Zadie Xa Mixes Ancient Korean Shamanism and Contemporary Ecological Concerns in Her Art

When Vancouver-born artist Zadie Xa and I speak, she’s working at her studio on an industrial estate in London. Due to connection issues, we switch from video to an audio call, meaning I don’t get to tour her space. At various points, however, I hear Xa’s dog gently barking, as well as the sounds of seagulls —and teenage boys harassing said birds— on a nearby roof. A soundtrack of ambient animal and human interactions feels fitting for a call with the rising artist, who often incorporates nature-inspired motifs into her fantastical paintings, textile, installation, video, sound, and performance works.

Zadie Xa: House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 20 September 2022–30 April 2023. Photo by Andy Keate.

Coastal creatures and communities are major through lines in Xa’s multimedia art. They’re also references linking her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest to ancestors in South Korea. For Xa, researching marine life, including the colonial histories of Pacific North America and coastal Korea, is a vitalizing framework for learning about social, cultural, and political histories. These interests are partly informed by her heritage;Xa’s parents immigrated to Western Canada from South Korea and she incorporates aspects of Korean shamanism and animist traditions into her work. When we speak, she discusses a particular fascination with orcas: “I began thinking about orcas around 2018 or 2019 for a whole host of reasons.” In part she was “homesick” for Vancouver, but she was also intrigued by the whales’ complex presence in both Indigenous art histories and Canadian nation-building projects. This interdisciplinary research informed Grandmother Mago, a highly praised performance at the Venice Biennial in 2019 that featured dancers and drummers sporting sci-fi-meets-aquatic costumes and moving in a choreographed procession.

This past September, Xa continued exploring affinities between ancestral knowledge and contemporary life in “House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness”, her largest solo exhibition to date at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Though she’s still fine-tuning production details when we chat, Xa has decided that “a hanok, which is a traditional Korean domestic structure,” will anchor the installation. She plans to wrap the hanok’s wooden frame with colourful, hand-dyed linen that references jogakbo, a traditional Korean technique for making cloth out of fabric scraps. Xa will also present new paintings and textile works within and around the hanok, creating an immersive context that reflects her interests in anti-colonial politics, built and so-called “natural” ecologies, and matrilineal mythologies.

References to ancient pasts and dynamic futures tend to stack and fuse in Xa’s work, reflecting the artist’s expansive perspective. “Rather than create an entirely new world, I like to incorporate the ideas I’ve previously worked with into my new work,” she shares, continuing, “I’m someone who needs to conceive of an entire framework for an exhibition and the topics it will explore before I can get into the details and start creating objects or planning a performance.” For “House Gods”, Xa says she’s trying to “work more consciously from a place of intuition.” I note this must be challenging given the vast scope of her projects and their execution, which can range from painting murals, to designing masks and costumes, to working with choreographers and sound artists. Xa laughs, “Sometimes I’m envious of artists who can begin by thinking about form and materials. It takes me a long time to conceive of a full idea and, even then, with performance, you can’t fully know what it will mean until it’s presented to a live audience.”

Zadie Xa: House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 20 September 2022–30 April 2023. Photo by Andy Keate.