Puzzle Pieces of Identity: Hijoo Son Speaks on”The Diasporic Intimacy and Transindividuality of Korean Artists”

Before she taught at Andover, Hijoo Son, Instructor in History & Social Science, worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO) called The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. At the time, Son was living in South Korea, translating and assisting women in giving testimonies around the world about their experiences as “comfort women,” or women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II.

Son was the inaugural speaker of the 2019-2020 Madison Smith, a graduate of Andover Class of 1873, Presentation Series. Her talk, titled “The Diasporic Intimacy and Transindividuality of Korean Artists,” mainly addressed the topic of diasporic Korean art, focusing on two Korean artists, Himan Sok and Jun Ch’ae and their works with multiple selves and faces, or transindividuality.

“They explore their Korean-ness, but it could equally be about Palestinian-ness or any culture that you are thinking about. They chose to maintain different selves or faces during specific settings and contexts. That is what a transindividual is. In discussing identity, the idea of the transindividual is helpful as the concept of integration or combination. In one body, there are many different selves, or faces that exist,” said Son in her talk.

According to David Fox, Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, The Madison Smith presentation series was created to allow faculty members to share their research with the Andover community. The series is sponsored by the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies along with the Tang Institute and aims to support faculty in exploring different aspects of their fields, particularly along the lines of identity and hierarchy.

“The series invites faculty to think about their teaching or their research, particularly its interdisciplinary components and/or its explorations of axes of identity, of structures and systems of hierarchy and power, inclusion and exclusion. We began the program last year, and I hope it helps model for the community varying approaches of engaging with subject matter as well as differing, and effective, ways of sharing with the community,” wrote Fox in an email to The Phillipian.

During her time at The Korean Council, Son met Ariko Ikehara, a young woman of mixed African American and Japanese descent. Son credits her experience meeting Ikehara to her personal discovery of diasporic art and inspiration for creating her own NGO, Han Diaspora.

“A place that I went to was Okinawa for a conference where victims and survivors of war came together to create testimonies. One woman named Ariko Ikehara gave a performance of her life of her identity as an Okinawan African-American woman and she used dance, video work, poetry to give a performance. She was born in Okinawa and lived there until she was 10 with her mother. She never knew her GI African American father,” said Son during her presentation.

Son continued, “At the age of 10, her mother became too ill to take care of her, so she was adopted to a family in San Francisco and she stopped talking for three years. The trauma and displacement of moving as a 10 year old. Imagine being ten, you know who you are, you know who your mom is, she spoke Japanese. The only thing she did during this trauma was dance. I was so moved that I myself decided to bring her to Seoul. So I started an NGO called Han Diaspora and I put on three shows. It was called Space for Shadows.”

Molly Engel ’08, Teaching Fellow in English, liked the idea of “punching through the slash” between Korean/American identity. Engel spoke to her personal connection to the topic, both as a mixed race Asian-American and her connection to Sok.

“One thing that stuck out to me was, personally, the first artist Sok. His story was interesting to me because I lived for a time in the province. I’ve been near where he was doing his work, so, personally, that was resonating with me. And, also, I just think the idea of when Dr. Son was talking about the Korean/American and how she was meaning to punch through the slash – that sort of analysis about how that makes our identities and how we think about our identities through race is personally interesting to me as a mixed Asian-American,” said Engel.

The talk was also an opportunity for Karen Sun ’20 to embrace what she felt like was a rare instance of representation of Asian individuals in an academic presentation setting at Andover.

“There isn’t a lot of academic work surrounding Asian Americans, especially ones presented. Not Asian Americans but Asians in general, especially ones that are presented in this format at Andover, so I found that really interesting and something I wanted to attend. I also think the idea of multiple selves and the fact that trauma and certain circumstances generate kind of opposing and oftentimes paradoxical ideas within a single individual is something I’ve been talking a lot about in a bunch of my classes,” said Sun.

Son also talked about how although the work of Sok and Ch’ae is specifically about their Korean identities, the concept of transindividuality extends beyond their work as individuals. She explained how being a transindividual is defined as expressing different facts of identity across different contexts.

“[The artists] explore their Korean-ness, but it could equally be about Palestinian-ness or any culture that you are thinking about. They chose to maintain different selves or faces during specific settings and contexts. That is what a transindividual is,” said Son.

Christine Michael ’22 related to the idea of transindividuality and feeling disconnected from one’s cultural identity. Michael compared Jun Ch’ae’s works of several faces to puzzle pieces which represent different identities.

“[Jun Ch’ae’s artwork] really vibed with me because every person has so many parts of them. We’re like puzzles and our different identities are like the puzzle pieces. Everything coming together. Sometimes, your different identities conflict. The puzzle pieces don’t always perfectly fit together, which is why I think that painting by Jun Ch’ae was really important,” said Michael.