In her exhibition A Quiet Fire at Tramway, Billie Zangewa invites us into her world through intricate hand-stitched works
Displayed just beyond the entrance to A Quiet Fire, an exhibition of Billie Zangewa’s work at Tramway, is a large self-portrait work commissioned by the gallery. Reclined in a pose that recalls the traditional female nude in art history, Zangewa immediately catches the visitor’s gaze. This, in a sense, sets the tone of the exhibition. The works that follow reveal depictions of various figures in personal, domestic and intimate scenes, and in each of them, Zangewa asserts her presence as she gives us a glimpse into her world through her eyes. Everyday moments are elevated through carefully crafted silk fragments, inviting us to see them as more than just the mundane.
For Zangewa, a Malawian artist who lives and works in Johannesburg, the choice to depict these scenes in her work is an act of “daily feminism”. Shedding a light on aspects of life that tend to go largely unnoticed, particularly those that take place within the domestic sphere, she explores notions of intersectional identity, gender stereotypes, and racial prejudice. These scenes are described in the exhibition text as a “visualisation of what the female gaze, through self-portraiture, could look like.”
A term initially coined by feminists in response to Laura Mulvey’s examination of the male gaze in cinema, the concept of the female gaze has since been explored by artists and creators in a multitude of ways. Rather than depicting women as powerless objects of heterosexual male desire, the female gaze points to a representation of the world from the perspective of women. In Zangewa’s collages, images of the artist and the people in her life have a certain intimacy, accentuated by the use of hand-stitched silk whose tactile qualities carry traces of lived experience. This impression is particularly strong in Temporary Reprieve (2017), a portrait of her son asleep, his arms sprawled out across the blue silk surface. Delicately rendered, from the contours of his face to the pool of saliva lying beside him, this work paints a powerful image of a mother’s unconditional love.
Moving through the exhibition, each scene depicted provides the viewer with a different fragment of the artist’s life: a moment of rest by the poolside, a dress fitting, a family dinner. As Zangewa invites us to follow her through each of these scenarios, we are prompted to reflect on the different facets that make up a life: how many different versions of us exist, shifting depending on who we are looking at, and who is looking back at us? Which roles do we take on in different aspects of our daily lives, whether out of obligation or love?
A Quiet Fire is the first ever exhibition of Zangewa’s work in a Scottish institution. A refreshing change from the blank white cube, the Tramway provides the perfect location for it. While the original tram-track floor recalls the building’s history, the floor-to-ceiling window facing onto the street brings a sense of dynamism to the exhibition space. These are, after all, works about humanity and lived experience – being able to see people walking past outside only adds to their overall effect. The addition of white slatted walls displaying three works in the centre of the room adds to this dynamism, giving visitors a glimpse at the works on the walls behind as they move through the space.
The only text in this compact yet impactful exhibition is displayed at the entrance, leaving the works largely open for interpretation. Rather than detracting from the experience of Zangewa’s works, the absence of descriptive text provides space for their narratives to speak for themselves and for the viewer to fill in the gaps with their own experiences.
In its entirety, A Quiet Fire invites visitors to contemplate the intricate layers of life and identity, allowing the silk narratives to serve as a testament to the universality of human experiences and offering a reassuring portrait of connection and hope.
A Quiet Fire is on display at Tramway in Glasgow until 28 January 2024, and is free to enter.