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Artist and designer Zadie Xa on shamanism, identity and rootedness

18 Mar 2018

Visibility, as a woman of colour, is not a choice. It is an identifier. It is a notification of your difference that you must consider every day, when living in the West. Both Korean-Canadian British-residing women, Zadie Xa and I share this experience.

“I grew up in a space where people looked at me with the face that I have, and I was treated as someone who was an Asian person. I grew up my whole life having an ‘Asian face’,” she remarks. For identity is a constant negotiation of how to confront the assumptions that are placed upon you because of your face and how to perform those assumptions with disruptive belligerence.

Such is the work of artist, Zadie Xa, whose technicolour portfolio of work has been presented in an impressive array of art institutions via exhibitions and performances – including the Serpentine Gallery and Somerset House Studios.

With a current exhibition in Montreal and upcoming work in London, Mexico Distrito Federal (City) and Paris, we sit down to discuss visibility, the in-between, authenticity, Shamanism and her art in the context of post-Brexit London, where Theresa May’s declaration that a “citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” has forced both of us to consider what it means to be rooted.

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I am drawn to the visual complexity of Zadie’s textile work, where the mix of fluro, yin-yang symbols, mesh, metallic and camo appliquéd and patchworked together produces garments that fit easily within the visual language of young British designers. Her work, however, does not participate in the endless drive of the fashion chain, instead it provokes thoughtful insight into the relationship between dress and disguise. Clothing allows you to change who you are; it mediates the person that you, on that particular day, wish to present to the world. As a person of colour, it adds a layer of resistance to the assumptions that people will have because of the unchangeable tone of your skin.


“Clothing allows you to change who you are; it mediates the person that you, on that particular day, wish to present to the world”


In thinking about how she wanted to perform and present her identity, Zadie says she was inspired by 90s hip hop and R&B: “Wu-Tang or the clothes that Puffy and Biggie wore, all those big Avirex jackets, and Pelle Pelle coats that had all that leather detailing. I thought, really simply, if I were a performer what would I choose to cloak myself in? I was thinking a lot about ideas of magic and shape-shifting, the ideas of being a person in the diaspora, or anybody involved with identity politics, the idea of changing form, changing who you are, whether these ideas are people looking at you, or how you change, or how people perceive you, or how you then try to mask or manipulate aspects of who you are or what you look like, or just how you move through space. I want to be confident today, I need to get a job, I need to code-switch, all these things that if you are a child of immigrants, you have to think about”.

How to conceal yourself, I say, how to assimilate into society, without people thinking that you do not belong there. The power of fashion is in its ability to present aspirations, and in performing that aspiration, you too, may evoke the agency that that clothing allows.

Performance, in Zadie’s work, allows her to traverse the inaccessible experiences of being Korean. Without access to real memories, the theory of her work suggests that by re-enacting, she may create her own narratives. It is a powerful provocation; she uses her work to open imaginary portals that allow her to reconstruct the memories of her family history. It is particularly provocative when the notion of our “authenticity” is a difficult one. Zadie observes the troubling assumption (not hers) that “to be an authentic Korean is to have grown up in Korea, it’s to have grown up within certain borders that the state has demarcated to say this is where this country lies, you have a passport, and therefore you are. I mean those things are just strange to me”. Her work, however, is not about re-performing traditional Korean histories to access authenticity, but rather, her interest lies within the shifts and mutations within her own interpretations. As for the question of authenticity, well, Zadie is astute to note that equating it to national borders reinforces essentialist conversations: “It’s ridiculous to say that there is only one archetype of being Korean, I understand Korean history filtered through a different lens, filtered through Canadian culture”.


“As members of the diaspora, our identities are constructed from the spaces in-between, or perhaps, the overlapping spaces”


At the moment, Zadie’s interests in Korean histories lie within the stories of Korean Shamanism. Controversial in its relationship to contemporary Korean society – Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism all participated in expelling the historically traditional religion to the fringes – its place in South Korea exists primarily to promote tourism. That said, its ability to disrupt and reveal relationships of gender within rigid patriarchal structures is empowering. Shamans are primarily women; they are the income-earners of the family household; they may possess masculine behaviours when male spirits or gods enter their bodies. In addition, the religion offers safe spaces: she has read that there are often gay, queer or trans men that embody the role of the baksu (male shaman) and in accordance to Lauren Kendall, a Western-feminist scholar in the field, they allow for collective gatherings of women – spaces unmediated by the constraints of patriarchy. Zadie is wistful to note its tarnished reputation in mainstream society, but also simultaneously respectful that her distance from growing up in Korea may have afforded her to view the religion from the perspective of Western feminism.

Distance is unique. As members of the diaspora, our identities are constructed from the spaces in-between, or perhaps, the overlapping spaces. Zadie borrows from Trinh T. Minh-ha when she describes this experience as “the idea that your body has moved through space, crossed over borders and then there is certain cultural information, whether it’s imprinted on your DNA, or like memory mass that you, kind of, bring with you”. Within these layers and folds then, my identity grows: a shape-shifting chameleon who may adorn different outfits to present different identities. I am not a citizen of nowhere, I am a person freed from the rigid confines of nationalism.

Zadie Xa has an upcoming performance at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, upcoming solo exhibitions at the Union Pacific, London and Galeria Agustina Ferreyra, Mexico DF and as part of a collective: Blessed Be: Spirituality, Mysticism, and the Occult in Contempoary Art, MOCA Tuscon.