A Jeju artist in London

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by Darren Southcott

 There is something about Jeju Island which leaves an indelible mark on those who leave it. Natives and foreigners alike are seemingly drawn back to Asia’s own emerald isle by something which is not always easy to encapsulate in words.

Despite many finding their way back, there are also many who are left with only memories of their Jeju experiences. While this may be a minor inconvenience for some, others who are left with a yearning for the land they once called home.

Bada Song is one such woman. She was born on Jeju Island but whisked away to Seoul in the 1960s when little more than 3 years old, to be followed by an even longer exile in London. Building a career and reputation as an outstanding artist, she still feels a deep connection to Jeju and its spiritual essence. Bada’s story of the essence of Jeju in her art and self begins when she was just a toddler and first moved away.

“My parents moved to Seoul from Onpyeong-ri with a vision of making enough money to buy land in Jeju,” she said. “They did buy some land, but as the family got settled in Seoul, our education and careers became the priority and slowly the dream faded of returning to Jeju.”

Despite her brief stay on Jeju, Bada, whose name means sea, feels a deep connection with the island which has stayed with her throughout her life.

“My memories of Jeju have become mythical and dreamlike – I am uncertain whether they are dreams or reality. One memory is of a roof, floating in a dark, stormy sea after being blown off our home. I’ve never asked my mom whether such an aggressively windy night was plausible as I am afraid of losing my mythology.

“I also remember sitting on a breakwater with my sister. A white spot is walking toward us. It gets bigger and bigger against the long, black backdrop of the coastline. A man in white gives us some yellow, twisted cakes, then takes away some seaweed.

“The third of my earliest memories is of a huge snake covering the whole ceiling of the room while I was lying down,” she said.

The relocation to a hillside house in Incheon fostered feelings of loneliness and compassion within Bada. 

“There was an orphanage one level down from the front of the house. My sister and I often watched children play and I often empathized as I too was momentarily orphaned while my mom was away. A strong memory of this time was of my mom returning to Jeju for the best diving seasons. I clearly remember squatting under the eve of the roof one languid early spring morning, longing for my mom to come back home.”

Over the next few years, the family moved from place to place.

“We’d often gather with some parcels from our Jeju relatives, such as tangerines, sweet potatoes, dried squid, sora, jeonbok, king prawn and tilefish. It seemed like a secret pleasure for us to enjoy, in a way none of my neighbors could share,” she said.

Bada still struggles with the lessons her Jeju memories can teach her.

“Memories of the breakwater and seaweed reflect my mom’s hardworking life as a haenyeo, devoted to us. The sea is always associated with ‘mom’ and it is something always there for me but not always with me. The sea seems strange and profound. It’s something I cannot just dip into. Maybe that is why I’ve never swum in the sea, although I can swim.”

Bigger changes were in store when she relocated again in 1997, this time to London.

“Even moving to Seoul, I knew from my mom’s food and language that we were outsiders, but when I moved to London I was again an outsider, in a new environment, culture and life, “ Bada said.

“I become an artist almost by chance. I came to London to relax after a hard working life in Seoul. Most afternoons I visited London’s great museums and galleries. This took my interest in art to a deeper level. I enrolled on a course, got good responses and went on to degree level.”

As she began moving deeper into the world of art, her memories of Jeju kept coming to the fore and they began to inspire her work.

“The best thing about what I am doing right now is that I can find out who and what I really am, through my art. I can bring the different parts of my life together through my profession. I consciously brought my first memory, or dream, into my ‘Roof’ piece [2006]. At first I made ‘Roof’ as an etching print, then into an installation piece – ‘Chi-Bung’ [2007],” she said.

“Apart from its aesthetic value, a Korean roof has a strong symbolic meaning to Korean people everywhere. The piece therefore speaks in terms of cultural, not just personal memory, so that the massive wind I may have experienced as a Jeju child could also be symbolic of the rapid changes transforming Seoul today. The traditional roof is being blown out of the people’s hearts and out of reach, so that it floats inaccessibly in a darkness that symbolizes loss,” Bada said.

“My work is increasingly connecting with my identity as a Korean, displaced in London. Meanwhile, the more I work and the older I become, the more I feel my soul is in Jeju. For example, my current work has begun to explore stone which is symbolic of both Korea and Jeju.

“The island is itself a huge stone cast into the sea, very special black stone which serves as the foundation of Jeju’s beauty. The color and texture of Jeju’s stones contrast with the deep greens and blues of its sea. The sea becomes symbolic of richness, especially when contrasted with the often barren basalt of the interior.”

Bada’s latest exhibition, “Stoned” was shown in Brixton, South London, from Feb. 15 through 20 and she will next feature in a group show, “The Main Culprit,” in Fitzrovia, London, in May. 

It is a dream of hers to one day exhibit on Jeju, to complete her journey and return back to her hometown, perhaps even to sit under the eves of her erstwhile Onpyeong-ri home. Until then the mythologies of Jeju will continue to inspire this faraway child of the Jeju sea.

from: The Jeju weekly, Soth Korea (Feb. 2010)