The process of undertaking an autoethnographic study, is something that I can only describe as an outer body experience, a foreign process of personal reflection and cultural exploration. By immersing myself in this controversial research process, I enriched my knowledge of Korean and Japanese culture through the exploration of artist Oh Haji’s art making practises. Moreover this process also allowed me to take a closer look at my own identity and belonging, the process known as ‘self-reflexivity’ (Alsop 2002, p. 2).
In this instance Oh Haji became my personal tour guide of Asian culture and art, her artwork becoming a framework that would guide not only the directions of my research but also became a source of therapeutic personal reflection and personal analysis. Experiencing Oh’s work is very personal and tactile, requiring the viewer to physically be present to fully experience all her work has to offer. Through the technique of ‘showing’ (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner 2011, p.5) I hoped to bring the readers into the scene, in order to allow them to experience the exhibit for themselves. Pulling them out from behind the screen into the exhibit with me through the use of my evocative narratives and visual stimuli (photos of exhibition).
My journey started on a Thursday afternoon, where I walked into an exhibition space and was faced with an unfamiliar scene. The room was filled with yarn, yarn everywhere, hanging from the roof, interconnected and detached at the same time. The seven groups of yarn all attached at the ceiling, but appearing as if they were gracefully falling down from the heavens, gently floating in the breeze. The weaved rope only separating and unravelling as it touched the floor. In between them there were dresses, pink, blue, red and white, some floating in pairs and others unaccompanied. The dresses captured in photography, hanging, swinging, still, in the frame that held them imprisoned. On these dyed dresses were intricately embroidered flowers and patterns, the stitching reminiscent of calligraphy ink paintings of a lotus, I once saw, while making my way through the Asian markets or what is known as ‘China Town’ in Leppington (NSW).
After several moments of observation, I proceeded to sit down to gather my thoughts, recording all unanswered questions, areas of future investigation and thoughts that I had about the artwork. I was eager to know the cultural and personal significances behind some of Oh’s stylistic choices, I was ready to experience Asian art making practices, and eager to discover what lay ahead.
What was the significance of shadows? Why was weaving, dying and embroidery used to create the artwork? Was there significance in the groupings and number of elements hung in the exhibition room? Is there cultural links to the use of floral patterns and the chosen colour scheme? How does this artwork as a whole, communicate elements of Asian culture to the viewer? These questions filled my head, and I wanted answers, to which I would need to conduct further exploration and research in not only Oh’s life but traditional Korean and Japanese artistic practices and culture.
Oh’s work hints at the aftermath of the Japanese and Korean political landscape during the Second World War, until 1945 the Japanese occupied the Korean peninsula, on August 15 the Republic of Korea was formed, effectively ending the occupation and creating national liberation for Koreans. At the end of the Second World War, half of the Korean residents in Japan returned to Korea, with 600,000 Koreans still remaining in Japan. Today there is still 590,000 Korean residents in Japan, the second largest ethnic community after the Chinese, of these 420,000 are Zainichi. The term is short for ‘Zainichi Kankoku/Chosenjin’, which means a person who is of Korean origin but who resides in Japan (Hein & Jennison 2015, p.15).
Oh is a 3rd generation ‘Zainichi’, her choice of medium showing strong connotations to her upbringing and education. Oh studied and received her M.A from Kyoto City University from the Crafts Division, Dying and Weaving Department in 2002. During her studies Oh acquired and explored the skill of weaving, dying, embroidery and sowing (Oh 2011,p.3). A skillset that was similar to those her grandmother would have acquired during her youth, while making ‘hanbok’ or ‘chima chogori’, ethnic costumes, a common practice for females during the early to mid 19th century (Oh 2011, p.5).
Additionally I found that in Oh’s artwork, shadows played a bigger role than I had though, in fact in Japanese culture citizens often relish at the magic and aesthetic of shadows. Using shadows for storytelling and entertainment is an ancient practice, which is said to projects a quality of mystery and depth (Montgoris 2014, p.3).
Upon closer inspection I notices that on one of the dresses was decorated with an embroidered flower, resembling the national flower of Korea, the ‘mugunghwa’, which graces the entire country with its appearances, each year. The flower is tenacious, its significance stemming from the Korean word ‘mugung’ meaning immortality. The flower is seen as reflecting the enduring nature of Korean culture and the determination and perseverance of the Korean people (Hein & Jennison 2015, p.18). The dresses are dyed in blue, red and white, in Korean culture each colour signifies certain qualities and attributes. Blue symbolizing creativity, immortality and hope; white symbolizing chastity, truth, innocence and death while red symbolizes production and love. Each dress’ colour was chosen to represent certain qualities of its owner, the dresses created for a handful of women that have had an instrumental influence on Oh’s life.
After I conducted my research I went back for a second viewing of the artwork, this time my focus was not on trying to understand what the meaning behind the artwork was, or to wonder of some of the cultural and personal significance behind stylistic choices. Instead the second viewing was merely to further my understanding and make personal correlations between the artwork and my own life.
I found myself forming a connection with the work, the work bringing up association of my own personal journey, promoting feeling of homesickness, ‘a nostalgic longing for a home that symbolizes the happiness that home could no longer provide’ (Alsop 2002, p. 6) See I was born in South Africa and migrated to Australia at the tender age of 12, leaving behind more than 24 aunt and uncles, and more than 55 cousins (both maternal and paternal sides combined). My family now only consisting of my mother, dad, brother and a collection of close friends.
While I love my life here in Australia, no matter how many friends I make, I will still feel a sense of loss and loneliness during family-centred occasions such as Christmas and birtdays. My earliest and fondest memories being the hot summer days, where my cousins and me would swim for hours under the hot Cape Town sun. Still in our swimsuits and barely dry, we would get on our bikes and spend our well-earned pocket money at the candy shop down the street. Fueling ourselves with a packet of Jelly Tots or Nik Naks, whilst singing Afrikaans (White South Africans speak this) folk music all the way back home.
I became Afrikaans (South African) when I left my country to relocate to Australia, before then I wasn’t South African, I was just home.
The notion of home never being considered until now, instead of home being a physical place, to me it became a memory, a space in time, a moment.
The artwork raised another key ideas about not only my own culture but the culture I was emerging myself into, that being the significance of clothing not only to our identity but upholding a memory of a loved ones. In Oh’s artwork ‘Wedding dress for minority race 2002’ the clothing has symbolic value as it stands for ethnicity, gender, religion and emphasizes social belonging, for her these ethnic costumes are a motif of being a Zainichi. The ‘chima chogori’ that her grandmother left, a reminder of her presence, by wearing the piece of clothing whilst making new memories she entered what Bhabha terms as ‘re-iterated’. Meaning that this allowed her to address the complex in intersections of her own memories and the unknowable memories experience of her mother and grandmother.
This reminded me of my own relationship with my mother and grandfather (maternal), while my mother has told me plenty of stories of my grandfather and how important he was in my life, I was too young, to remember. My mother still wears his cardigan sweaters, the fabric is so thing and fragile, but she holds onto it. When I was little I use to sneak into her room and put on one of his sweaters, and sit and imagine what he would be like, I used to make up stories and adventures of us two, saving the world, taming lions and walking on the moon. Each thread holds another fragment of those memories, buried in the fabric is all these memories that I cannot know, they have vanished with his body that exists no more, non the less my stories of him are intricately interwoven into my memory of him.
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol.12, no.1., pp. 1 – 15, accessed 15 August 2015, http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095
Alsop, C.K 2002, ‘Home and Away: Self Reflexive Auto-/Ethnography’, Forum Qualitative Social Research, vol.3, no.3, pp. 1- 14 http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~kmacd/IDSC10/Readings/Positionality/auto-eth.pdf
Oh, H 2011, ‘What Does the Ethnic Costume Represent’, Asia Colloquia Papers, vol. 1, no.3, pp. 1 -12
Hein, L & Jennison, R 2015, ‘Against Forgetting: Three Generations of Artists in Japan in Dialogue about the Legacies of World War 2’, in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, vol. 2, no.3, pp 1 – 29, accessed 22 August 2015, http://www.japanfocus.org/-Laura-Hein/3573/article.html
Montgoris, M 2014, ‘The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part 1: Japan’, Journal of Communication, vol.2, no.1, pp. 1 – 12