Zadie Xa: Finding your identity in art

Ahead of the upcoming art auction, Her Stories, artist, Zadie Xa, tells us about the importance of creating a representation of yourself in your work, and the obstacles of being female in a male-dominated world.

What is the role of an artist? How does one perceive and inform decisions on how to create a piece of work? With technology booming and the rise of Instagram-ready content infiltrating our screens, the cyber ground in which art has been laid has never seemed so disorientating. With universally accessible content at the touch of a fingertip, the reasons why and how people make art has shifted. So, how do we navigate through this shift? Should artists be political? Should they create art specifically for social media, or partner with brands?

Zadie Xa, a London-based artist from Vancouver voices her reasons for making art through a powerful unification of performance, video, painting and textiles. Having moved to London as a first generation Canadian, with Korean roots, the transition allowed her to enter a whole new perspective on what it means to belong. As such, ideas of displacement and cultural hybridity form the spine of her practice, with an interest to mine the areas where specific cultures converge. These “in between spaces” are where Zadie is most interested, as she picks apart the Asian diaspora to inform a new representation of identity. Traditional Asian symbols, modernised motifs, memory, nostalgia and fantasy; each complex fragment of her work comes heavily dosed in a sensual multi-disciplinary medium. The reasons for creating, she describes, are her own personal route for self-exploration.

Next week will see Xa auction her work, alongside the likes of Hannah Perry and Eloise Hawser, as part of an appeal to raise money for three charities providing vital services to some of the most vulnerable women in the UK. We caught up with Xa ahead of the event to find out more about her experiences within the Asian diaspora and the role of women within the arts.

Her Stories will be open to the public at Protein Studios in Shoreditch from the 23rd to the 26th of November. Bidding is now live via Paddle8, where you can place a bid on the art work that Zadie has donated, with all proceeds benefiting the appeal. You can also get your tickets to the live auction here, and sign up to attend the VIP preview here.

Tell us about your background. How have your experiences, particularly your role in the Asian diaspora, defined you as an artist?

I finished my undergrad in 2007 in Vancouver, Canada and then I moved to Italy and Spain before London in 2012. I just happen to be a first generation Canadian, so I think for me it was always that feeling of being in between spaces. I grew up in a predominantly white middle class neighbourhood and then I went home to a single parent immigrant family – I was balancing both those worlds. Because I was in a single parent household, a lot of the traditional Korean family norms were diluted as I think my mum felt the need to assimilate much sooner, or quicker, into mainstream Canadian culture as a way to survive. My experiences have definitely been positive for my development as an artist. I wanted to make work that reflected the issue that I was dealing with or had dealt with, because I thought that was an easier way to make and talk about it. If you explore the ideas and issues that are close to you, it becomes easy to then talk about and work your way around.

Your work deals with themes of displacement and cultural hybridity. What’s your overarching message within this?

I’m interested in that third empty space where different cultures conflate and where new alternative narratives are able to happen. I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me, while also being able to be in charge of the story, and the representation, of myself. In very broad terms, when women have the ability to tell stories about themselves I think there’s a much more nuanced form of storytelling that comes out of it. That’s another key motivating factor for my work. In the past I’ve decisively used Asian faces or people that look like me when I was younger – you want to have a representation of yourself looking back at you to reaffirm what you are and who you are.

What are your thoughts on the contemporary role of the artist? Do you think they should be political activists, should they create Instagram-ready content or partner with brands, for example?

I haven’t done anything like that. To be honest, I think people can do whatever they want. There’s that quote: “all art is political”. If one chooses to be outspoken about certain things that are happening in the world in their art,that’s great, or maybe they create abstract paintings that function within art for art’s sake, that’s great as well. If there are artists that choose to align with brands and make content for Instagram, I mean, in the end art is served by humans and they can do whatever they want. I just pay attention to artists I’m interested in, and the ones I’m not interested in, I’m not interested in. They can do whatever they want.

Are you conscious of the rise in ready-for-Instagram art?

I’m sure most people that use social media are aware of things like that and probably more so the people that work within the art market. I’m not a gallerist, I don’t know how these things work. A lot of the time, when you see things on the internet and they look amazing – and I think this happens a lot with painting – they look really great, and then you see the work in real life and it falls flat. As someone who is a consumer of images and art, I think that can be really disappointing. You have the people who haven’t really found a lot of confidence to hunker down to do what they want to do, and you see a lot of work that looks so similar. When something’s popular, everyone tries to make a version of that. I think that’s unfortunate because, in the end, what is the motivation for people to make art? I would hope it’s for some personal research project of interest to them, and it doesn’t matter what that research entails. However I think it is great to see what people are making in New York, LA or wherever you’re not. I feel very spoilt to have that so readily available, yet I think the one problem it causes for me is that I pay too much attention to it. I try not to let it influence my work, it’s just a time waster.

Run us through the work that you’re exhibiting at Her Stories. What can we expect to see?

I donated a painting that I made at the end of 2015. It’s quite a pivotal piece of work for me: I had just recently finished my MA at the Royal College of Art and this is when I just started flirting with the idea of making textile work and making video. It’s a large painting – in the middle of it there’s this printed photographic digital painting that also includes a photograph of myself wearing one of the first textile pieces I made. When I had it in my studio, a friend came over and said: “I really feel like it should be on a screen or moving, it just seems so static.” Although it was a criticism, it was the very first moment where I thought this person’s right, I should really try to make the textile work within my painting more active and less submissive. It’s an image that was a precursor to all the video and performance work that I made subsequently after.