Art and People
Zadie Xa on coming home and liminal diasporic identity
Aug 30, 2023
Zadie Xa is a multidisciplinary artist whose work excavates the shifting ambiguities of diasporic identity through folklore imagery and forgotten feminist mythos. With an anthropological touch, she elevates the stories of the marginalized and misunderstood, such as Korean shamans, interlacing her cultural heritage within the greater global framework of diaspora. Her expansive work, encompassing paintings, textiles, performance, and video, crafts a world of magic, mystery, and feminist myth. With her latest exhibition at Space K in Seoul, titled Nine-Tailed Tall Tales: Trickster, Mongrel, Beast, she continues to build upon and reinterpret folklore, spotlighting the transgressive power of a liminal existence.
In an insightful conversation with eazel, Xa discussed diasporic homecomings, origin stories, and the evolving inspirations that color her art.
eazel: How was your recent trip to Seoul? Hope you had a chance to recover now that you are back in London. Apart from opening your first solo exhibition in Korea, Nine-Tailed Tall Tales, at Space K, did you have any other agenda?
Zadie Xa (ZX): My recent trip to Seoul was wonderful. I was lucky to see the Museum of Shamanism, which I’ve tried to visit for the past few years. It was excellent. Besides that, I always make a point to visit friends and family, and on this occasion I was treated to a few studio visits by artists I studied with in London.
eazel: We often hear “coming home” narratives of diasporic individuals around the question of belonging. Your work, however, embraces the in-between space as transgressive and powerful, as seen in Korean shamanism. What is it like for your artworks to “come home” in the sense of returning to their spiritual origin and engaging with Korean viewers?
ZX: It is extremely meaningful to have my work welcomed and exhibited in South Korea. There is deep personal fulfillment to have my artwork engage with its spiritual homeland. It feels quietly monumental. Exhibiting in Seoul has been a wonderful experience – locals seem genuinely curious to be around contemporary art, and this energy is palpable and exciting. Having said that, I can still feel nervous that my work will not be accepted or misinterpreted, but this has a lot more to do with diasporic anxiety and internal identity politics. I am cautious with how I use my references, and my intentions are rooted in respect and deference to the source materials and tradition. Ultimately, my hope is that the work opens dialogue amongst Korean audiences about how traditional aspects of craft and folklore can shift meaning and value depending on the perspective of the author. Embodying Koreanness exists across multiple spaces, cultures, and countries.
eazel: We would like to hear more about your “in-between space.” As a diasporic immigrant, oftentimes identity exists in this in-between, the liminal space, neither here nor there. Is liminality how you navigate layered identities, histories, and contexts in your work?
ZX: I think it is. In-between spaces are places where stories are waiting to be unearthed, written, or told anew. In my work, liminality refers to the intermittent spaces in both physical and psychological states. I have often found inspiration with hallways, corridors, subway tunnels, and airports – passageways that lead people to their destination. Album interludes are also important to my thinking. I love these interruptive moments that are strategically positioned to create thematic links between songs and encourage audiences to adjust to the various moods of the album. In-between spaces are a repository of abstract possibilities, and within this abstraction the exploration of non-linear thinking and storytelling can emerge. This is especially important for those blending personal realities with traditional folklore, timelines in history, and cultures. Liminality encourages a space for the sometimes fractured ideas in my work to feel rooted in something tangible.
eazel: Over the years, Korean shamanism has appeared in many of your artworks through characters such as Grandmother Mago and Princess Bari. In a previous interview with Sarah Shin for Remai Modern, you mentioned that you were drawn to shamanism since it is “uniquely anti-colonial and feminist,” as well as referencing Helen Hye-Sook Hwang’s research on Magoism as a once-loved, now-erased East Asian deity. Tell us about how your exploration and interest in both have evolved over time.
ZX: My interest in Korean shamanism is still anchored in these two ideas. However, the translation of these interests in my practice has expanded. In earlier works, the inspiration from Korean shamanism focused on performance, ritual, and live storytelling. While these aspects are still present, my focus has shifted to include painting and textiles, both loosely informed by Korean shamanic imagery and folk painting. The representation of older women both contemporarily and within history is also coming sharper into focus. It is easy to draw parallels between the way many societies have disregarded and vilified the role of older women and how stories of women in history, including mythology, have eroded and been deemed less significant and forgotten. Another way my exploration in Korean shamanism, Magoism, and folklore has shifted away from a solely diasporic desire to reconnect with ancestral history is the way in which I am seeing connections between these inherently Korean narratives to other cultural myths from around the world. Therefore, the drive behind the research not only fuels my curiosity to learn about Korean culture but also highlights many common themes found in other global histories.
eazel: Animals are a fixture in your work generally, and this element continues in the current Space K exhibition too. The animals change shape and morph, such as the gumiho taking human form, and we also see likenesses of your dogs. What role do animals play in your work? How do animals and folk beings such as the gumiho convey your theme of shapeshifting identities?
ZX: Animals are hugely important within my work for their symbolic value and their roles as proxies for human behavior. I am also interested in the ideas of animism and the stake that all animals, humans included have within our world. My initial curiosity in shapeshifting comes from an interest in coded social performance via dress, speech, and physicality, in order to navigate societal norms and hierarchies. This interest runs alongside my fascination with the supernatural and the power of those who possess the ability to change physical form. The nine tail fox spirit – known as gumiho, kitsune, huli jing, among other names – is an interesting character for many reasons.
I am particularly drawn to its duplicitous and malevolent nature, and see parallels between this East Asian mythological figure, fox characters represented in other global folklore, and the way real life foxes are often characterized. Common narratives include its cunning, untrustworthy, and shrewd personality, which, in the case of real foxes, is due in large part to the necessity of nimbly surviving in a world amongst humans. Similarly, the nine tail fox spirit also relies on its intelligence to successfully maneuver around people. Its reliance on disguising itself as a beautiful woman in order to deceive and harm (usually) men has always been interesting to me. Here, there is a direct correlation between malevolent wickedness and women. This conflation of evil and women is a popular trope within lore across cultures, and something I am keen to deconstruct, analyze, and celebrate.
eazel: We’d love to hear about the artistic and spiritual legacy that you are carrying on through your work.
ZX: I am unsure of what artistic legacy I carry within my work, although on a personal and spiritual level, I am very motivated by the idea that my work is extending and adding to an already existing legacy of Korean artists, from both Korea and the diaspora. Alongside this, and perhaps with deeper emphasis, I feel proud to introduce Korean craft and spiritual practices to those who may be unfamiliar. In my own small way, I do this with the intention to pay homage and deference to the traditions of my family’s home country. It is also deeply important to me that my work connects not just with Asian communities but rather touches those who also find themselves connecting with the folklore and traditions of their homelands.
I was educated during a time where patriarchal Eurocentricity was so ingrained within the art world. I feel very lucky to be making work now, when so many of us are pulling away from what we were previously told was the center point of contemporary art. There have been many generations of artists who laid the foundation for this to be possible. I am thankful to continue this path and I hope I am contributing something positive to it. I do take seriously my contribution to the art world and I like to think that, alongside my fellow artists working today, we are collectively weaving a latticework of multiple stories. Eventually, these will link our time to future artists and their ideas. In this way, perhaps I am participating in the writing of a larger origin story.
eazel: What are your plans for the rest of the year? What’s been tickling your mind lately that you’d like to explore in the future through your art?
ZX: My plans for the rest of the year are to reduce my social media screen time, increase the number of books I read, play with my dog, and start working on my next exhibition. An area I would like to explore further within my work is how to think about fantasy and the supernatural within the framework of my everyday life. In much of my current work, the landscapes and spaces that have occupied my imagination are the timeless forests, mountains, and marine scapes of my childhood in Canada. However, I no longer live there and haven’t for the past 16 years. Looking ahead, I will be thinking about the possibilities of weaving aspects of folklore and fantasy into the backdrop of a more recognizable reality.
This interview took place in early August after the Space K opening. Zadie Xa’s solo exhibition, Nine-Tailed Tall Tales: Tricker, Monster, Mongrel, at Space K in Seoul is on view from Jul 13 - Oct 12, 2023. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.