Feminism, Spirit Guides, And Hybrid Identities: Korean-Canadian Artist Zadie Xa Explores Her Heritage Through Folkloric Installations
Zadie Xa is an explorer of familial legacies, interspecies communication, death and diaspora. Throughout her practice, she often reflects her encroachment upon the unknown through lucid liquid surfaces and diverse marine ecologies, saturated with the living, the departed and the abstract.
Her latest exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery: House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness, pays homage to her ancestral roots, alongside themes of surreality, mortality and transition, which were further instigated by the aftermath of the pandemic; It opened to the public on September 20th, a day after Queen Elizabeth II’s historic funeral.
With its glaring white walls, high ceilings and minimal light, Xa exclaims that the Whitechapel Gallery feels like a crypt. This sentiment floods into the space, evoking ideas of ghosts that trace past presences. The initial idea for the installation came from the desire to use the room as “a journey into a dreamscape, the underworld or to death.”
As a symbol of traditional notions of domesticity, and as an emblem of contemporary ideas of family, the house and home collapse time. For Xa, the hanok, a type of traditional Korean house, represents a conduit between past and present: a liminal space where the living and their ancestors co-exist.
Shrines, shamans and characters adapted from Korean folklore find themselves centre stage, opening up the spiritual realm of the home in Korean culture. Considering the house from an architectural, mythological and cultural perspective, the installation explores the role of these 4 walls as witness to animist belief systems, daily rituals of a lived experience and diasporic history.
Adding intimate personal touches, Xa’s recent experience of loss is represented by two puppets modelled after her dogs, which hang from the ceiling near the entrance. Commemoration is further manifested in Grandmothers – an adaptation of Xa’s signature handmade jackets, crafted from an assortment of bright, silky fabrics. Stitched flowers adorn the garment, a gesture akin to the act of leaving flowers and offerings at a shrine, and one which happened to resonate particularly strongly at the time of the exhibition’s opening.
Just as the Queen’s death saw people mourning a strong matriarch, while also raising conversations around her representation of colonial legacies, Xa’s work champions female empowerment, but is synonymously critical of the effects of colonialism; and specifically the way in which it enables the repression of diverse identities.
The intention behind Grandmother is a poem: Wonder Woman, by Asian American writer Genny Lim, which speaks to and about immigrant women in the US. For Xa, this work is a shrine of sorts, built for those who were recent victims of Asian hate-related violence.
The DIY aesthetic of Xa’s handmade garments are reminiscent of the denim jackets worn by those growing up in the late 1990s or early 2000s, upon which letters, badges and other expressive emblems were sewn. The conception of her colourful, patchwork style is partially informed by her teenage years, an assemblage inspired by streetwear and skateboard culture, alongside the notion of identity construction.
Her heritage is also one of many influences on her aesthetic, which is inspired by jogakbo and bojagi – the former being a style of patchwork which involves the use of leftover fabric to create the latter: a cloth used to wrap gifts and other objects. It’s become symbolic of a hybridisation that’s present throughout her body of work. She explains that on a superficial level, that’s what hybridisation is – grabbing disparate resources and weaving them together.
Having grown up in Vancouver as a diasporic Korean, innately navigating multiple identities and recognising cultural complexities is second nature. This patchwork approach is symbolic of her ability to construct her own narratives by sewing together different perspectives and materials. More than just deconstructing and analysing mythology and folktales, she retells them through a medium that speaks to the current climate.
Explaining the intricacies of hybrid identities, she highlights the nuance of weaving a colonial history and its subjugation of indigenous people, alongside the influx of immigrants who prosper, and those who are still persecuted. This is further fed by the impact of the internet and the proliferation of social media narratives – and social censorship.
In seeking to reorient ourselves within time and space, the installation uses funerary customs and the idea of veneration to highlight the importance of acknowledging those who came before us. In Xa’s case, this extends beyond paying tribute to her ancestors, and encompasses recognising Canada’s colonial history and the negligence and discrimination that taint its past and present.
She describes interjecting minority stories that differ from the mainstream as an act of resistance. In revealing and sharing as many perspectives and tellings of those histories as possible, especially those which have been overlooked and are less visible, she hopes to keep some semblance of their spirit alive.
The ambiguous character of hybrid identities ties them into the themes of transition and impermanence, which underpin the show. Xa explores this liminality through Korean shamanism. When she first came across the concept and began to better understand such roles within communities, a stubbornly rebellious morale strongly resonated with her.
Existing on the peripheries of mainstream culture, shamanism was sometimes considered a dark, alternative practice: “they were often anti-systemic. Fuelled by an intrinsic pursuit of a calling, and as a carrier of knowledge and culture, to keep going in the face of persecution and oppression. For artists, there’s a form of kinship and recognition in that.”
At the entrance, a large cloak loosely resembling a shaman’s robe is suspended from the ceiling bearing knives – both an emblem of domesticity and a prop used in a ritual dance indicating the presence of spirits – alongside kimchi, and flowers. Xa has also embellished it with symbols of her own creation, mirroring the symbols used in shamanic practices to signify process and purpose.
More specifically, the robe represents Princess Bari, a Korean shamanic deity and the most prominent character of the installation. She appears three times on a large mural painted inside the main structure, which is described as a cross between a hanok and a funerary pyre. Bari’s role in Korean shamanism is vast, and subject to various interpretations, one of which is the harbinger of death. Akin to the Grim Reaper, her personified force guides souls into the afterlife – while leading viewers through the liminal spaces of the exhibition.
Along with Bari, several spiritual or religious rituals are referenced throughout the show, most visibly in composite animal-funerary object form. Xa’s aforementioned pets function as haete: scaled, goat-like Korean mythological creatures, who were believed to know right from wrong, and served to pass judgement on the guilty. As fables often use animals to teach moral lessons about humanity, Xa interweaves animal avatars throughout her artworks, silently commenting on morality and providing some distance from which to reflect upon the human condition, and its role within an ever-shifting society.
As a means of challenging societal norms, Xa imparts her own twist on traditional creations. Perched on top of the hanok-funerary pyre is Mago Halmi (Grandma Mago), a goddess from Korean folklore who created all of Earth’s nature (Mother Nature). Traditionally in Korean myths, male figures are depicted riding tigers, but in Xa’s interpretation, she replaces men with Mago Halmi, emphasising matriarchal prowess and paying tribute to women who refuse to conform and are outcast by convention.
Xa was raised by a single mother and grew up largely surrounded by women, which fostered her interests in independent female role models. Having travelled to Jeju a few years ago, she delved into previously unfamiliar aspects of Korean history. Now a popular tourist destination, the island is less known for its past as a Korean shamanic centre – one led by a matriarchy. Once a normalised practice, it was suppressed by colonial Japanese policies, as it was deemed ‘too primitive’ and highlighted a distinctly Korean identity.
The construction of art, drawing from multiple materials and sources, serves not only as a way for Xa to navigate her own cultural identity and heritage, but also as a means of resurrecting forgotten ways of navigating our world; “it’s the re-remembering that’s important, because it’s a defiance of a homogenous modernisation tied to westernisation, and dogmatic colonial thought.”