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Frankly speaking

Artist Zakea Page tells Sarah Lang about his childhood in Asia and his global ambitions.

‘I want to be one of the world’s best artists,’ says Zakea, a Massey University student with a quiff like Tintin’s – who definitely doesn’t have Tall Poppy Syndrome. The 20-year-old meets me in the Massey quad, holding a framed image of his medal design ‘Beauty in Diversity’. It’s been chosen by the International Olympic Committee – out of 300-plus entries from 60 countries – for the Winter Youth Olympic Games 2020, to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Zakea is the first New Zealander to design an Olympic medal. ‘The design incorporates five spirals representing five continents, five Olympic rings, and the coming together of countries, cultures and athletes in one place,’ Zakea says. ‘It’s about humanity being stronger when it’s unified, especially now, after the terrorist attacks. Art and design are always political.’ The IOC will fly him to Lausanne, where he’ll see his medals hung around athletes’ necks (and maybe do some performance art).

Zakea has also directed a short film, produced by Ethan Thompson and made in collaboration with the International Olympic Committee. It will be released on 17 September to line up with the lighting of the Youth Olympic Flame in Greece on the same day. Zakea says the film, ‘follows a large live painting performance of the Youth Olympic Games Mascot named Yodi, and reflects the values that the Olympic flame represents – peace, friendship and unity.’

Zakea was born in England, where his father lived. His mum is a Kiwi, and the family moved to Tauranga when Zakea was five. His parents – both teachers – wanted the family to experience different cultures, so they and their two sons have country-hopped since Zakea was nine: Kuwait (a year), Bangladesh (a year), Vietnam (two years), and China (four years). Always sporty, Zakea played hockey in Vietnam’s domestic competition, and for Vietnam’s national men’s team against Brunei and Taiwan. After moving to China, Zakea sometimes flew back to Vietnam for hockey games.

Film Company – Massey Digital

‘I’ve learned a lot from being exposed to different cultures. I admire the Chinese dedication and work ethic – whatever you do, it’s a disservice not to perform to the best of your capabilities. My high school was competitive.’

When Zakea finished high school, his family moved to India and he moved to Blenheim, New Zealand to spend time with his grandparents – and to anchor himself before he ‘goes out into the world’ (perhaps Berlin). He’s midway through a Creative Media Production degree, and lives in a Massey hostel. ‘I’m American in my ways. New Zealanders are more reserved and overly humble. We need to talk constructively about our Tall Poppy Syndrome. We’re not so good at uplifting each other. But I like that New Zealand really values society and community. And I’ve realised I need to adjust how I talk, as I speak passionately about my work, and it can come off as arrogant.’

Zakea gave up hockey to focus on art: mainly paintings, street art, and performance pieces. He’s incorporated hockey into his performance art. In front of spectators at the 2017 Women’s Hockey World League Final in Auckland, he coated a hockey ball in ink, then dragged it with his hockey stick around a canvas on the floor  – creating a painting of a female hockey player – while doing ‘tricks’ (like catching the ball on his back) and what could loosely be called dance moves.

Film Company – Massey Digital

Last year Zakea went to LA with the NZ Black Stars: a group of 25 aspiring young entertainers formed to compete in the World Championships of Performing Arts, an Olympic-style international meet. Here Zakea performed two variations of the performance piece described above – and another in which he rode a skateboard with a container of spray paint attached, which squirted out a line to form a portrait of a woman. Each performance won a silver medal in the Variety category.

He’s interested in the intersection between sport and art. ‘I actually don’t see much difference between them. Both are mentally demanding, and, with both, you’re controlling your movements.’ He wants to challenge the idea that you’re either a sports jock or an art nerd. ‘People have “domain dependence”, wanting to slap labels on things. Whereas I think everything from art and science to sport are all part of a big web.’

First published in Capital issue #62

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