This autumn, Glasgow’s Tramway exhibits Malawian artist Billie Zangewa, known for her narrative silk collages that are both visually stunning and culturally meaningful. The exhibition, A Quiet Fire, displays a selection of Zangewa’s work from the last 12 years, alongside a new panoramic piece.
As self-portraiture, and through its themes, your work is very personal: how does it feel to bring this personal yet political art to so many different cities internationally, sharing it with so many people?
It’s a dream come true. Or rather, it is so much more than I ever dreamt of – that I could have so much exposure and access to share my work with so many people. I’m humbled and deeply grateful.
In developing as an artist, what pivotal moments do you remember?
I have wanted to be an artist since I was about nine years old. A pivotal moment was when my high school art teacher saw potential in me and showed me how to collage. It was almost as if he knew that this is how I needed to work.
University was also an important step for me, as all I had to do all day was practice drawing and painting. At this stage I was also learning history of art, where I learnt about different movements in art. Printmaking gave me a way to work that would help with my textile work. I think being a poor art school graduate was also helpful, because I had to be creating, and was led to textiles. Deciding to tell my personal stories was a big moment as I didn’t realise at first that I was addressing sociopolitical issues.
How do you balance joy and melancholy, in the way you put forward messages of resistance but also of hope?
I’m not sure that I do balance joy and melancholy. I think in some works I sway more to one than the other. Balance is something I struggle with, actually, but indeed I do believe that one must make the most of life, even if it includes suffering, which is the human condition. It’s important to ease the suffering with joy and pleasure.
How did silk become your primary material, and what challenges and joys does it bring?
Silk became my primary material by luck, but also by necessity and through earth angels that were sent to me to guide me towards my intended medium. The joys of working with silk are its rich, luscious qualities. It’s wonderful to behold. The challenges are really that I choose to do something so laborious with it and it makes a huge mess.
Could you speak about the central work, ‘Paradise Revisited’, and how it came to be?
This work is really about the first time my son and I ventured far from home after the covid lockdowns and travel restrictions. It was so wonderful to be in the south of France enjoying the landscape, atmosphere, art, and food. All the things that make up paradise for me.
How do you align your work as an artist with your daily life – is it primarily a joyful outlet, and does it ever become stressful, or weigh heavy on you?
It’s very challenging to parent and find time to work, so it’s a struggle for me to find balance. I’m either parenting very well or failing dismally. It’s something I live with. Creating is both pleasure and pain. Deadlines are very stressful but the creating process brings me so much joy and satisfaction.
What would be your main message for your audience in Glasgow to come away with?
I hope that they enjoy the way the silk plays with light as well as the subject matter. I also hope that they are inspired themselves, to go home and discover the therapeutic power of hand-stitching.
What progress would you like to see in the art world, to support artists like yourself, and wider groups that experience oppression and prejudice?
To be frank, the art world has been very good to me. It’s more society at large that I wish could feel and show more love, empathy and compassion towards other people. I always say if we can invent technology, then why are we struggling so much with universal love? If we put our minds and hearts into it, we could change the world for the better.
A Quiet Fire runs at Tramway, Glasgow, until 24th January 2024. More info here.