- Kyopo _ A Korean resident abroad
- Zainichi _ Korean-Japanese
- Ibyang _ Adoptee
- Iljomo _ Born in Korea, emigrated as a child
Korean overseas artists grapple with what each of these categories mean. Some expose their interpretations, while others ignore them.
The third volume of O.K.A.Y, the Overseas Korean Artists Yearbook, was released last December. In the pocket-sized book, art, photos and writings are interspersed with personal notes from overseas Korean artists. Some artworks have a political message; others are personal or emotional, but each one has the same underlying theme: whoever you are or whatever you are, it is O.K. In traditional Korean society where group identity is stressed and individuality can sometimes mean alienation, the book’s emphasis on diversity resonates with a bit of cultural defiance.
Mihee Nathalie Lemoine, a 35-year-old Korean adoptee from Belgium and a coordinator for all three volumes, wanted to create an artistic space specifically for overseas Korean artists. In the spring of 2000, her friend and co-coordinator for the first volume, Kate Hers, was restricted from participating in Art Sonje Center’s “KoreamericaKorea” exhibition. The curator of the show told Hers, a Korean adoptee from the United States, she could not participate because she was not a Korean immigrant.
In an article published in the July 2000 issue of Art Monthly Magazine, in Seoul Hers criticized the curator. ‘‘The curators purposely ignored a generation of approximately 120,000 of the 2,000,000 overseas Korean Americans that live in the US,” she wrote. “And whose voices are excluded? We are the overseas, adopted Koreans (OAKS), who are sent to the US to live with American families, usually as children, losing our culture, our language, and our Korean families.” Hers said she eventually had to return to the United States to pursue her art career. But, Lemoine stayed and continued with O.K.A.Y.
It is true we have a different experiences, but that doesn’t mean we’re not immigrants,” Lemoine said. Korean Adoptees are not immigrants, because their official parents are not Korean, a fact which nudged Hers out of qualification. Hers and Lemoine exemplify many Koreans who grew up abroad and do not fit tidy classes of identification; while they embody two cultures, they are not thoroughly a part of either one. Lemoine and Hers started O.K.A.Y., to counteract traditional ethnic categories, and the rigidity that kept Hers from taking part in the “KoreaamericaKorea” exhibition.
“I didn’t want to distinguish between Korean adoptees, Kyopos, and 1.5/ Illjomo,” Lemoine said.
While Lemoine has tried to equally embrace these distinctions, others are just starting to get used to them.
Woong-Hee Cho, a 23-year-old, Korean-European artist whose work will be featured in the fourth volume, returned to Korea to fulfill his two-year mandatory military duty. Cho was born in Switzerland and spent most of his life in France and came back to his native country. He has found his identity difficult for some to accept. “If you are European, but physically look Korean, it is tough. I think when you look like a foreigner, Koreans are very patient, but when you are Korean-looking and cannot speak Korean fluently or are unaware of Korean customs, I feel like Koreans almost despise you,”
Overseas Koreans who at once feel tied to their home and connected with the country in which they grew up are faced with what it means to be Korean. The nearly 70 overseas Korean artists whose art and literary works are displayed in the three volumes of O.K.A.Y, challenge stiff rudiments of what it means to be Korean.
“The book is about Koreanness and how artists want to define it,” Lemoine said. “Some people reject while others embrace it, and just because artists do one or the other doesn’t mean they will show it in their artwork.”
Koreans are scattered throughout the world. More than 5.3 million Koreans live abroad in 14 different countries and 200,000 of these are adoptees, according to statistics cited in O.K.A.Y. volumes. Each volume of O.K.A.Y is a smattering of artwork from Koreans residing in a separate diaspora. The United States, Japan and Europe were centripetal locations for the first three volumes. The fourth volume, which will be distributed next year, centers on Koreans living in Latin and South America. Each yearbook jostles with layers of identity. Some artists choose universal topics that appeal to broad audiences, while others play with personal subjects exclusive to adoptee or Korean experiences.
Krystn Lee Young, a Kyopo who left Korea at two years old, returned five years ago. She is a writer and teaches at Ehwa Women’s University. “ I like to write instinctively and not to focus on Koreanness, but it something I find myself inevitably writing about,” Lee said.
Vincent Sung, a Korean adoptee artist and commercial photographer from the first volume, oscillates between personal and public personas, delving in both ostentatious and raw and intimate portrayals. One fashion photo draws attention to the color and media used in his artwork, exuding a commercial sensibility, while another picture, titled “Naked Eyes, Naked Soul,” offers a more private glimpse into Sung’s artwork. His subject is a man smiling with his head tilted to one side. “In my work, I want to see people raw. I try to capture what clothing tries to hide from me,” Sung said.
Sung’s balance between the commercial and the personal stresses staggered dimensions embedded in any personality that are subtle for some but awkwardly pronounced for others, namely adoptees.
Korean adoptee artist Tammy Tolle deals directly with Koreanness, unraveling dimensions particular to adoptees. She filmed a documentary, “Searching for Gohyang” (hometown), which unfolds her search for her birth family, the life she was forced to leave at eight years old and the identity she lost during the 14 years she had lived in the United States. “The film is about finding my family and my own perspective on being between Korean and American,” Tolle said.
“The reason I made this documentary is that I grew up with two families,” Postma said. Postma was adopted at 7 years old and can recall two different bonds with her mothers. In her work, she attempts to deconstruct these bonds and to understand the meaning behind them.In one way, a Korean adoptee is an outward manifestation of an inner search that many people, despite race or background, take. Adoptees who return to Korea to meet their birth parents and to discover their origins are ultimately seeking what every generation seeks in the nascent adult years: a sense of purpose. A universal search also surfaces in Eun-Mi Postma, a Dutch Korean adoptee whose radio documentary, “Omma and Mama” is published in the third volume. Postma’s subject matter is motherhood, but her work is not concerned with the Oedipal and Freudian variety. She examines the definition of motherhood.
“What is the bond with my mother? From a practical side, my Dutch mother is my mother. From my blood, my mother is from Korea,” Postma said.
Her topic like the lives of many adoptees has an appeal that resonates in a globalized world where national borders are readily traversed, definitions are reevaluated and conventions run over. Motherhood, Gohyang and identity are artistic themes and routes to uncover one’s origins.
Lemoine is working on a fourth volume that will be distributed next year. The focus is on Koreans living in China, Australia, kazakhstan and South America. To get a copy of any of the O.K.A.Y volumes, or to submit work for the next volume, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The books are 15,000 won.