Over the past few years, I visited several Korean heritage language schools that were small-scale, closed, ethnic communities in the U.S. The Korean schools have helped Gyopo and their children to establish a national identity and ensure an ethnic environment. Gyopo is a Korean word that means emigrants from Korea and their descendants, which may be translated to Korean diaspora. Among other terms that refer to ethnic Koreans who live overseas, Gyopo has a connotation that the link between them and their home country has been lost or weakened. About 80 percent of Gyopo lives in China, Japan, or the United States. Gyopo in the schools make efforts to consolidate and reassure their ethnic identity by learning the home language and culture. Ironically, however, they often make intentional efforts to assimilate into their society by reshaping their identity and adopting new names. This interesting conflict leads to several questions to me: Do they consider themselves as outsiders or insiders in the society? How do they perceive the relationship between their new English names and Korean identity?
What’s My Name? is fourteen photographs of the binders that many Gyopo families use to store documents pertaining to visas, green cards and permanent residence applications, each folder representing one family. Gyopo Portraits series is embossed paper works presenting Korean immigrant portraits collected from Korean ethnic newspapers circulating in the U.S. or interviews I have conducted. These two projects are a continual exploration of hybridized identity with Korean diaspora, that is, how Korean immigrants feel anxiety and re-conceptualize a sense of ethnic homogeneity and cultural identity when they experience discontinuity of place and a sense of otherness. New York-based art critic and contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific, Lilly Wei writes for Gyopo Portraits:
“The works are quite beautiful, embossed images on thick paper, white on white, accompanied by a few words in Korean and English occasionally as a kind of signage. The overall whiteness makes their individual faces difficult to see, becoming almost like ghost imprints emerging from the whiteness, an undifferentiated, unidentified abstract space, then vanishing, the results of the lighting conditions and where the viewer is standing. In turn, that visual shift and uncertainty underscores the equally elusive identities of those who are being depicted, immigrants in need of creating their new place in the world and their new outward guises, reconciling it with their inmost beings.”
Embossed faces represent ambiguity or conflicts between being inside and being outside in immigrants’ mind and their social position. Embossing exhibits blurred boundary lines of the portrait images and at the same time presents ambivalent inner and outer sides of the paper.