Against the Grain: Controversial Bead Artist Liza Lou on the Invisible World of Women’s Work

For all Liza Lou’s stature in the art world, she cuts an unassuming figure in person. The South Africa-based artist, known for her unswerving devotion to beadwork, likes to crack jokes, describe things and people she approves of as “cool” and speaks in highly digestible and effortless soundbites that cut through the complexity of her work and ideas. In the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Central for her first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, she is as generous with her comments and her ear as she is animating to talk to.

“I relate to the Chinese culture tradition of precision, perfectionism and repetition,” she says. Lou’s work involves the rigorous menial task of threading and gluing beads one by one to a canvas – a bit like the repetitive, expressive brush strokes of Gongbi ink painting. Lou says her art is as much about the painstaking, meditative and time-consuming journey of creation as it is the finished product. In a frenetic world where we are losing the ability to enjoy the minutiae of our environment, she believes in embracing the slowness, materiality and feminine beauty of small, delicate things.

“What I’m trying to tap into is the pleasure of looking, which is something I think is regarded with suspicion among artists,” she says. In the art world, she muses, beauty has almost become a dirty word. Surrounding her are six canvases that look something like the grainy noise you get when you switch to a non-existent channel on TV, only with surprising colours thrown in. Turquoise and teal are dotted among greys, canary yellow and reds; there’s a trace of pink.

Woven glass beads from the Ingxube Series by Liza Lou – Courtesy Liza Lou and Lehmann Maupin

As is Lou’s trademark, those mesmerising dots grouped in panels are all tiny glass beads. They’re sourced in Japan, dyed in a big cauldron in LA and then painstakingly attached onto canvas in South Africa alongside a team of Zulu women whose relationship with the craft stretches back generations. Called Ingxube, which means “random” in Zulu, the collection is an homage to the artisanship and the meditative process of making by hand.

“When you’re feeling very still, when you have an intense focus for something and care deeply about something small, when there’s an integrity of process, for me, that’s very meaningful,” she says. Objects crafted with care and love, and not “in a factory where people live sad, miserable lives, bring total joy,” she says. Lou has built a career fastidiously threading and gluing beads to surfaces, one by one.

New York-born Lou took the art world by storm twenty years back after crafting a replica, full-scale kitchen covered in beads. Starting the project at the age of 20, assuming it would take three months, she ended up devoting five years of solitary labour to the task. Within the scene of playfully girlish and kitsch domesticity, a quote from an Emily Dickinson poem appears on the side of the stove: “She rose to his requirements, dropped the playthings of her life to take on the honourable work of woman and wife.”

It’s not a statement to be taken at face value. “Of course I’m a feminist,” says Lou. “Who wouldn’t be a woman and want to be equal with men.” But her work has always gone deeper than communicating the struggles of living as a woman in a world of glass ceilings and unfair advantages. Lou is concerned with how we value labour and performance, and her aesthetic and process-orientated methodology plays with and rejects those values. These concerns are what lend her work Marxist and postcolonial dimensions alongside the feminist.

While Kitchen gave Lou significant attention, not all of it was positive – not by a long shot. Critics maligned her arduous work as trivial. At 21, she dropped out her studies at San Francisco Art Institute after being told her beads would not cut it in the art world, and she says she continues to have her choice of medium and aesthetic called to question for its being confined to the realm of woman’s work. “It’s almost like it’s more transgressive to make female work,” she says. “It really strikes a nerve, and not in a good way,” she says. “It’s truly offensive.”

After Kitchen, Lou’s works took a much darker turn. In 2006, she released a 50-minute monologue called Born Again, in which she shares harrowing stories from a childhood with unforgivingly strict and punishing Christian parents. The video, which demonstrates Lou’s gift as performance artist, led some critics to connect her painstaking work with childhood pain.

Her beadwork became equally grim. Beaded scenes included that of a suicide, a toilet bowl with stains, and a headless, kneeling figure. In 2005, she moved to Durban in South Africa to attach beads to security fencing of a cage, which she worked on with a team of local women, establishing a studio that would come to serve as a second home for the artist.

Woven glass beads from the Ingxube Series by Liza Lou – Courtesy Liza Lou and Lehmann Maupin

It was in South Africa where Lou’s approach began to shift, after she recruited a team of local artisans. “These women were beading to survive,” she says, describing how if a single bead were to fall on the floor, it would be picked up immediately. Lou saw the materials she had been using for the extent of her career as more precious than they had ever been before. She learnt the stories of the women she worked with, how difficult their lives were, and how invisible their toils were to the outside world.

“I started off making a polemic in my artwork,” she says. “But I’d never seen suffering like that before,” she says. “I realised it was much more subversive to march against injustice by choosing beauty.” She says her employees like to sing when they work, and that she encourages an atmosphere of steady focus, minimal direction and conviviality. While they are encouraged to apply the coloured beads “randomly,” the overall composition and colour scheme is determined by Lou.

This relationship raises concerns about white appropriation of African culture, but Lou is careful to distance herself from this history of colonial exploitation. “I don’t think of myself as taking from other cultures,” she says. She speaks of empowerment rather of appropriation, with a certainty that veers on the defensive.

Like the process of weaving bead upon bead onto canvas, Lou’s creative journey has been long, laborious and subject to accidents that would wind up taking her work to new terrains and experiences. Had she not realised that working alone on her projects would take far too long, she might never have moved to South Africa and become a global artist working across worlds.

The move to Durban, and the start of a new chapter incorporating a team of ebullient local artisans took her work away from the solitary stitchings of her early career in the US. And though Lou denies drawing from the Zulu canon, the multiplicity of influence is obvious in her collection which she agrees feels something like a celebratory conversation of anonymous, female workers.

You can see this in their subtle chaos of colour contained within the panels of Lou’s trademark dedication to precision and repetition. Perhaps the multiplicity of voices and placse is what will resonate most strongly with Hong Kong viewers.

Liza Lou’s series of six beaded canvases will hang until March 11, 2017 at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Unit 407, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. Open Tuesday to Friday 10:00 to 19:00.

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