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Emerging Korean artist brings new perspective to MENA cultures

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Kim Sin-ae's Libyan version of
Kim Sin-ae's Libyan version of "Kiss" inspired by Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" / Courtesy of Kim Sin-ae

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Until the spring of 2020, Kim Sin-ae put in long hours at work as a ground staffer at Qatar Airways. After the pandemic-related shutdowns hit, like thousands of airline workers, she found her world upended.

However, the pandemic granted time and she relished it by finding a new hobby. "During the time I was at home, I did some soul searching. I realized art was something I had to start doing because it felt fulfilling," she said in a recent interview with The Korea Times.

Although she hadn't majored in arts, art had always been a passion of hers. Kim uses an Apple Pencil and iPad to draw digital illustrations. Her works feature Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) cultures because she wants people to reexamine their perceptions of the region.

"Living in Qatar for seven years, I got to know the richness and diversity of Arab cultures beyond their distorted portrayals in the media. I noticed that there are very few people who look at the positive aspects of Arab cultures and locals suffer from negative stereotypes," she said.

"So I wanted to show the world that there are people, including myself, who appreciate Arab cultures. My goal was to instill a new perspective into their cultures."

"Garden of Eden" / Courtesy of Kim Sin-ae

Kim shared her impressions of the MENA region and talked about the similarities between Arabs and Koreans.

"From a regional perspective, MENA has been a trading hub for a long period of time. So they have no hostility toward outsiders and embrace diversity. Arab people are very friendly and they treat their guests well. They have what we call in Korea "jeong" (which refers to genuine concern for one's fellow human beings and they foster real friendships with people)," she explained.

Through her digital art she examines different types of emotional relationships in the Middle East, including family dynamics and romantic relationships. Her works are rich with messages of love, peace and inclusivity.

One notable project is her series of digital illustrations inspired by Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss." She draws a couple in MENA traditional clothing, holding one another in an embrace.

Kim revealed that Klimt has had a huge impact on her artistic vision and concepts.

"After landing a job with the airline, I visited the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria, to see Klimt's art pieces, and I was blown away by 'The Kiss.' The painting exuded a warm and affectionate aura," she said.

So she decided to create a digital art series inspired by "The Kiss" with the aim of reimagining it in the MENA countries.

"I decided to make an NFT collection because I was fascinated by the new art trend. I loved the idea of expressing diverse perspectives in already existing artwork. And I knew people would like my artwork because people tend to feel comfortable with familiar things. 'The Kiss' is already widely famous," she added.

To learn more about Arab cultures and different types of ethnic and traditional dress, she hosted "culture weeks" regularly via Zoom. Every week, she introduces a MENA country and exchanges thoughts about its culture and traditions with local residents.

"At first, I did all the research by myself. As I got more of a following on social media, Arab people reached out to me to share information and recommend ideas for my art. I love talking to locals who share the same interests as me in terms of art and culture. Our talks are extremely helpful when it comes to capturing the accuracy of the details," she said.

Kim Sin-ae's Saudi Arabian version of
Kim Sin-ae's Saudi Arabian version of "Kiss," inspired by Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" / Courtesy of Kim Sin-ae

Kim explained that each country has different characteristics, but they wear traditional head covers and colorful accessories. For the North African region, the clothing colors are more vibrant and vivid.

Asked if she tries to infuse Korean elements into her art, Kim said she "doesn't feel the need to do so."

"I respect every MENA country's unique traditions, so I don't want to add Korean style into it. However, I like to mention if I find any similarities with Korea. I believe people who love my work will naturally grow curious about Korea," she said.

Kim said she has received a lot of positive feedback from her followers, 80 percent of whom are from the MENA region. Many of them thanked her for the way she portrays Middle Eastern culture.

"The reason art is a great tool is that it transcends nationality, language and religion. I think Arab people appreciate my work because to them, I'm an outsider from Korea. But my works encompass Arab culture. My art gives them a new perspective to reexamine their culture and find the beauty inside it," she said.

Artist Kim Sin-ae / Courtesy of Kim Sin-ae
Artist Kim Sin-ae / Courtesy of Kim Sin-ae
Although Kim struggles to find the time to balance her creative work and her full-time job, her dream is to become a cultural artist.

Kim said her goal is to draw 12 more digital illustrations in order to complete the MENA "Kiss" series. Then, she plans to extend it to the "Kiss the World" project.

"Of course, it will take time to start the extended project because I need to study the culture and communicate with locals before drawing. My philosophy, which is to give blissful, warm feelings through art, won't change," she said.

The aspiring artist said she would love to learn more about Arab cultures through collaborative works with local artists and organizations.

Moreover, she wants to form a community with people who buy her art in NFTs and come up with ways for her art to benefit society.

"Through sustainable NFT fundraising, I am thinking of ways to connect how purchasing NFTs could be naturally linked to fulfilling social responsibility (such as donation or volunteer projects)," she said.

Kwak Yeon-soo


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