Liza Lou has a name that may sound like a storybook character or a country singer, but her work ethic as an artist would put aCalvinist to shame. So her seven-year absence from the New York exhibition scene led us to ask: where in the world has Liza Lou been, and what has she been doing? Evidence lies in her recent creations, presently on view at two New York venues. They will startle anyone who associates her exclusively with the eye-popping Technicolor domestic interiors for which she became known.
Lou (b. 1969) has long produced true-to-scale beadwork sculptures of everyday places, from a cluttered closet to a suburban kitchen, which have been widely exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe. Three years ago, Lou—who was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2002—acted on impulse and relocated from Los Angeles to Durban, South Africa. The move began with a dream: “I wanted to make a wire cage,” she states matter-of-factly, though at that time she was “thinking about the Middle East.”1 True to her signature style, the dream cage, if created, would have been completely festooned with beads. The idea gnawed at her. But Lou’s workshop in California was operating at full tilt on other projects, which would require that she set up shop elsewhere to realize her intentions. That led her to contact Aid to Artisans, an international group (with home offices in Hartford, Conn.) that facilitates crafts projects throughout the world.
People there put her in touch with Marisa Fick-Jordaan, the dynamic founder/director of Durban’s renowned BAT Shop (named for the Bartle Arts Trust, which developed a multipurpose arts center at Durban’s harbor).2 A one-hour meeting in New York between Lou and Jordaan proved to be fateful: having made this lone contact, and with no sponsorship or formal invitation, the artist decided to visit South Africa for two weeks and possibly establish a satellite operation there.
That was July 2005. She has stayed on to develop and supervise a team of 30 Zulu men and women, aged 19 to 52, beading artworks of massive dimensions and intricate detail. The core members of the group had registered for work with the municipality, and others were recruited through word of mouth; Lou pays them with her own funds, including money she received from the MacArthur fellowship. Lou admits that Africa simply had not been on her radar previously. Now it has become her home. And while she acknowledges that it sometimes seems like sheer folly to have relocated halfway around the world as she’s done, Lou is guileless and courageous in equal measure, a shrewd manager and a creative risk-taker. Looking back, she reflects, “Part of my art real estate is craft; it is part of the landscape that I own. So why not go there, truly go there to the heart of it, in Africa?” Lou is referring, of course, to a long history of beading among the Zulu, who are renowned for producing superb and distinctive objects with intricate patterns and elaborate color codes.
After an initial stint renting part of the BAT center’s space, Lou moved her project to the Diakonia Centre in Durban’s hectic business district. Diakonia was once a significant hub of anti-apartheid activity and still houses NGOs and nonprofits such as Black Sash,3 Lawyers for Human Rights and the Mennonite Central Committee. Lou’s studio is an anomaly there, but she was welcomed because of its outreach component: none of her workers had previously held a regular job (she does not refer to them as “beaders” but considers them artisans whose visual thinking she is helping to expand). Her objective has been to develop an economically sustainable project and provide much-needed training, while creating her own original artworks.
Lou unveiled the new work—one of the best-kept secrets in .Durban—on July 10. For three hours only, the artisans and their families saw two monumental pieces fully displayed for the first time, as did people from the Diakonia Centre’s many offices and a few additional individuals who had somehow gotten wind of the event. On view was Maximum Security, a 23½-by-23½-foot construction made up of a steel frame and chain-link fencing; two narrow cagelike structures intersect to form a gigantic “X.” (The work resembles a 2005-07 project, Security Fence, a square chain-link enclosure topped with barbed wire and covered with beads.) Every surface glistens with silvery beads. Lou also showed Coil (Black 1), which has now been retitled Continuous Mile, a mile-long cord approximately an inch thick and weighing nearly 800 pounds, woven from cotton and beads. (There are two versions of Continous Mile, one in black and one in white.) To display it, Lou painstakingly loops and stacks the rope inside a wooden mold; once the mold is taken away, a free-standing cylinder remains, almost 3 feet high. When the black version was first shown in Durban, imaginative lighting made it appear to be finely dusted with confectioner’s sugar, a halo of luminosity hugging the perimeter.