Billie Zangewa: Thread for a Web Begun at the Museum of the African Diaspora

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Billie Zangewa, Heart of the Home, 2020. Hand-stitched silk collage; Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.


San Francisco is home to a terrific variety of art museums. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) before now, then the Billie Zangewa exhibit should inspire you to stop in. While you’re there, you can also check out several other great exhibits on display.


Who Is Billie Zangewa?

Photo by Andrew Berry, Harper's Bazaar.

Billie Zangewa is an African artist, born in Malawai in 1973 and currently working and living in South Africa. She is a textile artist who combines embroidery with silk collage to make strikingly beautiful and colorful fabric art. Her work embodies the concept of “the personal and political,” bringing this old phrase into contemporary conversations about intersectional identity. She approaches art from the perspective of her own unique personal experience, as a woman, a mother, a person of color, a female artist of color. MoAD explains that her work is “an attempt to challenge the historical stereotype, objectification, and exploitation of the black female form.”


“I think that when you can relate to someone, their otherness begins to dissolve because you have something in common. This then gives room to look beyond identity to the core message. At the end of the day, we are all one community. My dream is a universality in which we can appreciate difference as a beautiful thing.” - Billie Zangewa

Thread for a Web Begun

The MoAD exhibit, titled “Thread for a Web Begun," is Zangewa’s first solo exhibition in the United States, and includes works she has created over the past fifteen years of her career. She also created some new pieces specifically for this show. The breadth of time the exhibition spans allows new viewers of her art to get a strong sense of where she’s come from and how her work has developed to date.

Billie Zangewa, An Angel at My Bedside, 2020. Hand-stitched silk collage; Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.


Silk Fabric As A Medium

Each piece of work is on silk fabric, typically (but not always) framed, sometimes under glass. It’s a unique medium that is perfectly suited to convey the artist’s message. MoAD explains that Zangewa began her career in fashion and advertising. As such, she has a expansive perspective on textiles as a working medium. Her degree was in printmaking but after returning to Botswana she didn’t have access to printmaking facilities, and so found herself working in fabric instead. A friend had gifted her some satin silk from her grandmother’s trunk and it all started there. She says,

“I was so enticed by it and just wanted to discover its secrets. That is how I began working with it as my primary medium. I’m not deliberate in anything I do. I’m interested in the unfolding and try to allow life’s purpose for me to reveal itself one stitch at a time.”

The medium is perfect for her work. First of all, there’s something strikingly powerful about the simultaneous fragility and strength of the sewn fabrics. The embroidery stitches will hold up for many years and yet the silk itself is raw, torn at the edges. The pieces are rarely square but instead missing chunks from at least one corner, recalling earlier years when she was working with found fabric.

More than this, the silk fabric speaks to the domestic life that is at the heart of so much of her content. Sewing and embroidery have typically been the domain of women, and of course have often been stigmatized as “lesser than” in the fine art world. This work is about women, about mothers, about the simple, understated, often overlooked power that resides in the realm of the household.

“I’m really interested in the ordinary and mundane things of daily life that we can all relate to, no matter where we are in the world. My intentions are to spread love and slowly eliminate fear and hatred through the shared experience. And, of course, if I was not born in this body, none of this would have occurred to me as being of importance.” - Billie Zangewa

Male and Female Gaze

Like many female artists, Zangewa has had to reckon with the male gaze. What does it mean to be a woman in what has historically been a man’s world? How is that different for the Black woman, the African woman, than for other women around the world? Zangewa's work explores these experiences while reimagining the female gaze. Her work suggests how women can look at themselves and one another without this layer of the male gaze impressed upon them. Eye-catching self-portraiture in the exhibition stems from this period of her artistic investigation.

Landscapes and Cityscapes

Before Zangewa moved to the more urban area of Johannesburg, South Africa, she lived in a rural setting in Botswana. Her early works reflect the landscape she saw there, featuring the nature and animals of the place where she grew up. However, you’ll find more cityscapes on the walls at MoAD, work created from her urban experience, often highlighting her personal experience as a Black woman living in Johannesburg. 


Throughout the different pieces on display in the two exhibit rooms MoAD has dedicated to “Thread for a Web Begun,” we see Zangewa’s journey from a single woman concerned with what it means to have a female identity, to a mother concerned about the family and a woman’s role within it. She transitions from the exterior urban landscapes of the city to images from the interior of the home. Sensual moments show up in the details: the wine glass, the woman at rest for a moment, holding the hand of a child. These scenes show everyday life, what the artist calls “Daily Feminism,” drawing attention to the woman’s everyday life and domestic labor, and how they relate to gender roles, societal expectations, and racial injustice. 

Billie Zangewa, Soldier of Love, 2020. Embroidered silk.


More at MoAD

The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) is a three-story building located in lose proximity to SFMoMA as well as the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Enter on the first floor where you might find a small exhibit, along with a bookstore and gift shop. Head to the second floor which holds a large exhibit space. This is where you can find Billie Zangewa’s exhibit. 

You will also find a few other exhibits on this floor and another on the third floor. Those exhibits are:

  • Amoako Boafo’s “Soul of Black Folks” on the third floor, the Ghanaian artist’s first solo museum exhibition showing work created over a twenty year span.
  • Beyond The Sky”, a film exhibit set just off of the main room of the Billie Zangewa exhibit.
  • Syndey Cain’s “Refutations,” charcoal and mixed media work from an emerging San Francisco artist.
  • San Vernon’s “Impasse of Desires,” a site-specific installation.

You can see Billie Zangewa: Thread for a Web Begun on exhibit at MoAD until 2/27/22.

The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) is a contemporary art museum whose mission is to celebrate Black cultures, ignite challenging conversations, and inspire learning through the global lens of the African Diaspora. MoAD is one of only a few museums in the United States dedicated to the celebration and interpretation of art, artists, and cultures from the African Diaspora.”

Kathryn Vercillo

Sr. Contributor

Comments (2)

henry water

I liked the story. An excellent career for a great artist. Finding yourself in art is not easy, so many artists simply change their profession. I still think that you can find a job using this service… ,here they will analyze your skills and find a job in your specialty

Robert Miller

Good share