Artist Zadie Xa on the Art Night festival, marine animals and highlighting minority stories | London Evening Standard


hen I walk into a courtyard behind Zadie Xa’s East End studio, she’s in the middle of a fascinating process. With her husband, artist Benito Mayor Vallejo, she has just revealed inimitable shapes made from fiberglass molds: the dorsal fins of killer whales.

These cetacean curves are part of a rich and complex new performance and installation, Child of Magohalmi and the Echos of Creation, which Korean-Canadian Xa is developing for Art Night, the annual one-night-only visual arts extravaganza. . This year it’s set at Walthamstow and X has joined a big lineup, featuring established names like Barbara Kruger and Oscar Murillo alongside emerging artists like Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings.

There is a large e De La Warr at Bexhill-on-Sea.

For now, however, the Orcs are heading to the Reading Room at the Walthamstow Library. They will be part of an underwater world with conch sculptures that are speakers for a sound work, video projections, and artists wearing masks and clothing that Xa designed and made.

Orcas were inspired in part by a recent filming trip to his hometown of Vancouver. Killer whales were a staple of her childhood imagination and “an animal mythologized in local native cultures,” she says. “Subconsciously, every time I think of this animal, I think of my house.”

She is particularly fascinated by a small endangered group off the west coast of the United States and Canada. An “orc grandmother” in the group, named Granny, would have been 105 years old before her death in 2016 and Xa is interested in the matrilineal family structures of orcas. “They all learn their survival and social skills from their mothers and grandmothers,” she explains.

Grandmother Mago by Zadie Xa: Performance part of Meetings on Art, 58th Venice Biennale, 2019 (Riccardo Banfi) / Riccardo Banfi / Courtesy of the Delfina Foundation and the Arts Council of England

She has long been preoccupied with matriarchies, and the Magohalmi in her title is the central figure in an old Korean creation myth – Grandmother Mago, who created “geological formations, bridges, fortresses, lakes. … From his excrement and mud ”. Her mother used to tell her Korean folk tales when she was a child. “So for me it was a nostalgic entry point to feel like I could [explore] aspects of historical Korea.

She drew on the research of academic Helen Hye-Sook Hwang. The story was transmitted orally and it was not until the 1980s that it was rediscovered.

“Throughout history [Magohalmi’s] his name and his memory were erased or really caricatured, “says Xa,” ​​because male scholars did not find this story interesting. She sees parallels in “the stories of women or the stories of ‘minorities’ that are brushed aside or erased because they are not deemed important,” she explains. “It was something I felt passionate about highlighting.”

She weaves these disparate elements, connecting not only Magohalmi to Granny, but the reverberations of the cosmic music that gave birth to the goddess with the use of echo-localization by the orcs. “The basis of my story for Art Night is to think about the environment and in particular the plight of these whales,” she says.

The orcas have suffered terribly from what Xa calls “all these nasty things humans do” – overfishing, fish farming, chemical and noise pollution. But, influenced by Art Night curator Helen Nisbet’s original idea of ​​taking inspiration from East 17’s song It’s Alright – it’s Walthamstow, after all – Xa says the job isn’t pessimistic.

“I can be really nihilistic and think that everything is really bad,” she says. Instead, she thought about the strength of family love, “in my case with the women in my family” – Xa says she has no relationship with her father’s family.

There is hope in Xa’s story: Magohalmi was wiped out of history, but returned. “She basically says,” Let me tell you what happened: they tried to write to me, but that’s not happening, because I’m here. “” And while it is not expressed in a didactic way, Xa’s work is a call to bring the environment back from the brink. “How can we move forward? she asks.

Aside from this urgent eco-feminist message, the project reflects Xa’s provocative exploration of her Korean diasporic identity. His work is full of color, playfulness and visual sensations, inspired by Korea and its perceptions. “In some ways, I feel embarrassed to be screaming,” she laughs.

Growing up in Vancouver, racism pushed her into the background, she says. Now 35 and living here in London, “I turned that around and I want to be super visible and aggressive with it. It’s just the way I feel comfortable with it, and there’s no way I need to convince myself how awesome it is to be an Asian person. But I’m really excited to be at a point in my life when I can finally celebrate it.

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

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