Immigration has long been a point of contention in the United States, especially in the run up to the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath. It is a topic that has ostracized many Americans who are first, second, and even third generation immigrants.
The political climate surrounding immigration was influential in the curation of Passages, a show presented by the Target Gallery, a contemporary exhibition space of the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria.
Passages is a group exhibition running from January 27 through March 4. It explores the effects migration has on cultural identity from the perspective of immigrants and immigrant families across the globe such as China, South Korea, and Syria. “We have such a large immigrant population in this area,” says Leslie Mounaime, Director of the Target Gallery. “My father is an immigrant to this country, and Passages is a great opportunity to provide a platform for artists to express their personal experiences.”
Ju Yun is one of the featured artists in this exhibition. Yun is based out of Chantilly and immigrated from South Korea to the United States in 1982 when she was 17. Her work Higher Women East and West highlights the similarities between East and West fashion and society.
“I love America,” says Yun. “My uncle and aunt invited my family after they settled in Annandale, Virginia. I finished high school there.” Following high school, Yun went to study Fine Arts at the Corcoran School of Art and Design. After graduation, she held an internship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Though Yun has fully cultivated her artistic style and voice throughout the years, her piece “Higher Women East and West” is a part of a new cultural exploration. “Luxury is an important symbol,” Yun says of her piece, “In Korea and in America, this idea of luxury is very similar and that is what I wanted to show.”
Mounaime was especially excited about the inclusion of this piece. “I was immediately influenced,” she said. “It’s done in such an interesting way with how it is built out of the wall creating a clear juxtaposition of ideas.”
The piece is separated into two elegantly framed “mirrors.” The mirror on the left represents the cultural ideals of the East, whereas the right one symbolizes the ideals of the West. Attached to the frames are accessories meant to represent popular high class eastern and western hairstyles. For the East frame there is a long, elegant braid of hair intertwined with red and black ribbons. In contrast, attached to the West frame is a beautiful pinkish blonde lock of hair along with strands of beads.
“The hair is actually made out of fabric,” Yun said. “I painted the fabric and attached the accessories.” The East frame is meant to emulate traditional Korean high-class hairstyles of Joseon Dynasty period (1392-1897). During this time, lavish braids were tied into an up-do held together by vibrant hair pins and expensive accessories. The West frame is meant to mimic traditional western or European symbols of status in society. For instance, Yun attached a string of what looks like pearls, a representation of a pearl necklace, which is a staple in European and American fashion.
From Yun’s perspective, fashion is one aspect of culture that strongly correlates with wealth and status, particularly for women. “It is the same in society in history as it is today,” Yun says, “wealthy ladies show off with brand names all over their bodies.” That is why Yun chose to exclude the portraits of women’s faces in this piece. It is her belief that a woman’s status does not depend what they look like, but on what they wear in their social life.
Yun’s Korean background and her interest in Western pop art are also highly accentuated in this piece, specifically in the rendering of the paintings inside both frames. Her choice of distinctive colors such as yellow, red, and green for the East portrait, and white, red and pink for the West portrait were thoughtfully chosen to correlate with fashion trends in each respective culture. “I typically try to get neon color paints,” Yun said, and she is constantly “exploring new mediums.” The frames used in the piece, for example, she had just stumbled upon while shopping and hadn't used them for anything since.
Culture and fashion are aspects of society that are constantly evolving, but what is rendered in this piece is the notion that they are a part of social constructs set by the elite. In Yun’s experience, from living in both Korea and America, fashion symbols and icons are important to women.
A major aspect of immigration for many people is cultural immersion, which can be a difficult experience. While immigration and cultural exposure are still seen in many different ways in the United States, this piece clearly challenges the basic ideals and traditions that many cultures follow. “It is a really sensitive topic,” Mounaime said, “but it really humanizes immigration” and the show creates “a relatable experience for everyone.” The Torpedo Factory Art Center has never curated an exhibit this specific in regards to immigration and Mounaime is looking forward to the response.
The exhibit will be opening January 27 and will feature works from other Virginia-based artists including Wonjung Choi, Jenny Wu, Abiodun Eniyandunni, Kanika Sircar, Marite Vidales and Helen Zughaib. “It is important to remember,” Mounaime noted, “that the gallery is a public space and the whole exhibit will be an educational experience for everyone involved.”
The overall goal of the exhibit is to present stories of immigration in a personal and intimate space, in order for the audience to see the individual instead of thinking of the topic of immigration in a politicized way. The juror for this exhibition is Adriana Ospina, Curator of the Permanent Collection and Education at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.
Passages will be on display in Target Gallery at the Torpedo Factory Art Center from January 27 through March 4. To see more of Ju Yun’s work, visit juyunpaintings.com.
Photography by Lesnick Photo