Ghosts & Monsters – Black Jaguar Interview
The "Monstrous Feminine" & Misogyny in South Korea
For this interview, we present South-Korean artist Black Jaguar, who is based in Seoul. Her work is strongly rooted in the subversion of patriarchy, as well as the reappropriation of misogynistic views of the “Monstrous Feminine” in South Korean culture. She is inspired by current feminist issues, particularly sexual violence, stereotypes and womens’ working rights. Mourning and empathy of women are also recurring themes in Black Jaguar’s art.
During her Artist-in-Residence and leading up to the opening of her solo exhibition Spiegel/반사! at SomoS, we interviewed Jaguar to discuss the themes behind her work, what inspires her as an artist, and her time in Berlin. The interview was conducted by curator Kendall Cashmore, November 2019.
Interview with South Korean Artist and Activist Black Jaguar
Can you give us an introduction to yourself and your work as an artist?
I live in Seoul and work as a visual artist. I approach minority issues in a variety of ways, including performance, drawing, photography and fashion.
How did you become interested in art?
Since my father was an artist and curator, I had an artistic atmosphere in my house since I was young. It seemed to be a natural progression for me to become an artist.
While working as an artist, I realized that the stories that are hidden from society could be recalled through art; it was an opportunity to see art anew.
Do you view your work in a certain tradition? What are you influenced or inspired by?
I don’t think of my work as based on a particular movement or style in art history, but am influenced by various aspects of contemporary life rather than art historical references. I am interested in subcultures and various minority issues and I like to observe them mainly through online media such as SNS and YouTube.
I am most intensely influenced by those who live in the same time as me. For example, I was influenced by the mothers of the deceased from the Sewol Ferry disaster, who I met three years ago in my solo exhibition. The mothers went through all kinds of struggles, including shaving their hair, fasting, theater, chorus, and lectures, to discover the truth of the incident. Their superhuman appearance reminded me of the mighty goddess of ancient times, which I often represent in my work as a way to reclaim a positive image of women in Korean mythology.
Jaguar’s 2016 performance VEGA, responded to the MV Sewol disaster in which a ferry sunk, killing many aboard and exposing government corruption. In fact, the ferry disaster was partly a catalyst of the impeachment of the then president Park Geun-hye. Researching for the art project, Black Jaguar met three of the grieving mothers whose children were onboard the vessel, retelling their memories during a sensitive performance. Because of the large public impact of the tragedy, during the performance, Black Jaguar harnessed the political potential of public space, placing herself on the opposite side of the street to the gallery from which viewers would watch. It was through the mediation of the street, with its passers-by, cars and sense of shared space, that Black Jaguar communicated these messages via an app and amplified voice.
For your VEGA project, why were you interested in the stories of mothers from the MV Sewol disaster?
Before the Sewol incident, I was working in response to the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Movement. In my work, photographs of the victims from the massacre were attached to an old clock and their wounds were filled with oil and crystals. In addition, my performance Bath at Noon at the symbolic place of the massacre presented the events of the past through a young woman’s body, creating great controversy and questions. Gwangju and Sewol have a lot in common, particularly since the identity of the victims and individuals were hidden from society and simply referred to as a ‘mob’ or ‘victims.’ Through the memories of the mothers, I wanted to share with the audience what we really lost and to relate to their sense of mourning and longing.
You mentioned a “blacklist” of artists making work about the ferry tragedy. How is your VEGA project related to censorship issues in South Korea?
I was lucky to make a solo exhibition with funding from the city. However, this exhibition was only possible because it was an exhibition by an individual artist, not a public art museum, and the place was an alternative space. At the time, there were numerous public exhibition spaces that required the modification or replacement of artworks just because they featured the color yellow; a symbolic color of the movement to remember the Sewol ferry incident.
Your series Sunyoung, Miyoung, Mi Young paints an ambitious generational portrait that deconstructs tropes from mythology, ghost stories, horror films and pop culture to question misogyny. Why did you want to meet women named Sunyoung, Miyoung and Mi Young?
“Sunyoung” is just one symbol of many women living together in Korea. I was born in 1980 and the most common names of women of our generation were names like Sunyoung and Miyoung. There were always two or three Sunyoung and Miyoungs in my class. Recruiting participants with such ordinary names was a good starting point for me to connect with women of the same generation. Many women volunteered to understand the meaning of the work, and not necessarily just women with those names.
Could you give us some insight into the various references and especially the ghosts and monsters of Sunyoung, Miyoung, Mi Young and their role in art and pop culture?
In my 2017 Sunyoung, Miyoung, and Miyoung drawing series, I referenced the transformation of goddess’ in the history of ancient mythologies. Originally in ancient creation mythologies, a goddess was worshiped as a single deity inside the agricultural society and also was symbolized by animals such as snakes and birds, representing both ‘water of the earth’ and ‘water of the sky’, describing the infinite power the goddess possessed. But starting from the middle of the Bronze Age, society became more focused on the different lifestyles of nomadic hunting and gathering, which marked the beginning of the patriarchy. Although the gods were born by goddess, the status of the gods became stronger and the goddess eventually lost her presence throughout mythology. Animals that used to symbolize the power of the goddess were merged with the feminine body and transformed into demonized monsters such as Hydra, Medusa, and Dragon. The mythological plot and pattern in which male heroes, such as Hercules, decapitated these monsters and inherited their power has been repeated throughout the East and West. Therefore, the mythical female monsters depicted in my work can be seen as a reflection of an ancient misogyny in a contemporary context.
The visual style of Sunyoung, Miyoung, Mi Young is quite stunning, could you tell us a bit about it? Is it based on Korean traditional painting styles and codes?
I intentionally borrowed the frame of traditional Korean paintings to express the point of view that oppression against women is still ongoing. But I also use modern materials like glitter, pens, and metallic colors.
Why did you draw the 2017 Sunyoung, Miyoung, Mi Young drawing series with your left hand? I read it was done to strengthen the psychic connection to your subject?
While working on the Sunyoung, Miyoung, and Miyoung drawings, I interviewed the participants about their dreams containing their memories as women. There were many stories of fighting or chasing male-beings shaped as soldiers. Surprisingly they were all connected through similar memories in their dreams; the realm of unconsciousness. To express this unconscious empathy and intuitive connection with each participant, I used my left hand most of the time. However, the right hand is also used as a supplement.
Speaking of which, how about spirituality in your art in general? How do you view Korean Shamanism? Does it have a relation to your art making, and how does it relate to feminism?
I consider spiritual connection and empathy as an important aspect in my work, as the traditional shamans did in the past.
Throughout modern times, traditional shamanism has been enshrined as a barbaric superstition in terms of civilization, empire, logic and science. But in traditional Korean shamanism, the shamans were mostly women and were deeply involved in people’s lives, including festivities and rituals such as praying for a good harvest. In Jeju Island, especially, it was an important entity that became the center of the maternal community of Hae-nyeo (해녀 women divers). Therefore, from a feminist point of view, I think Korean shamanism is almost the only woman-centered culture in traditional Korean society and it is very meaningful to connect this to contemporary feminism through my work.
The Haute Couture element of the Sunyoung, Miyoung and Mi young project combines activist and aesthetic components in an art/fashion project. In your Haute Couture, Sunyoung, Miyoung and Mi young (2018-), you develop a kind of queerish DIY anti-aesthetic, with confrontational and considered use of colors, light, make-up, mise-en-scene and self-presentation that subvert common fashion ideas of gender and attractiveness. Could you introduce this work in more detail, and tell us a bit about your techniques and stylistic devices?
The images of ghosts, which are referenced in Haute Couture, Sunyoung, Miyoung and Mi young (2018-) are inspired by classic Korean horror films. Female ghosts became a popular figure in Korean films after the first horror film, The Cemetery of the Moon was released in 1967. The 60’s was the era where a female working class emerged, since demand from society rose for jobs for women. They lived alone and did not marry, which was against the traditional gender roles expected from Korean society. Since the fear of these women within patriarchal society was incarnated as the image of ghosts in these horror films, their content can be also regarded as misogynistic.
At the same time, it can be noted that these female monsters/ghosts were subversive beings who had escaped the stereotypical female figure. While being extremely objectified, they were strong and fearful, even possessing the power to shake and disturb the patriarchal society they had run away from. Their psychic power comes from carelessly loose hair, white clothing, the unpleasant appearance of blood, graves, animals, the psychedelic lighting and sound effects.
These cinematic devices were used to show how horrifying the female ghosts were, but at the same time, it reflects how pioneering and unique they were.
I like to use these devices to connect the characteristics of female monsters with contemporary minorities, in order to neutralize the disgust and hatred towards them from society and to ‘reflect’ the identity of those minorities.
In your Haute Couture series, you also include gay/queer men as models?
I don’t think feminism is simply for biological women. For me, in “female” gender, social gender is more important than biological gender. Social minorities, male feminists, and sexual minorities have their differences, but I think it is important to connect and support each other with respect for diversity.
Could you tell us about the traditional item of clothing that plays a big role in your Haute Couture series?
The “Hanbok” skirt was a traditional Korean costume, during the Joseon dynasty which was very Confucian. Men were high, women were low culture. If a woman’s husband died, she would have to live alone or be forced to die accordingly. Women also had to cover their faces with the skirts when they went out.
In the 1960’s, after the Korean War, Korea’s first horror film became popular, and female ghosts wearing the white Hanbok skirt appeared. I think that the social horror of women deviating from the patriarchy was incarnated through the female ghosts of the horror film at that time. White is the color of underwear and the color of clothes worn by the dead. So, in these horror films, white skirts carry a double meaning; it represents the culture of rape and murder of women and turns it into a bait that seduces men, its transcendent power punishing offenders.
How do you view the influence of Confucianism (and/or other philosophies or religions) on social relations in Korea? As a feminist artist, is its legacy something you deal with?
The ideology that became the foundation of Korean society during the 500 years of the Joseon dynasty was Confucianism. Confucianism; originally a Chinese philosophy, was widely practiced and interpreted as a patriarchal ideology from the perspective of Sadaebu (scholar-officials); the ruling class of the Joseon dynasty. Although society has progressed since this time, there are still stereotypes present, such as hierarchical culture, male-oriented societies and traditional gender roles. Likewise, female ghosts are a cliché from the coexistence of oppression and resentment towards women, and as a feminist artist, I take the strategy of reappropriating it by connecting it with the issues of minority groups.
Made after Sunyoung, Miyoung, Mi Young, your Samdae drawings series depicts three generations of women in your family. Why did you choose your family as subjects for your work?
My own experiences of trying to survive as a female artist are connected to the history of my mother and my grandmother through the commonalities of social and economic poverty and deficiency, although our lives and backgrounds are different. So I’m interested in how women’s poverty is passed down to the next generation, and the feeling that we can not stand alone or become independent, like people who only have one leg. This notion has long plagued me, but in the drawings we stand on one leg with mysterious force, expressing ourselves as transcendental beings with superpowers. So the female ghosts in this drawing are also different beings from my real family in that sense.
The three new drawings Samdae (three generation) represent the female ghost of each generation; grandmother-mother-me. My mother and grandmother both went through the economic and social transition of Korea. My grandmother is connected to the “new woman” who has appeared since modern times after Joseon and my mother has links to the “career woman” who has appeared since the 60’s. My own appearance in the drawings was inspired by the posters of candidate Shin Ji-ye of the Green Party who ran for the last mayor of Seoul. She suggested feminism as a slogan at the time, when there was a controversy over her eyes (some men thought that her eyes looked too cocky).
Has being in Berlin as an Artist-In-Residence at SomoS revealed anything new about yourself or your work?
I haven’t stayed here for a long time, but I’ve gotten a lot of energy and I’m getting new ideas. The multicultural landscape in this area is interesting because it resembles my neighborhood in Seoul. I intend to shoot portraits of various minorities, such as migrants and queers in Berlin. My work will be presented in a solo exhibition in December at SomoS, including a performance.
Please tell us a little bit more about your upcoming exhibition at SomoS!
The title of the exhibition is ‘Spiegel거울l’ (reflection) which is a core concept that has penetrated my work for the past three years during the Sunyoung, Miyoung, and Miyoung series. When I was a child, there was a game in Korea where you shouted ‘reflection!’ If I quickly shouted ‘reflection!’ before someone hit me, I could return back as much as I received. In the exhibition, I would like to work on the concept of reflection as an act of charging minorities and the audience with a protective, spiritual energy. This act of reflecting is a cultural defense and attack, a declaration of solidarity so that minorities can protect and express themselves.
The reflective-performance-objects that will be used in the exhibition are inspired by common devices used to create specific mise-en-scenes in horror films, such as mirrors and windows. These devices often act as windows or passageways where ghosts are revealed or enter and exit. In Seoul, I have been working with feminists, queers, artists and activists, and currently in Berlin for this exhibition, I am preparing portraiture works and performances with migrants, feminists, queers and artists I met during the residency program. I find it particularly meaningful since there are a lot of migrants living here in the Kreuzberg/Neukölln district where SomoS is located. Beyond the national boundaries of Seoul and Berlin, I would like to do a feminist project that connects people through minority issues and explores cultural and emotional solidarity.
Black Jaguar’s solo show SPIEGEL/반사! opens Thursday, December 12th 2019, 6-9pm at SomoS. Conceptually uniting an array of techniques including drawing, film, photography, objects, installation, performance and fashion, Black Jaguar shares insight and creative exploration of Korean women’s experiences with an interested Berlin audience, sparking discussion and cross-cultural dialog.
Opening Reception: Thursday, December 12, 6-9pm
Ghost Dance, Performance: Tuesday, December 17, 7pm
Exhibition Duration: December 13-21, Tuesday-Saturday, 2-7pm, and by appointment. Entry as always free.
Black Jaguar’s Berlin artist residency at SomoS is supported by the Arts Council Korea.