Zadie Xa: Long ago when tigers smoked

8 April 2022 By
Zadie Xa, Long ago when tigers smoked, 2020. Photo Credit: Dom Moore
Zadie Xa, Long ago when tigers smoked, 2020. Photo Credit: Dom Moore

Friday Dispatch 08/04
Zadie Xa: Long ago when tigers smoked
The Box, Tavistock Place,

Plymouth’s new museum, The Box, emerged from its three year capital project in the September 2020. Extensively reimagined, expanded and lovingly restored, its offer to the public includes maritime history in the form of a spectacular installation of ships’ figureheads in the atrium, alongside world culture galleries, fashion and decorative arts. The St Luke’s chapel opposite the main building has become part of the museum complex. Sensitively refurbished to reveal the lovely proportions of its original architecture, it is an exciting new temporary exhibition space for contemporary art. A newly commissioned fused glass window by Leonor Antunes produces a bolt of colour and texture at once brilliantly contemporary and respectful to context.

Just as the museum was closing for this major transformation in 2016, the Contemporary Art Society selected their proposal for acquiring work at Frieze London. That autumn we bought two works by the Canadian artist Zadie Xa from Union Pacific Gallery: a mask and a cape, the works distilled important aspects of the artist’s practice, with reference to performance and shamanic ritual. Both works are on display now in the upper North Hall at The Box, and make an introduction to Xa’s solo presentation in the adjacent gallery.

The artist conceived of her installation Long Ago When Tigers Smoked, as a theatre. The viewer enters the space, walls painted a deep, inky blue, to be confronted by two objects chosen by Xa from the museum’s permanent collections: a tiger puppet from Myanmar dating from the 1800s and a Korean tobacco pipe made from bamboo, acquired in the early years of the 20th century. The exhibition’s title is a Korean expression that alludes to a ‘once upon a time’ world in which animals and human beings had equal status. The tobacco pipe here is exaggeratedly long and slender, signalling the high status of the smoker.

Moving further into the installation the viewer negotiates a series of large, jewel-coloured, hanging textile works that divide the space like stage ‘flats’. Meticulously made, they might put one in mind of the work of Sonia Delaunay or Anni Albers; they are a collaboration with the artist Benito Major Vallejo. Beyond these, hanging from the ceiling are three tiger puppets, also a collaboration with Vallejo.

In this relatively modest space, with a limited number of elements, the artist has created a sense of journey and reveal: by the time you reach the rear of the gallery, the confrontation with a major two-panel painting is quite breathtaking. Under a full moon, in a sky full of stars, three tigers perch among the branches of a pine tree. The animals stand out with supernatural clarity against this depthless, dark ground; each bears the spiritual third eye on its brow; each one quite distinct in character and demeanour, as if playing out a teasing fable for the viewer. The tiger on the left is enjoying a moment with his tobacco pipe.

Wisps of mist or cloud curl through the scene, producing a wonderful sensation of space, while at the same time borrowing a graphic vocabulary familiar from traditional Korean painting. Where the tigers are muscular and weighty, in the foreground two tiny rabbits cavort among the branches. If tigers smoke, then these rabbits appear to fly – I like this world. Pale as ghosts, almost diaphanous, these creatures are more like the distilled idea of a rabbit than a creature made of flesh and blood.

The final inhabitant of the pine is a single magpie, in profile, top left. The bird completes the dramatis personae of this mysterious drama, but it remains ambiguous whether it is a protagonist or merely an observer to the main action.

The exhibition sees Xa further explore her concern with the environment and culture of the Pacific Northwest of Canada where she was born, combined with her experience of her Korean heritage through her mother’s family. The opportunity to respond to the rich collections at The Box has inspired this satisfyingly layered, immersive installation that is entirely coherent with, and at the same time a distinct development from earlier work.


Feature Artwork Credit Zadie Xa, Long ago when tigers smoked, 2020. Photo Credit: Dom Moore

The Box, Tavistock Place, Plymouth, Devon PL4 8AX
Opening Times: Tuesday – Sunday, 10:00am – 5:00pm
Exhibition Open until 5 June