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Backstory: Strange Bedfellows
Art in America

By Liza Lou


Eleven years ago, I extended my Los Angeles art practice to Durban, South Africa where I established a studio and began commissioning beadwork from Zulu women in KwaZulu-Natal. This photo was taken around 2007. I’m in Nyuswa, a rural area, visiting Cebisile Mbhele, who is seated on the bed beside me. We were working on a sculpture called Book of Days, which was comprised of 365 woven sheets of silver-lined glass beads, which were to be each stacked one on top of another like pages in a manuscript.


I worked with nearly fifty artisans over a period of one year on Book of Days. I wanted to make a sculpture that was about the making of the sculpture—a kind of portrait of process. This photograph shows the lifeblood that went into that project.


Cebisile is surrounded by her family: her daughters Neliswa and Sindiswa are also on the bed, and her son, Andile, who is now in Zambia studying to be a pastor, is looking through the window. Lucy, another studio team member, is in the foreground. We are in Cebisile’s bedroom, where she likes to do her work. Often when I visit people in their homes, the whole family will be in bed weaving. It reminds me of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the two sets of grandparents all snug in the bed. The bedroom is where everything happens. It’s intimate and relaxing, perhaps a kind of respite from the drama of township life.


People often ask me how my work went from figurative (like Kitchen, 1990–96) to abstract (more recent monochromatic pieces). I think of all of my work as abstract, in the sense that it has always been about labor. In my recent work, I’ve been interested in making something that is more intimate and closer to the body in terms of process and scale. I’m less interested in covering large objects with an art material, and more concerned with how materials and process can be imbedded and intertwined.


I love how each woven segment can contain the life of the person that made it. A streak of dirt, for example, from when the work was grabbed by the kitten and dragged outside, or a wonky area, from the time someone said something funny, got distracted, and accidentally left a bead out, causing the line to go off course. I hope all this is felt in the finished work, this sense of something living, something loved.