Artworks Featuring Old Korea by Four Western Artists:
Why Now and Here?
Borim Song, PhD
ECU School of Art & Design
I see a lot of potential in Elizabeth Keith’s work, because you can teach about her methods of observation, while also teaching about the harmful stereotypes that shouldn’t be depicted. I learned that good art is produced by observing people, rather than guessing about a culture that you do not know very much about. (personal communication, March 1, 2022)
The above quote is part of a reflection written by an art education undergraduate student regarding the implications of Elizabeth Keith’s work for American classrooms today. The “Old Korea from the Eyes of Four Western Artists” exhibition presents artworks created by four artists, Elizabeth Keith (1881–1956), Lilian May Miller (1895–1943), Paul Jacoulet (1896–1960), and Willy Seiler (1903–1988). These artists all visited Korea during the period 1920–1955 and created a versatile body of artwork, including woodblock prints, etching pieces, and watercolor paintings. Beautiful and full of compelling images, the featured artworks illustrate the life and culture of the Korean people from about a century ago. But why revisit these artists’ works featuring old Korea at this time? What implications and messages do they offer contemporary audiences? Why now and why here in the United States?
Art educators have long been interested in multicultural education . Many educators have endeavored to teach cultural diversity and apply culturally responsive teaching strategies in K-16 art classrooms. With the outbreak of the global pandemic in spring 2020, teachers in the U.S. began to realize that promoting social justice and confronting racism in school settings are critical tasks but many are not confident about how to integrate them into their everyday teaching practices. In 2021, two curators—Jin-Ae Kang and Borim Song—became interested in organizing an exhibit on the work of four Western artists who had featured Korea, to present at East Carolina University in Eastern North Carolina. We believed that this exhibit could help educators, students, scholars, and policy makers who struggle with incorporating theories about racial justice and cultural diversity into practices in K-16 classrooms and educational activities.
This exhibition, to some extent, is also in response to recent events, including anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. The Stop AAPI Hate national report indicated that Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders were victims of 3,292 reported hate crimes in 2020 . As the opening reflection indicates, one hundred years after their creation, the artworks included in this exhibition, in which the artists weave astute observation, curiosity, critical inquiry, and humanistic principles, still offer key insights and relevance. Although each artist has a unique style, they have in common that their artwork inspires Americans to embrace differences and respect the cultural heritage and life values of others.
While preparing for this exhibition setup, there were several aspects we particularly focused on. First, it was critical to go beyond colonial perspectives, white saviorism , and the view of visual art as white property . As 88% of teachers in American K-12 schools are white females , confronting stereotypes related to race, culture, and diversity is a crucial task. Highlighting the four featured artists’ endeavors to understand, respect, and embrace differences through observations and compassionate expression, we believe that this exhibit is an excellent resource that can inspire our community members to break their own stereotypes about Western-Eastern relationships and the cultures of Asians and Asian Americans. Second, correctly understanding the historical relationship between Korea and Japan is important in exploring these artists’ works, because they constantly traveled between the two countries. Traditionally, there have been many art-based exchanges and interactions between the two countries, which are well demonstrated in the history of ceramics in Korea and Japan . For instance, among the featured artists, Elizabeth Keith’s original watercolors created in Korea were made into woodblock prints by Shozaburo Watanabe of Tokyo, a leader in the Shin Hanga movement .
Lastly, the devotion and passion of Dr. Young-Dahl Song, the collector of the featured artworks, around the work of these artists offer incredible insights to community members at ECU and beyond. I have known him for 14 years since I started teaching at ECU, and he has been an exceptional role model regarding how to work together and share with other people in communities. In addition, his love and knowledge of the works of the four featured artists are tremendously inspiring. I have no doubt that the audiences of this exhibition will also appreciate his work and dedication and learn valuable lessons from him, as I have.
Another student in my art education methodology course stated, “Keith is a great example to use in classrooms to inspire students to work towards changing the future for the better by teaching…how to be respectful of people and their differences…while not overstepping” (personal communication, March 3, 2022). In line with this student’s reflection, we hope that the audience perceive through the artwork not only cultural differences but also the commonalities between people and thereby rejects the stereotypes of Asians that prevail in American media and popular culture. The “Old Korea from the Eyes of Four Western Artists” exhibition offers timely insights to contemporary audiences regarding how to accept diversity, understand other people’s cultural heritage and world views, and grow as valued citizens by learning from others.
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2 Jeung et al., 2021, as cited in Shin et al. (2022, p. 1). Shin, R., Bae, J., & Song, B. (2022). Anti-Asian racism and racial justice in the classroom. Multicultural Perspectives, 24(2), 1-12.
3 Helmick, L. (2022). White saviorism: An insider perspective. Art Education, 75(3), 9-13.
4 Kraehe, A. M., Gaztambide-Fernández, R., & Carpenter, II, B. S. (Eds.) (2018). The Palgrave handbook of race and the arts in education. Palgrave Macmillan.
5 Love, B. L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press. [as cited in Helmick (2022, p.9)]
6 Yi, J. H., Lee, H., & Kim, S. (2022). An analysis of the appearance characteristics of Korean ceramics per era through statistical analysis of metadata annotated with a visual element classification system of ceramics. Heritage Science, 10(52), 1-21.
7 Keith, E. (2012). Eastern windows. (Song, Y., Trans.). Seoul, Korea: Cum Libro. (Original work published 1928)