Artist Zadie Xa on Art Night festival, sea animals and highlighting minority stories
Ben Luke – Evening Standard

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When I walk into a yard behind Zadie Xa’s East End studio, she’s in the middle of a fascinating process. With her husband, artist Benito Mayor Vallejo, she’s just revealed some unmistakable shapes from fibreglass moulds: the dorsal fins of orcas.

These cetacean curves are part of a rich, complex new performance and installation, Child of Magohalmi and the Echos of Creation, that Canadian-Korean Xa is developing for Art Night, the annual one-night-only visual arts extravaganza. This year it is happening in Walthamstow and Xa joins a great line-up, featuring established names like Barbara Kruger and Oscar Murillo alongside emerging artists such as Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings.

There’s a big buzz around Xa: in May, a performance by her was part of the Venice Biennale opening, and once Art Night is done, variations of the project travel to Yarat in Baku, before heading to Tramway in Glasgow, and then on to De La Warr in Bexhill-on-Sea.

For now, though, the orcas are headed for Walthamstow Library’s reading room. They will be part of a subaqueous world with conch shell sculptures which are speakers for a sound work, video projections, and performers donning masks and wearing clothes that Xa has designed and made.

The orcas were inspired partly by a recent filming trip to her native Vancouver. Killer whales were a staple of her childhood imagination and “a mythologised animal within local indigenous cultures”, she says. “Subconsciously, whenever I think about that animal, I think about my home.”

She’s particularly fascinated by a small, endangered pod off the west coast of the US and Canada. A “grandmother orca” in the pod, named Granny, was thought to be 105 years old before her death in 2016 and Xa is interested in orcas’ matrilineal family structures. “They all learn their survival and social skills through their mothers and grandmothers,” she explains.

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She’s long been preoccupied with matriarchies, and the Magohalmi in her title is the central figure of an old Korean creation myth — Grandmother Mago, who created “geological formations, bridges, fortresses, lakes… out of her excrement and mud”. Her mother would tell her Korean folk tales as a child. “So for me it was a nostalgic entry point into feeling like I could [explore] aspects of historical Korea.”

She was inspired by the research of the academic Helen Hye-Sook Hwang. The story had been passed down orally and it was only in the Eighties that it was rediscovered.

“Throughout history [Magohalmi’s] name and her memory has been washed away or really caricatured,” Xa says, “because male scholars didn’t find this an interesting story.” She sees the parallels in “women’s stories or ‘minority’ stories being washed away or erased because they’re not deemed important”, she explains. “It was something I felt passionate about highlighting.”

She weaves these disparate elements together, linking not just Magohalmi with Granny, but the reverberations of cosmic music that gave birth to the goddess with the orcas’ use of echo-location. “The underpinning of my story for Art Night is thinking about the environment and specifically the plight of these whales,” she says.

The orcas have suffered terribly from what Xa calls “all these obnoxious things humans do” — overfishing, fish farming, chemical and noise pollution. But, influenced by Art Night curator Helen Nisbet’s quirky idea to take East 17’s song It’s Alright as inspiration — this is Walthamstow, after all — Xa says the work is not pessimistic.

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“I can be really nihilistic and think everything’s going really terribly,” she says. Instead, she thought about the strength in familial love, “in my case with the women in my family” — Xa says she doesn’t have a relationship with her father’s family.

There’s hope in Xa’s story: Magohalmi was written out of history, but has returned. “She’s basically saying, ‘Let me tell you what happened: they tried to write me out, but it’s not happening, because I’m here.’” And though it’s not didactically expressed, Xa’s work is a call to bring the environment back from the brink. “How are we able to move forward?” she asks.

Aside from this urgent eco-feminist message, the project reflects Xa’s defiant exploration of her Korean diasporic identity. Her work is full of colour, playfulness and visual thrills, inspired by Korea and perceptions of it. “In some ways I feel embarrassed about how garish I am,” she says with a laugh.

Growing up in Vancouver, racism made her recede into the background, she says. Now 35, and living here in London, “I’ve flipped that and I want to be hyper-visible and aggressive with it. This is just the way I feel comfortable with it, and it’s in no way that I need to convince myself how great it is to be a person who’s Asian. But I’m really excited to be at a point in my life where I can finally celebrate it.”

Art Night 2019 is part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture and takes place across venues in Walthamstow & Kings Cross this Saturday, June 22 (

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