Ancestral Sisterhoods of the Deep Sea and Outer Space: An Interview with Zadie Xa
By Chloe Chu
Halfway into my conversation with Zadie Xa, raucous caws emanated from her end of the video chat. It turns out there was a nest of seagull chicks right outside the window of her London studio. “They’re celebrating. Apparently, they get excited because they’re going to fly and become independent,” Xa told me, conveying her research into the avian cries. Not coincidentally, a seagull stars as a narrator in her touring solo exhibition “Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers” (2020–21), alongside a cabbage, conch shell, orca, and fox. In the show’s audio work, the wise cabbage says, “All beings respond to the movement of Earth and her Moon, to the undulations of all planets, stars and cosmic bodies of the universe. This is Moon Poetics. How well do you know the land you grow on?” Through displays of patchwork capes, paintings, sculptures, and sound elements, Xa guides visitors to tune into the ecologies that we’re a part of, and that we have irreversibly damaged.
In imagining the worldviews of these five creatures, Xa also disrupts our familiarity with human-centric narratives and colonial epistemologies about the Earth, in favor of the unknown. Uncharted territories such as outer space and the deep sea form the backdrops of her other works, and function as metaphors for the unmeasurable distance between Xa, who grew up in Vancouver, and her Korean ancestors. The artist spoke to me about navigating the anxieties and freedoms of living in the diaspora, her artistic journey thus far, and the lost art of listening.
You initially trained as a painter at Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 2003–07. What were your early artistic ambitions?
As a student, I was interested in identity politics, diasporas, as well as colonial representations of landscapes and the people that populate them. But at the time, I couldn’t find a visual language that supported my thinking through these ideas, especially in painting. Vancouver has always been known for its incredible history of conceptual photography. When I was at school, painting was looked down on and thought of as decorative, and the works that were celebrated were abstract or under the guise of conceptualism. These topics were also absent more broadly from the paintings that were coveted or that excited the art world back then. I was always looking outside of myself for reference points and couldn’t find much. Working within a limited visual discourse on colonialism and postcolonialism, I turned to French Orientalist painters like Paul Gaugin, whose style I love, though I am critical of the imagery, and tried to subvert the classical canon. I was still attached to painting and the history of the medium. That’s what happens with a lot of painters—but this discourse becomes very closed.
Simultaneously, I wanted to think about the Western gaze, and not only on East Asian people. Discussions on racial politics at the time largely unfolded in binary terms, like “us vs them.” Luckily, in Canada, there were parallel discourses on immigrant experiences and Indigenous-European settler dynamics, which were helpful for thinking about exoticism and identity in more layered ways. It took me until I was about 29 or 30 to start thinking, “I’m going to look at myself,” when ideas of the self were what I was concerned with the whole time. I had always tried to explore these conceptions externally, like through the European canon of painting. In this past year, I realized that perhaps I had internal shame or an internalized, nonchalant attitude toward being East Asian, because we’re so nullified and neutralized within the cultural discourse in North America. I have a lot of insecurities about what it means to be a Korean person in North America and the United Kingdom, in some ways detached from East Asia. The Asian-ness within someone of the Asian diaspora is equally authentic as that of an Asian person who grew up where their family is from, but it looks different. It’s only recently started to shift, and now it’s possible to speak about these issues in more nuanced terms—it’s not just “woe is me, I’m the child of immigrants, I suffer racism,” but there’s also the larger economy of how East Asian people enact violence and can be the oppressors.
How did these concerns lead you to start creating costumes and performances?
When I left the Royal College, I was still making conventional paintings. I was engaging with landscapes—not necessarily natural landscapes but theatrical mise-en-scènes. I painted theatrical spaces with people wearing costumes or colorful clothing. Then I began to think about that in three-dimensional space because, to be quite frank, I wasn’t a very good painter, and because I had all these ideas but felt weighed down by the discourse and history of painting. That frustration motivated me to try something completely different. I started considering the parallels between identity posturing and what that type of performance means, and how important fashion was to me when I was growing up. I’ve always been fascinated by how clothing feels and moves on the body, and how we project ourselves through what we wear.
Your early garment designs feature patchwork elements and were informed by hip-hop and the clothing of Korean shamans. How did you arrive at these influences?
I grew up in the 1990s on the west coast of Canada, where skateboard and snowboard culture are super popular, as is hip-hop. I was heavily invested in these things as a young person. There was a penchant for wearing ID markers, like patches or logos, to show people what kind of music you liked—we even put the stickers of hip-hop groups or different brands on our skateboard or snowboard decks. That’s how the collage aspect happened with the earlier garments. I’ve also always been attracted to folk clothing. While it’s different, I do see parallels between commercialized streetwear and folk costumes, in that there are often symbols on traditional garments that mean something to the wearer. Others might understand that person’s social status, and perhaps their family history, just through these motifs. That was what drew me to the capes of Korean shamans.
There are resonances between shamans and MCs. Both are typically gregarious, charismatic characters who interact with an audience. There are different shamanic traditions within Korea, but certain shamans, known as kangshinmu, are able to engage in spirit possession; when they do that, they change their robes and adopt different personas in order to entertain the god that they are invoking—the flashy costumes are like those of musicians, and the ritual is like a show. On some occasions, the shamans dress up as men, so within this mostly female-led cultural religion, there are gender transgressions. The marginalization of Korean shamanism began centuries ago, when Confucianism became widespread in Korea, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, Korean nationalists, the Japanese colonial government, and Christian missionaries even tried to eradicate Korean shamanism, labeling it as primitive and hysterical. For me, it is a feminist faith that has pushed back against social convention and colonial pressures.
Another reason why I am inspired by shamans is their ability to cross between worlds and act as mediators between the living and the dead. I use that as a metaphor in my examination of my position in the diaspora. I’m distanced from my mother’s history in her country, and her mother died when she was very young; I have this desire to connect with these ghosts. By shape-shifting through the diasporic vector, I feel like I can access elements of an ancestral past and relearn knowledge that was passed down through the matrilineal line. Whereas my previous thinking was “I’m not Asian enough,” I’m now empowered and have found agency in this in-between realm, where multiple identities can occur, and where I can explore a specific nuance of Korean identity.
Why was talchum [mask dance] the inspiration for your first activation of these garments at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 2016?
A lot of my work, even now, draws from pivotal childhood moments and objects that I identified as being part of Korean culture. Talchum are small, wooden souvenir masks that were in and around my home. With my very first performance, I had absolutely no experience, no training. Interestingly, talchum first started as a proletariat performance with amateur actors. Villages would clear out a space within the communal square to build a makeshift stage, and people would enact stock characters, like the village butcher or Confucian priest, and make fun of the aristocracy and the ills of society. The community would already know the script and would respond to certain lines voiced by the actors, thus becoming performers too. It was like hierarchies were flattened, and you were able to release some of the social stresses of living in a feudal system.
I thought the call-and-response format would work well for Linguistic Legacies and Lunar Exploration (2016) because one of my concerns was the Western gaze. I’m hyper-aware of being East Asian within the art world and a performative setting—I don’t want to commodify or exoticize myself or my collaborators and have us become entertainers. The question was how we could assert control and be on equal footing with the audience. So, to take charge, we constantly moved around the Serpentine Pavilion, and the people who wanted to watch had to actively participate and follow us.
The back panel of the robe Call Waiting (2018) is a canvas painting of two women holding up conch shells to their ears; at the beginning of the live performance Perfumed Purple Rice and Sateen Songs for Sadie (2017), we hear a busy signal from a phone and the piece ends with an instruction to “call me”; in multiple videos and sound works, words like “echo” and “listen” are repeated. What about the act of listening is interesting to you?
I have been thinking about hearing in a multitude of ways, and the idea of listening not only to people who are speaking to you. It comes from trying to mend the ails that we have within society; this year, especially, has made it clear we need to listen to one another. I’m thinking about how people hear as well—some people are deaf but they still hear. More generally, I’m grappling with the idea that knowledge is passed through all sorts of places in different ways, not just through verbalized speech.
In previous works like Perfumed Purple Rice, I was trying to find a way through to ancestral spirits, and not necessarily ones related to me. The busy tone or the hang up relates to how communication can be lost. These signals underscore the frustration that comes with my desire to connect to an ancestral community that I feel distanced from but that is always present in my life.
In “Moon Poetics 4 Courageous Earth Critters and Dangerous Day Dreamers,” the focus is on communications between non-human beings, like animals and plants. Just because you and I don’t see how root systems are actively sending signals to one another doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Our knowledge frameworks are just limited.
It’s clear from your work that you have a deep reverence for animals. In the video The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell (2017), the octopus is an avatar for your grandmother. You have also re-imagined your mother as a sea urchin. Why those specific creatures?
I’m enthralled by octopuses; we will probably never fully understand this animal’s intelligence. The fact that octopuses have multiple minds all over their bodies is fascinating. I made that work just after I had been to South Korea; I couldn’t help but compare the coastal communities there with those in Vancouver, and I was thinking about migrations that have happened across the seas.
I imagined this enchanting animal being able to move back and forth or to exist on multiple planes; it wasn’t hard for me to then compare this powerful, mysterious being with a fictional maternal grandmother who is also a Korean shaman. Exploring an idea of who this ancestral figure is within the realm of the deep sea is a way to make her more tangible. And in many cultures we conflate ideas of spirituality with animals, who have an understanding of how one can have purpose and be harmonious with the world, while humanity is still struggling with that. With my mum, there’s a sillier reason. She’s a tough lady, like a lot of her generation of immigrants, so she’s a bit spiky, but she’s incredibly soft and loving on the inside.
“Moon Poetics” opens with a folding screen that depicts mythical mollusks, animals, and plants. Did your earlier theatrical paintings have any bearing on the form and composition?
Definitely. The screen turns the gallery into a theatrical space and it’s something that I will be working with in a performance at the end of the year. The other purpose for the screen has to do with traveling—the audience is led on a journey in the exhibition. The screen loosely references fantastical medieval maps where you see monsters in the sea, as well as East Asian shanshui scrolls. There are different symbols, and that’s a nod to Irworobongdo [traditional Korean Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks screen], where all the images were readily known and legible to the audience of the time. In these screens from the Joseon period, for example, the sun and the moon represented the king and the queen, and cranes denoted longevity. It was like how people who couldn’t necessarily read would go into cathedrals and they would understand the stories on the stained- glass windows. I wanted to create an illustrative map that anyone could decode after spending time with myself or the exhibition.
Once you enter the gallery, there are other recurring motifs on the robes and in the sculptures, including orcas, cabbages, and conch shells. Do you consider these your identity emblems? If so, what do they say about you?
The orca is not necessarily about me, but how I relate to them. I hold profound respect for these animals and how they live and organize their societies. They also remind me of home in Vancouver where orcas are a prolific image. The mascot of the city’s hockey team is an orca. Coastal First Nations people have deep ancestral relationships with orcas too. The Lummi Nation view them as their kin, their ancestors.
The shell and the cabbage say more about me. I’ve always wanted to make work about kimchi, but not in a totally serious way. The napa, or Chinese, cabbage is commonly pickled as kimchi, and when I look at it, I think of home and being with my mom. It’s a vegetable that I’ve always loved and thought of as a symbol of Korean-ness. Nowadays, kimchi is recognized all over the globe as a superfood that is good for your gut. In some of my works, kimchi appears as a character that can give you superpowers.
The conch shell is a communication receptor, a vehicle by which I’m able to tell stories. You hold it up and there are all these tales, decipherable not just by Koreans—many people have ties to oceans and seas. I think of the shell as a vector or instrument through which multiple technologies or information can be assimilated from an unknown space. The shell that I depict is specifically the turban shell, which I came across on Jeju Island. It really does represent me in a personal way because when I went there, I had never seen such big, gorgeous, intact shells everywhere. I thought it was amazing and I had a stereotypical diasporic moment where I was like, “oh my god, I am in Korea, I am home.” Everything around me became symbols of a homecoming and I quickly gathered many shells and thought, “I am bringing these with me.” I felt this deep connection and then I very quickly realized that no one else was collecting the shells because they are garbage discarded by street-food vendors. That was hilarious because I had attached so much sentimental meaning and desire to this object—perhaps all immigrant children do that when we return to our ancestral countries, we fixate on these tethers.
The yin-yang symbol is another example. It means many things to many people, but when I was young, I would associate it with things that were authentically Asian, like a temple, or a Taekwondo gym. But then of course that image has been usurped and heavily commodified in Western culture—it’s put on a range of products, from holistic healthcare items to skateboards and snowboards. The authenticity of it was flattened within the context of North America, but somehow, I still had this real sentimental attraction to it.
I imagine that people who are not from Asia look at my work and think, “this is by an Asian artist” while people from Asia think, “this is what a White person would make if they were trying to create an Asian-looking work.” I probably will always have this deep-seated insecurity about my position and that’s why the stakes are so high for me to carve out a middle ground, an area that is ripe with possibilities, instead of constantly trying to insert myself within a rigid, artificial notion of essentialist Korean-ism, which no one is pushing me toward except myself.
Your works often have a sci-fi look while also drawing from folk references. Has the stereotypical binary of East as mystical and traditional, and the West as scientific and modern weighed on your thinking at all?
I never thought of it that way. For me, charting the future can only happen through the recollection of ancient knowledge, so in that sense, they aren’t two points competing against each other. I don’t know—perhaps I will have more answers when this period in my work is closed. I’m still on the journey.