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INTERVIEWArt nonprofit GYOPO offers its own definition of diasporic Koreans

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Eugene Kim, left, and Yoon Ju Ellie Lee pose before their joint interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's headquarters, Aug. 23. The two serve on the steering committee of GYOPO, an LA-based nonprofit organization founded as a collective of diasporic Korean cultural producers and arts professionals. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Eugene Kim, left, and Yoon Ju Ellie Lee pose before their joint interview with The Korea Times at the newspaper's headquarters, Aug. 23. The two serve on the steering committee of GYOPO, an LA-based nonprofit organization founded as a collective of diasporic Korean cultural producers and arts professionals. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

LA-based collective presents 10 local and diasporic Korean artists and groups for Frieze Film during Frieze Seoul

By Park Han-sol

For Yoon Ju Ellie Lee, 33, an LA-based curator and the executive director of the art nonprofit organization, Equitable Vitrines, the fall of 2016 following the U.S. presidential election was a time spent drowned in feelings of malaise, concern and fear.

As newly-elected President Donald Trump continued racist rhetoric that stigmatized people of color and implied that their subject positions do not matter in American society, Lee and many other Korean Americans in the city's arts and culture community felt the need to come together ― for safety, solidarity and resource sharing ― more than ever.

Their first-ever holiday gathering around Christmas was attended by some 40 arts professionals, collectors and students.

"It was just so comforting to get together. We wanted to define for ourselves what it means to be a diasporic Korean person," she recalled during a recent interview with The Korea Times. "Many of us had shared experiences, and also had plenty of differences. What we needed were more opportunities to spend time with each other and learn from within our community."

The meeting soon led to a loose organization of casual artist talks in the beginning of 2017, which all saw a regular turnout of numerous like-minded people in the area. There was clearly a need that was being fulfilled.

And so began the history of GYOPO, an LA-based nonprofit organization founded as a collective of diasporic Korean artists, curators, writers, cultural producers and arts professionals with a mission to generate dialogues on marginalized identities within the mainstream framework and build community alliances through free public programs.

"We didn't want to simply wait for a big museum to exhibit and highlight a Korean or Korean American artist anymore ― which was at that time still pretty rare," Lee, who became the organization's co-founder and the co-chair of its steering committee, said. "It was this 'no more waiting' kind of attitude."

GYOPO describes itself as the first coalition of diasporic Koreans that uses arts and culture as the glue ― unlike other more well-established professional networks in law, business and medicine.

"Although many of us work in the arts and culture fields, we noticed that the general American public did not associate 'Korean Americans' with the arts. We felt the need to add a crucial dimension for understanding Korean Americanness and Korean diasporic existence," Lee said.

Eugene Kim, 32, who joined GYOPO's steering committee in 2022, echoed the sentiment.

With backgrounds in classical and contemporary experimental music, he highlighted the power of art in building a creative and essential form of community alliance.

"This idea of using arts and culture to bring about stories and externalize difficult emotions can really improve community and individual well-being," he told The Korea Times.

A five-hour live marathon reading of Korean American author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's magnum opus, 'Dictee' (1982), was performed by a community of Deaf and hearing artists and activists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Dec. 4, 2021. Courtesy of GYOPO
A five-hour live marathon reading of Korean American author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's magnum opus, 'Dictee' (1982), was performed by a community of Deaf and hearing artists and activists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Dec. 4, 2021. Courtesy of GYOPO

While the organization initially began with a focus on visual arts and pop culture, it has widened its topics of concentration since then to: literature, film, theater, ecology, activism and solidarity with other marginalized identities within LA.

Some 50 members, who currently make up its board of directors, steering, working committees and volunteer groups, are, for the majority, Korean Americans. However, GYOPO is open to anyone who understands its approach and wants to be a part of it ― as committee members, volunteers or program audience.

As to why the collective was named "gyopo" ― a word which describes people of Korean heritage who typically were born and raised and are citizens of other countries than Korea and which is sometimes treated as a limiting label with negative connotations by born-and-bred Korean nationals ― Kim noted that using the term could be seen as an act of reclamation.

"It's like reclaiming it for the diasporic community," he said.

With the reclamation of the term, the organization aims to reflect in its programs the process of carefully straddling between the "Korean" values they have inherited as diasporic individuals and further wish to protect and those they hope to break away from.

"So much of the time, we live with the dissonance between our evolving Korean American identities and perhaps slightly more conservative ideas that our parents or grandparents might have around their identities," Kim said. "Then, how do we reconcile that?"

It's asking about the following question, according to Lee: "How do we integrate 'Koreanness' into our lives in a way that isn't dictated by people who are trying to shame us (for 'not being Korean enough' or on the other hand, for simply 'being Asian')?"

With another nonprofit group, Ssi Ya Gi, GYOPO has launched an intergenerational project that centers on collecting oral histories from low-income senior immigrants in Los Angeles' Koreatown, specifically through their food memories. A related panel discussion and a garden reception took place at CultivaLA Westlake Community Garden in the Southern California city, June 25. Courtesy of GYOPO
With another nonprofit group, Ssi Ya Gi, GYOPO has launched an intergenerational project that centers on collecting oral histories from low-income senior immigrants in Los Angeles' Koreatown, specifically through their food memories. A related panel discussion and a garden reception took place at CultivaLA Westlake Community Garden in the Southern California city, June 25. Courtesy of GYOPO

One of GYOPO's latest programs that strived to achieve such balance was an intergenerational project co-launched with another group, Ssi Ya Gi.

This year, the two organizations worked to collect oral histories on the verge of being lost from low-income Korean immigrant elders in Los Angeles' Koreatown, who remained isolated and vulnerable during the pandemic.

It was questions triggering their food memories ― "What was a meal that you had that is still lingering in your mind?" "Who were you with?" and "What did it smell like?" ― that led to rich anecdotes about their tumultuous lives before and after the 1950-53 Korean War they then wanted to share with younger generations. Some of the stories were transformed into visual booklets shortly after.

Then, on June 25, GYOPO and Ssi Ya Gi invited the elders and other audience members to eat a meal together at a community garden, with dishes prepared based on some of the senior residents' food memories.

"I felt like this was a milestone for GYOPO as it brought together all these people from the local community ― across generations, across cultures," Kim said.

Another program launched in 2019 with an aim to appreciate an aspect of Korean history and bring it into the particular social context the Korean American community is situated in was "Protesting Seoul: Resistance in Precarious Times," a lecture on distinct protest cultures in Seoul.

Having invited two academics, Jennifer Jihye Chun and Ju Hui Judy Han, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), GYOPO turned the lecture space into an immersive, image-heavy scene reminiscent of the candlelight vigils in Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square in 2016 and 2017, with the audience sitting on the ground with candles.

"There was so much great information shared that evening that was important to receive then at the end of 2019, because people in Los Angeles were trying to utilize different tactics and approaches to protesting (from other countries like Hong Kong)," Lee said.

"The program provided our audience with a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics between activist groups championing a variety of causes within large-scale protests, and even more importantly, a number of Korean protest histories were contextualized," she said.

'Protesting Seoul: Resistance in Precarious Times,' an immersive lecture on distinct protest cultures and histories in Seoul, was hosted by GYOPO at the Human Resources Los Angeles, Oct. 23, 2019. Courtesy of GYOPO
'Protesting Seoul: Resistance in Precarious Times,' an immersive lecture on distinct protest cultures and histories in Seoul, was hosted by GYOPO at the Human Resources Los Angeles, Oct. 23, 2019. Courtesy of GYOPO

GYOPO's understanding of solidarity during pandemic

The two committee members noted that GYOPO's role in building community alliances and solidarity became even more timely following the COVID-19 outbreak, when the U.S. began witnessing an unprecedented surge of hate speech and crimes against the Asian American population.

"Victims and survivors of hate speech or violent assaults have been stripped of their humanity and (in the eyes of their perpetrators,) they are reduced to stereotypes," Lee said.

"So, I think programming that affirms our humanity and offers opportunities to collectively acknowledge the complexities of being a human with a body that's Asian ― is like finding refuge."

Thus, for GYOPO, the pandemic became a compelling reminder to continue what it has already been doing since the end of 2016, with even more crystallized focus on developing accessible programs using the "essential value that arts and culture have as a tool for coping and community building," Kim noted.

In 2020, at the height of pandemic-induced unrest and tension, the organization hosted a three-part webinar series, "Racism is a Public Health Issue," as a platform to discuss the tangible racial repercussions of a virus that was being used by power structures in the U.S.

In addition to the racialization of COVID-19 that came to impact heavily the Asian American population, a panel of cultural producers, academics and activists brought to the fore the racial disparities that have been made blatant after the outbreak ― with the hardest hit being Black and Latino communities, many of whom are essential workers in the nation.

"It was amazing to see an organization (like GYOPO), consisting of intergenerational Korean Americans, able to build solidarity with other marginalized groups, because we know the history of the struggle or the lived experience of being a minority," Kim said.

Ultimately, with its programs that bring into the spotlight issues that haven't always been foregrounded within conversations about Korea and its diaspora, one of GYOPO's aims lies in dismantling culturally homogenous projections of Korean (American) identity within the country.

The organization challenges the way Korea often culturally promotes itself in its clean-cut and perfect version ― armed with dazzling K-pop stars and K-drama actors.

"There's way more grit and texture to a Korean person than what the average American knows," Lee noted. "Many Americans, especially those who don't live in cities like Los Angeles, don't know what we're really like, because nowadays, they get a shiny, glamorous, clean version of Korea. We're intent on educating by simply being real."

A still from Young Joon Kwak and Kim Ye's 'Where I Am My Own Other, Where My Mother Is Me' (2017) / Courtesy of the artists, GYOPO
A still from Young Joon Kwak and Kim Ye's 'Where I Am My Own Other, Where My Mother Is Me' (2017) / Courtesy of the artists, GYOPO

Frieze Film

On the occasion of the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul, a global art fair set to debut at COEX in Gangnam, southern Seoul this week, a special off-site program, Frieze film, is scheduled to run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7.

Co-curated by GYOPO and another art nonprofit, Seoul-based WESS, the program, titled, "I Am My Own Other," features video works of 10 local and diasporic contemporary Korean artists and groups, including Nikki S. Lee, LaRissa Rogers, Young Joon Kwak and Kim Ye.

Selected pieces explore a variety of themes: the effects of digital technology on immigrants' selfhood; notions of safety and self-care regarding the existence of women of color; and gender and racial identities explored within the context of migration and hypercapitalism.

"During the fair, most international travelers will be trying to buy art and visiting all of the big blue-chip galleries. GYOPO is grateful to have the Frieze Film platform to organize a time-based media show to draw attention to deserving and innovative artists working in a medium which is typically hard to monetize," Lee said.

The exhibition, spanning two venues adjacent to Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul, Magjib and Together Together, will mark GYOPO's first program taking place in Korea.


Park Han-sol hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr


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