From the outside in: Artists explore roots, identities

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From the outside in: Artists explore roots, identities

In the fall of 1999, the mixed-media artist Mihee Nathalie Lemoine, an ethnically Korean woman who was adopted by a family in Belgium, called for submissions by Korean artists living overseas for a book project. Ms. Lemoine, together with Kate Hers, sent about 200 e-mails around the world asking for contributions. About 30 people responded. More than half were Korean-Americans, the rest from various countries. "There was a language blockage with Korean artists in Japan," Ms. Lemoine said, "and a problem of accessing the Internet with people in Europe."

The result of her labors is the "Overseas Korean Artists Yearbook," or "OKAY" for short, now in distribution.

Intimate and pocket-sized, the yearbook includes works by 28 artists, an index of international Korean artists networks and a Korean-English dictionary of terms related to the life and heritage of overseas Koreans.

For instance, Tammy Toller, a Korean-American filmmaker, contributes a still from her documentary film "Searching for Go-Hyang (Homeland)," which deals with the artist's personal exploration of family ties, memories about home and a place of belonging. Maya J. Weimer, an overseas adoptee and a photographer, describes her marginalized experience as an outsider through the fragmented photographs of an Asian child's face pasted on top of a wooden block. Artists in the book tackle issues about their own complex identity and Korean subjectivity, using such approaches as cartooning, poetry and face-painting.

During an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, Ms. Lemoine talked about the Korean-Belgian adoptees she met in a Korean church. She says that it was there she was first taught how to say "anyeong-haseyo" ("hello") and "baegopayo" ("I am hungry") by her elders. "It was still nice, because I could make friends," Ms. Lemoine says.

Ms. Hers, a performance artist who first returned to Korea in 1997 on a Fulbright grant, describes a similar sense of connection with the Koreans she met who grew up abroad. "There is a silent understanding between them," she says. Ms. Hers clearly asserts in her artist statement in the yearbook, "There is not just one way to be an American, a woman, a Korean, or an adoptee."

The original idea of the Overseas Korean Artists Yearbook project took off when organizers at the Artsonje Museum excluded Korean-American adoptees from their ambitious exhibition "Koreamericakorea," held in 2000, that featured Korean-American artists. "We were not considered 'real immigrants,'" Ms. Hers says. She took issue with this decision, and wrote about it for the KoreAm Journal, a California-based Korean-American monthly magazine, which was later published in a local art magazine in Korean.

Ms. Lemoine writes in the foreword of the book about the unspoken competition between groups of Korean expatriates. She calls yuhaksaeng, Korean international students, "the privileged few who are able to afford the high-cost of tuition ... or have the political pull to study abroad." She says that compared to them, Korean artists who were not born in Korea, not Korean citizens and not acculturalized as Koreans have limited access to the domestic art community.

"The reaction has been very positive," Ms. Lemoine says about the book. She adds that the difference in her life now compared to when she first came to Korea is that people ask fewer questions about her mother, and more about her exhibition plans. For more information, contact:

by Park Soo-mee

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