The Korean art of Oriental identity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2005, 12:00am

Unlike many Koreans, artist Mihee-Nathalie Lemoine has never been fond of Korea's famous pickle, kimchi. 'I don't eat kimchi because it's spicy, not because it's a Korean food. Don't take it personally - it's just a matter of taste,' said the 36-year-old, Korean-born artist.

Lemoine doesn't only have problems adapting to Korean cuisine. She struggles with the language, even though it's supposed to be her mother tongue. Having been adopted by a Belgian couple when she was three, she spent her childhood and adolescence in Belgium and never learnt Korean. She only met her birth mother in 1991, when she was 23.

Two years after finding her birth mother in Korea, Lemoine decided to start her artistic journey. 'I returned to Korea, not to live with my birth mother, but to understand the Korean way of life,' she explained.

She described how she felt like an alien when she first returned to her motherland. 'The people couldn't accept the fact that I was Korean but couldn't speak the language,' she said. 'In Korea, adoptees, both overseas and domestic, are marginalised because we come from divorced parents, unwed mothers, or a family in which one parent has died,' she said. 'In Belgium, we are viewed as 'that poor little thing who has been saved by Belgians'. We have no voice. We are expected to be grateful for the rest of our lives.

Lemoine considers herself neither Korean nor Belgian. 'I've been travelling a lot recently, and I think I'm now more international than before. If I was still living in Belgium, I wouldn't call myself international just because I have an Asian physique and live in a western culture,' she said.

Lemoine constantly tries to transform her frustration and struggle into artistic creation, particularly through mixed media art. 'Art for me is an emergency exit from insanity. It is also a way for me to communicate with my inner-self. I don't paint for the public,' she said.

Her early works were greatly influenced by German expressionism. Now, she combines oriental elements such as calligraphy to explore themes like race, identity and adoption.

Lemoine, accompanied by other Korean-born artists who were also adopted by European families, will showcase their art works in an exhibition called Orientity, a title formed by the words 'Oriental' and 'Identity'. The artists will explore the notion of being an Asian in the western world as well as within Asian countries. 'In this group exhibition, we are given a chance to exchange ideas, show different perspectives and share experiences on what it means to live away from your homeland,' said Lemoine.

Orientity will take place from January 18 to 29 at the Fringe Club's Economist Gallery. Admission is free. Lemoine will also give a free talk about tracing her birth mother in Korea and her artistic journey. The talk, conducted in English, will be held on January 22 at 5.30pm. For more information, call 2521 7251.