[New horizons] National heroines remembered through portraits

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[New horizons] National heroines remembered through portraits

From left, Michaela Lee, director of the Czech Centre Seoul, artist Yun Suk-nam and Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Korea Gustav Slamecka visits Yun's exhibition at the Hakgojae Gallery in central Seoul last month. [PARK SANG-MOON]

From left, Michaela Lee, director of the Czech Centre Seoul, artist Yun Suk-nam and Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Korea Gustav Slamecka visits Yun's exhibition at the Hakgojae Gallery in central Seoul last month. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Women independence fighters celebrated in exhibitions 

Among the hundreds of Korean students who rallied for Korea's independence in 1919 in the streets of Tokyo was a Korean woman named Kim Maria.
 
“She is among hundreds, if not more, of women who took part in the independence movement of Korea, yet records about them are scarce, ” said Yun Suk-nam, an artist who paints portraits of women who took part in the independence movement.

 
Following the rally in Tokyo, Kim smuggled in copies of the students’ declaration of independence to Korea. After the March 1 rally in Korea in 1919, Kim was taken in by Japanese authorities and held in custody for at least six months, during which time she was recorded to have been tortured several times with water, a burning iron and other objects. She was released but taken in again in November.  

 

“Since when did you start thinking about Korea’s independence?” one Japanese interrogator asked Kim, according to records on Kim unearthed by novelist Kim E-kyung, who has been working closely with Yun on her portrait project.
 

“I have never ceased to think of it,” Kim is recorded to have said in response.
 

Less than 40 years later in the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia at the time, women there, too, were fighting against foreign encroachments.
 
Portrait of Maria Horakova, the only Czech woman to have been executed for political reasons during Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, included in the Czech Heroines exhibition. [CZECH CENTRES]

Portrait of Maria Horakova, the only Czech woman to have been executed for political reasons during Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, included in the Czech Heroines exhibition. [CZECH CENTRES]

“I fall, I fall, I lost this battle, I leave honorably. I love this country, I love these people, build prosperity for them,” Milada Horakova is reported to have said just before her execution in 1950. She was the only Czech woman to have been executed for political reasons during Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.
 

Kim and Horakova are but two examples from thousands of women who refused to go quietly in times of national crises in both Korea and the Czech Republic.
 

And their lives are being etched into portraits by artists across the two nations.
 

Yun has embarked on a mission, along with novelist Kim, to highlight 100 women who fought for Korea’s independence through dedicating portraits to them.
 

“These women fought alongside men in Korea’s independence movement, shouting the same words, enduring arrests and torture and not giving in. There is no reason why their stories should be buried in history,” Yun said.
 

Of Yun’s portraits, 14 have been exhibited at the Hakgojae Gallery earlier this month. One of her works from the exhibition, “Red Room,” was also showcased at Art Basel’s OVR: Pioneers program.
 
“Red Room,” by Yun Suk-nam was exhibited at the Hakgojae Gallery in central Seoul earlier this month as part of her exhibition of 14 portraits of female independence fighters of Korea. The exhibition was also showcased at Art Basel’s OVR: Pioneers program. [HAKGOJAE GALLERY]

“Red Room,” by Yun Suk-nam was exhibited at the Hakgojae Gallery in central Seoul earlier this month as part of her exhibition of 14 portraits of female independence fighters of Korea. The exhibition was also showcased at Art Basel’s OVR: Pioneers program. [HAKGOJAE GALLERY]

Dozens of students at the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic have selected 50 Czech women they deem as heroines of the nation, under the direction of their teacher Renata Fucikova, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the enactment of equal suffrage for Czechoslovak women in 1920 and the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Bozena Nemcova.

 
In addition to Horakova and Nemcova, figures such as Charlotta Garrigue-Masarykova, wife of first Czechoslovak President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who openly referred to himself as a feminist, and Vera Chytilova, the film director at the center of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, have made it to the list of 50 Czech heroines whose lifetimes span from the 9th century to today.

 
The Czech Heroines exhibition has traveled to Israel, Russia, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Slovakia, Brazil, Pakistan and more through virtual platforms provided by the Czech centers and embassies in 2020.

 
Showcased outdoors at the Czech Centre Seoul, situated close to the Seoul Museum of History, the Czech Heroines exhibition is open to the public through the end of May. 

 
The Czech Heroines exhibition ongoing at the Czech Centre Seoul through May 31. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The Czech Heroines exhibition ongoing at the Czech Centre Seoul through May 31. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Czech and Korean artists tell stories of courage and patriotism 

Portraits are hardly talkative.
 
When they do speak, it’s through the nonverbal — be it the subject’s gaze, facial expression or body language.
 
Such dialogue can be found in the portraits of 50 Czech heroines exhibited at the Czech Centre Seoul.
 
A portrait of Anna Naprstkova painted by a student at the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic has been showcased at the Czech Centre Seoul as part of the Czech Heroines exhibition open through end of May. [CZECH CENTRES]

A portrait of Anna Naprstkova painted by a student at the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic has been showcased at the Czech Centre Seoul as part of the Czech Heroines exhibition open through end of May. [CZECH CENTRES]

“For instance, when I look into the face of this portrait of Anna Naprstkova, I am struck by the detail of the lines on her face, and something about her eyes tell me that she has been through many things in her life. It makes me curious what stories she might be able to tell,” said artist Yun Suk-nam while visiting the exhibition earlier this month.
 
Yun, often called the godmother of feminist art in Korea, is no stranger to portrait painting. Her portraits of women, including the portrait of her mother painted on wood panels, have garnered international attention. Her works have been introduced at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. as well as the Tate in Britain. 
 
More recently, Yun has been plugging through an ambitious project to paint the portraits of 100 of Korea's female independence fighters.
 
“Novelist Kim E-kyung, with whom I’m working on this portrait project, had to really dig through the old records to find out about these women who clearly had a hand in the independence history of Korea yet were hardly highlighted before,” Yun said. “We were lucky to come across photos of the women the size of fingertips.”
 
Yun’s exhibition was held from February to early April at the Hakgojae Gallery.
 
The exhibition at the Czech Centre Seoul will be held through the end of May.
 
Czech diplomats first saw the connection between the two exhibitions.
 
“When I saw the portraits of the female independence fighters by Yun, it wasn’t hard for me to guess what kind of a person each individual was, because Yun incorporated details about them so well into the paintings,” said Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Korea Gustav Slamecka.
 
“Such elements are also visible in the Czech Heroines exhibition, as the students were given the freedom to depict the personalities of the heroines — to emphasize or focus on certain characteristics of the heroines — in their portraits,” said Slamecka.
  
To find out more about the women who were game changers in the history of the Czech Republic and Korea, the Korea JoongAng Daily recently sat down with Slamecka, Yun and the Michaela Lee, the head of the Czech Centre Seoul. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
  
What sparked the portrait projects?
Yun Suk-nam: It was Yun Do-seo’s self portrait that opened my eyes to the world of portraits, and especially to the distinct style of portraits in Korea that focuses more on the relations between the lines rather than spaces. The subjects of my portraits have been women I've known in my life, from my mother to my friends, but for a new project I was looking for a specific group of women that I could paint, and that’s when I found out about the independence fighters in Korea who were women. I was shocked to see the lack of information out there about these women who gave their lives to save the nation. Their heart for the country was not defined by their gender.
Michaela Lee: The exhibition was created with the aim of introducing female artists, writers, athletes, architects, designers, political activists, filmmakers and many others of the Czech Republic to the rest of the world. The students had leeway to create and recreate the impressions they had of the heroines through the project, so there are several layers of interpretation available for the viewers.
 
The portrait of Jeong Jeong-hwa by Yun Suk-nam. [YUN SUK-NAM]

The portrait of Jeong Jeong-hwa by Yun Suk-nam. [YUN SUK-NAM]

Among the women depicted in the portraits, whose stories spoke to you most?
Gustav Slamecka: It’s quite hard to choose, because the exhibition shows women of various backgrounds and historic settings. For me, Bozena Nemcova is one. Her work, “The Grandmother [Babicka],” is a novel that most people read in the Czech Republic. Nemcova depicts a grandmother in the novel who is quite a complex character — she is down to earth, wise but simple at the same time, kind but also practical. The story is easy to read for a young student in school, but also carries layers of reflections about life for adults.
Milada Horakova is quite well known in the Czech Republic. She had a very tragic fate, but she held her head high to the end, as she is depicted so in this portrait. She was a victim of the era, persecuted by the Communists, but she never gave up — and to this day she stands as a symbol of strength.
A third woman whose story speaks to me especially is Olga Havlova. She was the wife of Vaclav Havel, who was the last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic. Her support for Havel through his political career is well known and respected in the country.
Yun: One of the women whose story really spoke to me was that of Jeong Jeong-hwa. She was separated from her husband as he and his father went to China to set up the Korean Provisional Government in the late 1910s. She followed them secretly, however, and became a secret emissary, traveling between Korea and Shanghai, with a mission of supplying funds for the efforts to set up the provisional government. In her portrait, you can see her on one of such trips — on her lap is a bundle that has been tied together using what looks like a string — but the string is actually letters from Shanghai to independence fighters in Korea, that have been rolled up so thin to resemble a string. That was a detail I learned about in her autobiography. She had gumption, I say, to travel between two nations like that, alone, smuggling in independence documents. I think her story left such an impression on me because I’d like to have such gumption in my life as well.
 
Portraits of Bozena Nemcova, author of "The Grandmother," and Olga Havlova, wife of Czech President Vaclav Havel, by students of University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic. [CZECH CENTRES]

Portraits of Bozena Nemcova, author of "The Grandmother," and Olga Havlova, wife of Czech President Vaclav Havel, by students of University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic. [CZECH CENTRES]

You have seen each other’s exhibitions. What were your thoughts upon looking into the faces of these women in the portraits?
Lee: That people are the same all around the world, even though they may be separated by geographic distances. I looked into the faces of the women in Korea who fought hard for their nation, and soon I was reminded of such women in the Czech Republic.
Yun: I was surprised to see portraits of women whose lives date back to the 9th century, though in those earlier periods, the women highlighted were limited to members of the royal families or religious figures. In the case of Korea, it is very hard to find records on women. During the Joseon Dynasty [1392-1910], there were just two portraits whose subjects were women of high regard in society.  
Slamecka: It was an educational experience for me, as I wasn’t very familiar with female independence fighters of Korea. What I really liked about Yun’s works was the artistic features, because in many instances I could tell, by looking at the portrait, what kind of a person she was.
Yun: I was actually quite shocked when the ambassador saw through my intentions to highlight certain personalities or backgrounds of these women. One instance was when he looked at the posture of Kim Ok-ryeon, a female diver of Jeju Island who took part in large-scale demonstrations against Japanese authorities in 1932. He was able to guess, correctly, that she had Buddhist backgrounds, just by her posture. It was another moment when I realized that art is a language that can be understood beyond national borders.
 
The portrait of Kim Ok-ryeon by Yun Suk-nam. [YUN SUK-NAM]

The portrait of Kim Ok-ryeon by Yun Suk-nam. [YUN SUK-NAM]

How would you assess the paths that Korea and the Czech Republic have taken on gender equality and women’s rights?
Yun: As a female artist looking back at the past 80 years of my life, I can say that there has been progress, but there is room for more change, and that includes the way women think of themselves. Even for me, my go-to response is to think of myself as second-best to men, or to take on chores at home that appear “womanly” without ado. That is why I am working on this project from Monday to Saturday every week, to bring these women to the fore.
Slamecka: The birth of Czechoslovakia in 1918 was not just a birth of a new state but also the birth of a real Western-style democracy in the region. It was with this background, together with the first Czechoslovakian president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and his wife Charlotta, the Czechoslovakian Constitution created in 1920 guaranteed equal rights for men and women, including the right to vote.
When you start to look at the issue from the standpoint of how many politicians or members of the parliament are women today in the Czech Republic, I think this is an area where we still lag behind. We have female ministers and female parliament members, but we never had a female prime minister or a female president. Men are still prevalent among the group of CEOs of major companies. We have a lot of successful women in the Czech Republic who are able to be at the top.  
  
What do you think would happen if the subjects of the portraits got together?
Slamecka: You are posing a very interesting situation. From the perspective that all Korean and Czech Heroins must have been and are strong-willed, determined and purposeful women, I guess they would strike meaningful conversation very soon. In light of the very long time frame for Czech Heroins — we have 1,000 years between some of them — it is hard to predict the topic at the beginning, but I am sure the conversation will end with determination for a rightful and fair world, where both women and men have equal rights and opportunities, and there is no place for discrimination of any kind.
Yun: I am confident that the women will soon find common grounds on their love for their country and people. I'd actually love to take part in their conversations in person.
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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