‘Comfort women’ the focus for Marymond
When working with them, she would instantly forget all her worries and felt a profound sense of happiness. And she often used dried and pressed flowers in her artwork.
Shim was one of the thousands of young women forced by the Japanese during World War II to serve in military comfort stations, where they were forced to have sex with sometimes as many as dozens of soldiers a day.
But first and foremost, she was simply a woman who loved flowers.
Making pressed-flower petal artwork is one technique used in psychological therapy for wartime victims like Shim.
In 2011, when 29-year-old Yoon Hong-jo first saw these creations, he was immediately moved by their beauty.
The images by the women could have been passed off as the work of a famous artist, he thought, so it would be a pity to keep them anonymous.
So Yoon decided to create travel mug and a smartphone case under his company brand, Marymond, using the designs created by these women - known in Korea and the international community as “comfort women” - and used the images provided by the nonprofit organization that houses the collection.
Among the designs is one created by Shim, which went viral when K-pop sensation Suzy was photographed in January at Gimpo International Airport carrying a smartphone case with the late artist’s design.
Rather than fixate on what the pop star was wearing that day, Internet users shifted their focus to the floral print on the case, a portion of Shim’s artwork titled “Byeonghwa.”
That’s when orders started to pour in. “Everyone in our office was in a panic because we didn’t have the inventory needed to meet the demand,” Yoon said. “It’s still a mystery to us how Suzy came to have that floral case.”
Even the singer’s management company would only say that the case was one of her personal possessions. And agency officials weren’t sure whether she made the purchase herself or was given the item as a gift.
Yoon met a group of comfort women while he was volunteering in college. He recalled being infuriated by their stories at first, like many other Koreans, though that feeling quickly disappeared.
“I would get angry when I watched the news or read about it in my history books,” he said. “But then even I would just forget about it. I thought about whether this kind of attitude would help these women, who were so courageous to come forward to tell their accounts of the damage inflicted upon them.
“The answer was ‘No.’?”
Yoon added that he treats the issue as a human rights violation against women, not as a political issue between Korea and Japan.
“When I look at the floral artwork, I see every flower as each and every one of the elderly women [forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese colonial period],” he said. “A flower is something that isn’t artificial and exposes its true appearance, scent and color the way it is.
“Some of the women were damaged by physical violence. I wanted to shed new light on the women’s lives through the Marymond brand.”
Proceeds from his company, now in its fourth year, go toward the establishment of the comfort women museum, as well as care for the remaining victims, whose numbers are quickly dwindling.
Currently, Yoon is preparing to expand his business overseas, which is largely centered on the Asian market, but his nervousness continues to grow with time working against him. Most of the women are around 90 years old, and two have already passed away so far this year.
“These women are waiting, while the changes I’m trying to make seem so small,” he said.
According to the central government, there are currently only 53 registered former comfort women left in Korea.
BY HONG SANG-JI [firstname.lastname@example.org]