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7 rue Debelleyme, 75003, Paris, France
Open: Tue-Sat 10am-7pm


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Zadie Xa: Rough hands weave a knife

Thaddaeus Ropac, Marais, Paris

Fri 12 Apr 2024 to Sun 26 May 2024

7 rue Debelleyme, 75003 Zadie Xa: Rough hands weave a knife

Tue-Sat 10am-7pm

Artist: Zadie Xa

For her first solo exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac, Zadie Xa presents new works spanning diverse mediums that reflect on ideas of interspecies communication and transmutation, world-building and symbols of protection and power. Born in Vancouver, Canada and now based in London, Xa draws upon her Korean heritage and its rich mythological tradition across paintings and textile works, as well as a group of four bronze sculptures, which represents a new facet of her practice.

Installation Views

This exhibition at the Paris Marais gallery is the artist’s first in France. Tying it to the art-historical landscape of its surroundings, Xa cites Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, painters of the Parisian Symbolist movement in the late 19th century, as inspirations for her new group of paintings. ‘I’ve always been interested in semiotics and signs and symbols’, the artist explains, but the fantastical pastoral scenes in these new works betray this particular influence. Across expansive landscapes that span monumental, and, in some cases, polyptych paintings, Xa combines memories of the Pacific Northwest, where she grew up, Korean landscapes studied through photography and historical painting, and fictional elements into composite topographies that recall the dreamlike world-building achieved by science fiction and fantasy artists like Frank Frazetta: another important reference for the artist. As she explains: ‘this amalgamation of different spaces into something desired but abstract is a visual reflection on metaphysical ideas of homeland’: a reformulation of landscape through diasporic experience.

Surrealist women artists such as Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini were also central to Xa as she conceptualised the exhibition for the way they mined the potential of dream, fantasy and the unconscious to envisage new societal possibilities. The foxes, crows and seagulls that weave in and out of the exhibition are drawn from the artist’s urban reality, while other characters – cloaked figures with birds’ heads or feathered tails – are imagined hybrids. For Xa, animals carry abundant allegorical power, just as they do in Korean folklore and mythology, which also offers the artist a rich pool of creatures and characters with which to people her paintings. Through these metamorphing figures in which the animal and the human are placed in direct communication with one another, Xa harnesses the symbolic power of animals across cultures and traditions to highlight particular human traits and behaviours, or, like Carrington did before her, to express particularities of womens’ experience of the world. ‘I feel like those symbols hold genuine power and magic when placed within the ecosystem of my work,’ says Xa.

The four sculptures on view were created in collaboration with the artist Benito Mayor Vallejo, with whom Xa has worked closely since 2006. They also represent concentrations of talismanic power within the symbolic visual language that runs throughout the exhibition. Three are based on characters from performances the artist presented at the Venice Biennale (2019) and at the National Gallery, London (2021), and reference Korean funerary dolls, which would traditionally be carved in wood and placed on the casket to accompany the dead on their journey to the next world, providing protection, care or entertainment along the way. Xa’s reimaginings of these figures – an orca on human legs beating a drum, or a nine-tailed fox performing a handstand on human hands – come alive against the backdrop of the paintings to give the exhibition a sense of lyricism and movement. A fourth sculpture is made up of intertwined creatures, including a haetae: a Korean mythological animal often placed at the entrances of civic buildings to protect and to judge and refuse entry to the wicked, and here placed at the beginning of the exhibition, as if to guard the space. Cast in bronze, the sculptures take on an imposing new weight and a scale within Xa’s practice.

Like in her recent solo presentations at Whitechapel Gallery, London (2022–23) and Space K, Seoul (2023), textile will be an integral part of Rough hands weave a knife, emerging both through the multicoloured patchwork frames that surround some of the paintings and through stand-alone works made from irregular scraps of linen and denim. In them, Xa draws on the visual language of European and American Modernist geometric abstraction as well as on the Korean bojagi patchwork tradition. Their palette is centred around the five Korean elemental colours: red, blue and yellow, as well as shades of black and white. Bringing together these pools of reference, Xa bridges the gap between practices considered ‘art’ and those considered ‘craft’, challenging the established hierarchical relationship between them. The title of the exhibition, Rough hands weave a knife, originated when the artist noticed the roughness of her own hands during the physically intense process of making the works on view. The titular knife is an extension of the symbolism of power and protection that runs throughout the exhibition, but also nods to modes of manual creation, particularly within domestic spheres, similarly reflecting a valorisation of the manual work involved in artistic practices that draw on craft traditions.

Guided by the principles of interdisciplinarity and immersivity, Xa views every exhibition as a work of art in itself, and as a continuation of the universes created in previous exhibitions. Each painting is linked to the others through unexpected visual resonances or repetitions, while several of the characters voyage between paintings and even across mediums, slipping in and out of sight as the visitor moves through the exhibition to give an impression of non-linear time and of multiple parallel yet connected universes. As Xa explains, the exhibition has at its heart ‘my indulgence in my desire to illustrate new worlds’, situated at the intersection between near and far, real and fantastical, lived and longed for.

Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul © Zadie Xa

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