Republic of Korea: Breaking barriers, one brushstroke at a time
A periodic exhibit at the Seoul Art Centre in the Republic of Korea features dozens of artists living with autism while reframing some of their developmental disabilities through the fresh perspective of empowerment.
“There is no such thing as disability in the world of art,” said Soomi Jeon, Director of the Vichae Art Museum.
“We often think the persons with disabilities are the receivers of charity, and we are the givers,” she explained. “This belief actually divides us. It is not sharing. I planned this exhibition to break that common misconception.”
One of the featured artists is Hansol Kwon, who uses bold lines and dots in vivid colours to express himself.
His mother, Kyunghee Kim, recalled that Hansol, who lives with autism, started painting with colours, then he would cover them over in black.
“The black disappeared, and pretty colours reappeared,” she said. “I witnessed how he blossomed in his paintings. When I look at my son’s paintings since his younger years, I am able to see his growth and psychological development.”
The prestigious venue, one of the Republic of Korea’s leading arts institutions, first exhibited the works of artists with developmental disabilities in 2020. Hansol was among the 43 artists who collectively contributed more than 100 different paintings in 2022.
Beyond the art world
The significance reverberates far beyond the art world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that 15 per cent of the global population, or about one billion people, have a disability.
Reena Lee, the former Secretary-General of the Korean Disability Forum, noted that despite the strong representation, such persons are often hidden. This means one in seven people around me must have a disability, she said.
“In my school classroom, in my neighbourhood and in the workplace, is there one person with disabilities out of seven people I know? No, there isn’t,” she said. “Just for the comfort of the majority and economic benefit, society decided to separate persons with disabilities from those without them.”
The exhibition offers an invaluable opportunity to raise visibility and promote dignity in tangible ways, Ms. Jeon said.
“People think that the exhibitions of the artists with disabilities are just free events, but these proud artists gave their imagination to us with so much sweat and passion, so in fact, it is only right to pay to see their work and establish it as a commercial exhibition,” she said. “That way, they can become financially independent someday.”
In her view, persons with disabilities should never be viewed as an economic drain.
“Breaking those misunderstandings is one of the important goals of this exhibition,” she added.
Artworks in their own right
Visitors to the exhibition shared that observation. Yunhee Park said she had visited to admire the artworks in their own right.
“If our society is open and ready to accept them, then we would be able to provide many opportunities for persons without disabilities to contribute with their amazing talents,” she said. “It will also be beneficial to persons without disabilities, and I hope more opportunities like this one can be made available.”
Equality promotes stability
Equality promotes stability, said Yejin Ha, who works as a programme officer at UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
“Throughout history, social exclusion and social injustices and inequality – they all lead to conflict and social discord,” she said. “In order to prevent conflict, it is absolutely critical to make sure that everybody is included in these efforts to build an harmonious and just society.”
‘Receive their uniqueness’
Humanity is more than transactional; it can generate mutually beneficially synergies among those with disabilities and others in society, said Myunghee Kim, who is the mother of featured artist Hyeshin Park.
“All we have to do is foster a natural exchange,” she said. “We could share the health we have and receive the uniqueness they have. It will make such a wonderful world.”