Made up of 1 200 handbeaded panels, artist Liza Lou’s ‘The Waves’ takes up an entire room of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. Hung from floor to ceiling on 7m-wide walls, the individual sheets were crafted with Lou’s studio assistants in Durban – Zulu and Xhosa beadworkers from seven different townships in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) – and were created between 2013 and 2017. Stepping into the room is a contemplative experience that encourages the viewer to consider the beauty of process.
Each sheet – about the size of a dishcloth – was beaded by a different woman, the white beads absorbing the oils from her hands or remnants of her home environment to create stains and streaks: the evidence of human endeavour. One of the ‘cloths’ bears a subtle light blue streak across it, incorporated into the beadwork from the baby blanket that beader Philile Thango had across her lap while weaving. It’s impossible to see the pieces and not think of the people who sat threading the small glass beads one by one. The makers’ time and effort applied during the weaving of the sheets isn’t an afterthought, but rather the main subject of the work.
The title ‘The Waves’ recalls the novel by Virginia Woolf of the same name, which describes breaking waves as cloths folding in on themselves. ‘I like the idea that the cloths reference something you would clean with,’ Lou says, ‘but in this case, these are cloths that showcase the evidence of the human hand in their very making.’
Beads have been Lou’s primary art material throughout her career, which began in her home country of the United States. Her first major sculpture ‘The Kitchen’ was unveiled in 1996 and is a detailed, life-sized replica of a suburban kitchen made with beads glued to a prefabricated sculpture. Lou’s focus on beads led her from Los Angeles to Durban in 2005. ‘KZN is famous for beautiful Zulu beadwork,’ she says, ‘and at the same time, there is a tremendous need for jobs, for healthcare and for basic services in the townships, and I thought maybe I could provide that to a group of women and we could make some amazing works together.’
It was in Durban that Lou began to relook the autocratic artist’s studio as a community-based catalyst for dynamic and measurable change in the real world. While in the city, Lou’s beading technique also changed. Her earlier processes felt out of touch with her new surroundings. She says, ‘We were applying beads to elaborate forms with tweezers, and meanwhile, there were xenophobic attacks, murders, you name it, just outside our front door. I realised we needed to make work that was more organic, to allow for slippages, cracks and stains in the pieces – which, for me, contain the beauty and pathos of what it means to live in South Africa.’ She often references a well-known lyric by poet and musician Leonard Cohen: ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’
The link that the ancient tradition of beading has to women and labour is a theme that Lou meditates on in her art. Her most recent accomplishment ‘The Clouds’ is currently on show at the Biennale of Sydney until 11 June. A 30m-long ‘painting’, ‘The Clouds’ comprises 600 bead-woven cloths, their glass beads smashed in places to reveal the intricate network of thread inside, usually hidden from view. Now exposed, this layer beneath the shiny surface is indicative of the labour-intensive process behind the finished product.
For the artist, new installations emerge as a consideration of what is possible to execute. ‘Sometimes I will get an idea about something and then I’ll realise it is totally impossible,’ Lou says. ‘That’s when I know I have to do it.’
For more of Liza’s work visit lizalou.com.