Korean-Belgian adoptee explores identity thru art
By Yoon Suh-Kyung
Korea Times, 1997 July 16th (South Korea)
Beauty – the spare black Chinese Ink strokes, brazenly, violate the delicate rice paper, slashing out the calligraphy ideogram. Underneath, a tenuous row of mini-ideograms are linked together by their tendrils, like dancing figures holding hands. Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine’s painting, “Mi-wo Serie #1” is an orientalized interpretation of Henri Matisse’s masterpiece, “The Dance.”
Like the other works in “Ugly Beauty,” Lemoine’s first solo exhibition, the black and white painting betrays the artist’s particular predicament – she straddles the chasm between East and west, carving out a world of unknowns. A Korean-Belgian adoptee, Lemoine’s experience with adoption is the inspiration of both her life and her art.
“In-between. That’s how adoptees feel. We’re always searching for a balance between two things. I use this tension to create my artwork, “ Lemoine explained in her lilting French-accented English. “But I’m not only an artist, I’m also an activist. There are so many of us and Koreans have to recognize and make a place for adoptees in this society.”
Founder and director of Korean Adoptees Overseas (K.O.A.) an organization that helps adoptees search for their birth mothers. Lemoine divides her time between her art and her activism; more often than not, the two overlap.
“Ugly Beauty,” her exhibit currently on display at the Munhwa Ilbo Gallery, is an example of how the two different strains of Lemoine’s life meld together ad soar.
It’s unmistakable – adoption and its emotional consequences are recurring themes of Lemoine’s paintings. Her most stirring work tackle basic identity issues that are all the more pressing for adoptees: Where do I come from? Who am I? What does my name mean? Who do I look like? Where do I belong?
Lemoine organized her 35 paintings to reflect her journey of personal discovery. “I arranged the exhibit so that it starts with the section ‘Back-grounds,’ the art I did when I was still I Belgium,” the artist said brushing her bleached orange bangs from her eyes, her pig tail bobbing. “The second section is ‘Identity and adoption,’ which begins with works I did when I first came to Korea in 1988(9). Then there is the pre-natal life section, which explores the origins of life and the exhibit ends by my time in Korea.
The journey leaves its mark on the paintings’ canvases – the artwork in each section look different. “Flemish landscape,” one of Lemoine’s first paintings completed in Brussels, is an abstract piece awash with muted whites and hints of blue and green.
“The New World,” the painting which kicks off the second section, marks a change. It lays bare the confusion and anxiety Lemoine felt after her first trip back to Korea. “I wasn’t very well when I did this,” she said, laughing. “It expresses my confused state of mind then, I think.”
The painting is also the first in which Lemoine plays stylistically with clash between East and West – “My concept is that the acrylic symbolizes the West and the Chinese ink is something I only started using after being in Korea so it’s the East, I used both of them in this painting to express the two sides of me.” The effect is chaos and turmoil, the two media refusing to mix and clashing uneasily on one canvas.
The mood of the exhibit changes completely as it enters into the third and largest section, the pre-natal life paintings. Instead of the blackish shades and violent power that pervade the earlier paintings, these paintings of which “Fetus Trinity” is typical, are infused with pinks, purples and lighter blues, the gentle hues of infancy. Lemoine’s preoccupation with the myth of origins is not surprising given her adoption but her approach is.
“I wanted to express the lightness of being,” the artist said chuckling at her won spontaneous reference to Milan Kundera’s “deep” novel. Birth is usually such heavy subject and I wanted to show it in a lighter way, with humor.” The colors, though they are softer, are not less striking – “I used a lot of purples in this section because it symbolizes femininity and most of these paintings are also framed by color. Its like a womb.
But the most memorable paintings comprise the grand finale of “Ugly beauty,” the calligraphy section. The myth of origins, the mystery of language, the meeting of East and West and the meaning of beauty are all intelligently explored in these deceptively simple paintings.
The Mi-wo Series which gave its name to the exhibit as a whole is a part of this section. For Lemoine, notions of beauty are attached to her unknowable Korean heritage – “I started to think about beauty when at an early age, I understood the meaning of my adoptive Korean name. The Chinese character of Mi is Beauty. The second part is girl. The global meaning is Beautiful girl.”
Names are another motif that runs through Lemoine’s life and art. The artist has many names – Mihee Cho, Nathalie Lemoine, Kim Byol – for the painting is Kim Byol,” Lemoine explained. “Kim Byol is the name that my birth mother gave to me and the painting is a mirrored image of the name written in Korean. The fact that it is reversed shows the warping of my Korean identity.”
Lemoine uses an egg-shaped tao symbol as her personal motif. Its meaning also aptly explains the significance of her exhibit, “Ugly Beauty” – the middle of four hearts lies a truly Eastern mentality. Through art, we find a harmonious blend of the two.