Gyopo Portraits

Over the past few years, I have visited local Korean heritage language schools held on Saturday mornings. In these small, intimate ethnic communities, I met the first generation of Gyopo who makes efforts to consolidate and reassure their ethnic identity by teaching the home language and culture. I have always been fascinated by seeing how the second generation Gyopo has been doubling their two different languages, homes, and histories and understanding themselves in a fruitful way.

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.

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.