognized the gendered nature of her parent’s labor and treatment at an early age. She observed how her mother and other women cared for their homes, their children, and themselves, before eventually becoming a mother herself and honoring this work in her collages.
Wings of Change, opening at Lehmann Maupin on October 1, will be the Johannesburg-based artist’s first New York exhibition, and will feature seven recent silk works informed by the new reality of labor — domestic and otherwise — during the pandemic. Recurring themes of Black motherhood and domestic intimacy resonate especially strongly as many shelter-in-place, negotiate new realities of childcare and work, and observe the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and state violence on already marginalized communities. While this is part of the backdrop for these new works, Zangewa’s world-building is expansive as much as it is intimate, sharply invoking the material and the political to achieve more than representation.
Figures in her collages flip the pages of the Sunday paper in the living room, gaze out a round bedroom window, or carry a child in a kitchen surrounded by pink walls and yellow cabinets. These richly colored depictions are made with hand-stitched imperfect pieces of silk — a deliberate choice which conjures the natural, transformative process that creates the material. In a recent interview with Enuma Okoro for The Cut, Zangewa explains that “fabric, this thing we all have a daily relationship with, is often dismissed by the world as mundane and unimportant, much like the daily, mundane work that women do to keep a home, a community and a society going.” Her work expresses a desire to “assert these smaller moments,” which are often fleeting, like the tea sipped by the white-cloaked subject of “At the End of the Day” or the shower in “A Fresh Start” (both 2020).
With her deftly sewn works, Zangewa is not simply manifesting the second-wave feminist adages of making the personal political and centering figures at the margins; she asserts the primacy of Black women’s subjectivity. Her figures and scenes recall the everydayness of Lubaina Himid’s acrylic panels, the contours of Toyin Ojih Odutola, and the tenderness of Diedrick Brackens’s tapastries.
“These compositions behave as they wish — neither canvases stretched and disciplined to hold firm shapes, nor photographic prints replete with a glossy or matte finish,” writes scholar and curator Oluremi C. Onabanjo in her lucid essay for the exhibition’s catalogue. Zangewa’s images revel in a sense of incompleteness. Taken together, their exaltation of the in-between — and the vulnerability that comes with such a state — becomes not only a reflection of shaky times, but, to borrow one of the artist’s own titles, a temporary reprieve.
Billie Zangewa: Wings of Change opens at Lehmann Maupin (West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on October 1st, and will remain on view through November 7.