Artist Zadie Xa Weaves Cultural References into Her Paintings Like Samples on a Hip Hop Song

Portrait of Zadie Xa by Artifacts. Images courtesy of the artist and Thaddaeus Ropac.

Think of your favorite hip-hop song. More likely than not, it is laden with samples situating it within an expansive and nonlinear history. This stitching together of references lays the groundwork for multidisciplinary artist Zadie Xa’s practice. “As a young person, I would recognize different vocal clips from different songs,” she remembers. “They’re an homage to a moment in time.”

Xa’s work, often shown in collaboration with her life and creative partner Benito Mayor Vallejo, weaves together references to her Korean heritage, diasporic touch points from a childhood in Vancouver, and experiences from more than a decade spent in London, where she earned her master’s in painting from the Royal College of Art.

Zadia Xa, Homecoming, 2022.

In one of the works featured in “Nine Tailed Tall Tales: Trickster, Mongrel, Beast,” Xa’s first solo presentation in South Korea at Seoul’s Space K in 2023, the mythological character Grandmother Mago is presented astride a haetae beast. The goddess is revered for her wisdom—a gift of old age, which many cultures take great measures to delay. Xa’s Mago depiction, much like the artist herself, straddles the symbolic implications of both East and West.

"I suppose it is a very soft political gesture to move that pendulum away from the center,” she says of intermingling her reference points. But the practice isn’t without its challenges. When exhibiting in the West, Xa is mindful of not exoticizing her subjects. In the East, she worries their inclusion will be interpreted as cavalier. “I have to let things go and accept that people will read things the way they do. As soon as the work leaves you, it is its own autonomous thing,” she relents.

Zadia Xa, 3rd Eye Vision, 2022. 

This March, Xa will make her Parisian debut with Thaddaeus Ropac, a milestone made less daunting by the gallery’s tight-knit team. The work is still in its nascent phase, but Xa—who creates in response to the locale of each show—is exploring themes of dramaturgy, costuming, and fashion. How does an artist pushing against the center take on the global cultural capital? “In many ways, the center point is kind of exotic for me,” she contends with a smile. “It’s a different thing.”