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'The most difficult thing is to find inspiration in what is ordinary.'

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Feature by Michael Canning

US artist Liza Lou is best known for her large-scale sculptures. hand-crafted from millions of glass beads, they explore the topics of labor, women's issues and social change, and feature in the permanent collection of the Whitney museum in New York.

Recognised with the Macarthur Fellowship and the Anonymous Was a Woman award, Liza moved from California to Durban, South Africa, in 2005 to establish a studio alongside local Zulu beadworkers. We spoke with her about creativity, travel and the isiZulu word for cell phone.


On where you’re from

Born in NY, grew up in Southern California.

On your move to Durban, South Africa

South Africa came about for me because of the extraordinary beadwork talent that exists, and the possibility to make a difference in terms of social impact. In 2005, I rented a dance hall on the docks of Durban, set up a studio and hired Zulu bead workers to assist me on a large-scale sculpture I was working on for an exhibition in London. At that time, KwaZulu-Natal was the epicenter of a global health crisis, with HIV and tuberculosis. Unemployment in the townships was as high as 70%, so it seemed like an incredible opportunity to engage with the three things that are fundamental to my art practice: beads, women’s issues and social change.

When I got there, I set up my studio in a way that would offer a creative haven where transformation could occur both as works of art and in terms of real-world change. In addition to fair pay and healthcare, I offer interest-free loans and an education fund if there are women who want to go back to school or receive vocational training. As a result, many of my studio assistants have their own businesses, which is important for long-term sustainability. The interest-free loan program has gone a long way toward poverty-alleviation, and has enabled women to build their own homes and their mother’s home, which is a traditional obligation.

'Continuous Mile' by Liza Lou is a mile long piece of rope made entirely of white glass beads and cotton. Image of exhibition at L&amp;M Arts, New York. Photo credit: Tom Powell

On whether your image of South Africa changed living there

Although I have a deeper understanding of SA after having lived there full-time for ten years, in many ways, it remains a mystery. It feels important to stay aware that there is a lot that goes on that I’ll never understand as an outsider, and to tread with humility and respect.

On current projects

Doing a lot of drawing lately and I just completed a commission for the Sydney Biennale; it’s a 100-foot-long painting titled The Clouds, which opens on 12 March. And I’m working on a show that opens at Lehmann Maupin in New York in September. 

On the best thing about living abroad

The frustrations and difficulties have been the most important to me. It has not been an easy road, and I have been pushed to breaking point on many, many occasions. There is this saying: ‘Bad Roads, Good People. Good Roads, Anyone.’ When in doubt, take the bad roads.

'The isiZulu word for cell phone, "umakhalekhukhwini", translates literally as, "the one who cries in your pocket."'

On how life abroad inspires your art

My ideas spring from doing the work. I’m very hands-on, and I find that my practice, which is more like focused play, is the wellspring.

On living abroad and the arts

The Czech writer Váklav Cilick writes, ‘A smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a place of great pilgrimage.’ The most difficult thing to do is to remain present, to find inspiration in what is ordinary, and to create meaning right where we are. If living abroad has taught me anything, it is to learn to treat the people and places I think I know as though I am seeing them for the first time.

Above: Portrait of Liza Lou by Mick Haggerty. Below: 'Color Field' sculpture by Liza Lou. All photos credit Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Photos by Pablo Mason.

On creative inspiration

I go to my studio and start working. One idea leads to the next.

On a favorite new word you’ve learned in South Africa

The isiZulu word for cell phone, umakhalekhukhwini, translates literally as ‘the one who cries in your pocket’.

'If living abroad has taught me anything, it is to learn to treat the people and places I think I know as though I am seeing them for the first time.'

On a must-know tip

Don’t overthink things, do them.

On creative life in Durban vs Los Angeles

My life in Durban is about being in the studio and engaging with the community of women that I work with in the townships. My studio life in LA is very quiet in comparison.

On finding a place to live

In Durban, no one says, ‘Where do you live?’ They say, ‘Where do you stay?’ Impermanence is built into the language. I’d suggest staying in hostels and hotels at first and then figuring it out as you go along.

'Gather' (one million) by Liza Lou is a sculpture of one million blades of bundled grass, made from nine million glass beads. Photo credit: Joshua White

On your favorite artists or artwork

Impossible to answer favorite artist or artwork of all time, but Wangechi Mutu’s video, The End of Carrying All is deeply moving, as is William Kentridge’s video, More Sweetly Play the Dance, both of which are on view at Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town.

On your favorite theatre

Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at University of KZN hosts a poetry festival every year and it’s wonderful.

On a precious item

My rapidograph pen.

On your favourite place to be

My studio.

Liza Lou portrait image credit: Byron Dubois


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'The most difficult thing is to find inspiration in what is ordinary.'