By exploring aspects of a mythologised Korean entity - represented by the shamanic Magohalmi grandmother figure - Zadie Xa’s practice poses timely questions of the position of the diasporic artist identity and theories of hybridity during a period of debates on national allegiance and community identification. The coastal natural light and gleaming streamline modern architecture of the De la Warr Pavilion show this sumptuous installation of Zadie Xa’s costumes and paintings to their best. Reflecting the aquatic themes and imagery of the exhibition, the artist incorporates pearlescent fabrics and materials into the costumes, with shells and passages of silvery paint in the paintings that catch the changing light in an enervating display. Xa’s costumes created for performances are suspended on wires around the ground floor galleries, flying through the space.
Xa spells out the narrative of the Korean shaman in the video ‘Child of Magohalmi and the Echoes of Creation’ (2019) that is shown in the middle gallery in an installation of soft sculpture orcas that double as bean bags and sculptural lamps. These complete the sublime aquatic fantasy feel of the piece. It is only by paying attention to the video that the audience is given a key for much of the symbolism of the rest of the work. The practice of shamanic rituals by women in Korea has survived despite campaigns by the Japanese occupation and post war authoritarian regimes to stamp out the matrilineal tradition. Xa merges this narrative with the figure of an enduring 100 year old orca whale ‘Granny’. Video art by Asian diasporic artists is replete with imagery of the sea, with Trin T. Minh-ha and Vong Phaophanit standing as examples. Like them Xa uses video to explore a biographical historicity. It is intriguing that despite the seductive visuals and soundtrack and cosmic sublime narrative, the overall tone and impression of the work is melancholy.
Xa’s exploration of a Korean heritage is filtered through her experience as a diasporic artist and the video is an impressionistic mix of folklore of the shaman grandmother Magohalmi with anthropocene sci-fi with references to Deltron 3030. This plethora of sources and references has the consequence that some elements get lost. The painting ‘In the belly of our Grandmothers through the eyes of an Orca (Sojourn through Saju across the Salish Sea)’ (2020), made in collaboration with Xa’s partner Benito Mayor Vallejo, incorporates seashells the artist found during a trip to Korea of a type that historically women divers have gathered to trade. These deep personalised connections contrast with the generalised painting of the landscape and the depiction of the Magohalmi figure. ‘Barnacles and Kelp Beneath Sea Salt// An Homage to my Ancestors’ (2019) has the shaman sitting on a rock in a seascape wreathed in clouds with two stars. It is a compendium of references to landscapes in Korean art and folklore traditions that have a specific iconographic meaning. The painting style used by Xa and Vallejo, though, is dream-like, registering more as a Westernised fantasy of Korean mythology. The ornamentation of shells and appliqué make the work suitably kitsch.
For the opening there was performance by Yumino Seki, a Japanese Butoh performer from nearby Hastings who Xa has collaborated with over the last year. Dressed in one of Xa’s costumes - a shimmering green robe and wearing a finned mask that completely concealed her face - Seki started outside the Pavilion where the cloth was caught theatrically in the wind coming across the Channel. Watching from inside the gallery the performance was accompanied by a soundtrack of whale song. The robe swirled up revealing its shifting colours and the performer appeared to strain against the gusts as she stood with her arms extended. Cleverly, the performance showed off the richness of Xa’s fabrics by taking them outside. Transitioning inside the gallery Seki moved amongst the audience, making dervish swirls that increased in tempo with the now chiming music. Her movements reverberated through the room, causing the shells on the work to shake in percussive rattles. Watching the performance I recalled Mary Wigman’s expressionist ‘Witchdance’, an early attempt to fuse dance, music and visual art to create the Nietzchean/Wagnerian total work of art. It seems an appropriate connection as Wigman - who was labelled a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazis - originated from the milieu of Munich’s art scene of the 1910s of Die Brucke and The Blue Rider groups that influenced Mendelsson, one of the architects of the De la Warr Pavillion who arrived in England to escape Nazi persecution.
The performance contained some genius moments when Seki interacted with the suspended costumes and stands by the portraits of Magohalmi. Korean shamans also use special paintings as part of their rituals. At other times there was the awkward feeling of having Seki performing in close proximity to the audience, as she spun around one of the gallery pillars not being entirely sure what the narrative if any was supposed to be. The performance reached a climax when Seki removed the mask and robe and appeared to weep as she writhed. This genuine emotional intensity did not entirely chime with the normally detached art opening situation. Seki’s fantastical gothic presence moving amongst the discomfited crowd could even have been an enactment of Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’.
By having Seki, whose own practice is rooted in her Japanese heritage interpret Xa’s Korean mythology, there is a kind of rehabilitation by proxy of one of the great divisions of 20th century East Asian cultural politics from Japan’s Imperial legacy, not least the racist and sexist suppression of Shamans. Viewed in this context Xa’s work is a powerful expression of artistic hybridity as a strategy for subversion of the romanticisation of an inherited cultural identity - in this case Xa’s own ‘Korean-ness’. This message of the survival of the Shamans could not be more important in these troubled times.