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  • “The act of stitching, for me, is incredibly powerful, in a way that’s not obvious” 
    — Billie Zangewa

    Malawi-born and Johannesburg-based artist Billie Zangewa’s silk tapestries quite literally tug at their viewers’ heart strings, depicting familiar scenes of quotidian life, glimpses into motherhood, and intimate snippets of romance. This autumn alone, the artist will be the subject of various shows, including at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, in which her works will be featured in the aptly named Thread for a Web Begun. With mounting critical attention for her pieces, including being collected by the Centre Pompidou in Paris and having recently been exhibited at the Musée d’art Moderne, Zangewa joins a growing group of artists of colour and young female artists alike who are taking the art world by storm.



    An early photograph of the artist in front of Cirque d’hiver, next to a detail of the piece

    “I use fabrics for different reasons. Firstly, I am obsessed with texture; rich, textured surfaces, and I think silk is the ultimate rich textured surface, because it’s so nuanced, and the way it reflects and absorbs light is very complex” 
    — Billie Zangewa 

    Alpha Crucis — Contemporary African Art - Astrup Fearnley Museet - 國際展覽 -  Lehmann Maupin

    The present work exhibited in Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, 30 January – 5 September 2020
    Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.


    Zangewa began her career in fashion and advertising, to which her interest in textile can no doubt be attributed. To the artist, employing textile injects a certain sense of utilitarianism into her art form and subject matter: ‘Working with textile also speaks to universality, because we all have an experience with textile…it’s part of the human experience.’ i In particular to her choice of silk—a medium she stumbled upon by chance having accompanied a friend who was sourcing fabrics ii—Zangewa has in the past commented on its ‘incredibly seductive, sumptuous and generous’ quality iii. Her affinity for sewing however can be traced to memories of her mother’s sewing group: women who would regularly congregate to sew, all the while commiserating, gossiping, and exchanging daily anecdotes. For the artist, the sewing group was a coterie closed off to men; a meditative and safe space where a sense of quiet feminine strength could take hold. Through her art, she aims to access ‘that empowered space of calm’, iv creating beautiful, intricate works that aim to transform her personal stories into pieces of art.


    Weaving Stories


    To understand Zangewa’s painstakingly created works is to enter a delicate web that is all at once autobiographical, anecdotal, apocryphal—the sources from which she draws when creating her silk tapestries are variegated and complex, and aim to dismantle social paradigms. Primarily, as the artist has noted in the past, her works deal with identity—her own personal one—but she also tackles socio-politics, gender, motherhood, sexuality, individuality, and the notions surrounding being a person of colour. 



    Left: Billie Zangewa, Christmas at the Ritz, 2006
    Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.
    Right: Billie Zangewa, City of Light, 2005
    Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.


    Exquisitely rendered on vibrant mauve silk, Cirque d’hiver depicts a scene from the titular Winter Circus, a prominent venue in Paris for circus troupes, exhibitions, concerts, and other events since the mid 19th Century (also known as Cirque d’hiver Bouglione since its acquisition in the thirties). Perhaps drawn in having followed in the fashion-footsteps of Richard Avedon, who in the fifties photographed the model Dovima posing amongst elephants at the Cirque d’hiver donning a Dior Evening gown; not to mention the fact that there was indeed a Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week event which took place at the very location in 2007 (the same year Cirque d’hiver was executed), Zangewa’s rendition of the circus shares layered meanings. To the top right corner of the work is a jagged shape resembling a circus dome with lights, not unlike depictions of the sun in the corner of children’s drawings. Trapeze acrobats, tightrope-walkers, a balancing act, and an animal ring populate the work as an audience looks on along the bottom edge of the work. Around the animal ring stands several ring masters; a pair of them are in conversation, and above their heads hover speech bubbles: ‘Blague, Blah, Blah.’, ‘Ha, ha, ha!’


    Beyond Silk


    The artist’s early pieces captured cityscapes and city-living, often drawing from fashion photographs, or memories in cities she lived in like London and Paris: some such examples include City of Light (2005), showing a cluster of street-goers or perhaps tourists pointing up at a sequined ‘PARIS’, and Christmas at the Ritz (2006), a vibrant yellow piece portraying a dreamscape in which Zangewa reclines in the famed hotel. While similar, Cirque d’hiver is much more than the undoubted collage of urban memories and fashion footnotes.


    One such clue to the significance of the circus and its theatricality perhaps lies in a work exhibited alongside Cirque d’hiver at the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo in 2020. Rebirth of the Black Venus (2010), a formidable Botticellian self-portrait showing the artist nude but for a sash written with the words ‘Surrender whole-heartedly to your complexity’ wrapped around her body, referenced the tragic story of Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as ‘The Black Venus’. ‘Sarah Baartman’, the name given to at least two Khoikhoi women living in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were women bought as slaves and paraded around Europe, exhibited as freakshow specimens including at Picadilly Circus. Thinly veiled as ‘scientific research’, their tragic stories of exploitation and racism were only rediscovered in the early 2000s, and Zangewa’s powerful reclaiming of this story, both in terms of a person of colour, an African, and above all a woman, is significant. To read Cirque d’hiver in such a way is to appreciate the importance of the artist’s reclamation of power.



    Left: La Belle Hottentote, a 19th-century French print of Sarah Baartman
    Right: Billie Zangewa, The Rebirth of Black Venus,
    2010 Collection Gervanne and Matthias Leridon
    Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.


    Zangewa’s practice joins a long lineage of female artists who have turned to tapestry, weaving, sewing, and fabrics as vehicles through which to confront issues such as the liminal separations of art/craft, femininity, gender roles, and power dynamics. Her work is at once a departure from, and a confluence of, 20th Century artists such as Louise Bourgeois (whose sewing equated to emotional restoration of traumas), and Rosemarie Trockel (who confronted the patriarchal hold over the art world with a deliberate choice of material evocative of womanly housework), as well as twenty-first century artists such as Tschabalala Self (whose collaged fabrics are extended metaphors for the accumulation of feelings and ideas), and Chiharu Shiota (whose choice of yarn speaks to the themes of interconnection).


    Having combatted the prejudice against being female and told to downplay this aspect of herself, as well as the derogatory way her sewing was initially perceived, the artist seeks to elevate her textile work by way of celebrating women and their plights, to ‘disrupt the patriarchal conditioning of the mind’ v.




    The artist interviewed on occasion of Alpha Crucis, an exhibition in which the present work was shown.


    Collector’s Digest


    Zangewa’s practice almost exclusively involves the creation of elaborate collages hand-sewn onto fragments of raw silk. Having begun her career in fashion and advertising, the artist seeks to disrupt the stereotype of the Black female form through her detailed silk tapestries, drawing predominantly from personal memories. Zangewa will be the subject of various solo exhibitions including at the Museum of the African Diasphora and a dual-exhibition presented by Lehmann Maupin London and Seoul. Her works are also in several notable institutional collections including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern, London.



    Left: Billie Zengawa, In My Solitude, 2018, Collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris
    Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

    Right: Billie Zengawa, Date Night, 2017, Displayed within the Tate Modern, London
    Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.




    i The artist interviewed on the occasion of her participation in Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, 30 January – 5 September 2020, online

    ii The artist in conversation with Rosalind Duguid, quoted in ‘Billie Zangewa on her Sociopolitical Silk Works’, The Elephant, 18 June 2018, online

    iii Ibid.

    iv The artist interviewed on the occasion of her participation in Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, 30 January – 5 September 2020, online

    v The artist interviewed by the Tate for TateShots, ‘Artist Billie Zangewa – the Ultimate Act of Resistance is Self Love’, February 2020, online 




    • Provenance

      MAGNIN-A, Paris
      Private Collection, London (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Alpha Crucis – Contemporary African Art, 31 January - 6 September 2020, p. 221 (illustrated)


Cirque d'hiver

embroidered silk
150.9 x 135.9 cm. (59 3/8 x 53 1/2 in.)
Executed in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

HK$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for HK$567,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021