A stone thrower facing down a tank. Protesters facing tear gas. Soldiers opening fire on an unarmed crowd. Not the current uprising in Iran, but art inspired by a bloody crackdown in South Korea in 1980 — on show in Hell’s Kitchen until Friday.
The works are part of an exhibition being held at John Jay College’s Anya & Andrew Shiva Gallery which sheds light on a repressive era of recent South Korean history — with uncanny parallels to the crackdown on young women protesting in Iran today.
Blood and Tears: Portrayals of Gwangju’s Democratic Struggle features art inspired by the rising in the city of Gwangju, which pitted young democratic activists against the country’s military strongman ruler Chun Doo-hwan.
The rising began on May 18, 1980, and was brutally repressed. At the time, South Korean authorities admitted to 170 deaths by May 27. Other estimates have put the death toll as high as 2,300.
The exhibition ends on Saturday October 21. It is curated by Soojung Hyun — a Korean-American art historian herself educated in Gwangju — and Thalia Vrachopoulous, an associate professor at John Jay.
Hyun was a junior at Chonnam University, whose students began the protests and which was the scene of the first violence, including the use of bayonets by paratroopers. The violence intensified and included shootings, beatings and rapes of protesters at the hands of government troops.
Gallery director Bill Pangburn told W42ST the two curators, who are friends, had chosen to showcase their exhibition at the gallery because of the college’s mission of criminal justice.
The most striking work is Stand Up With Your Fist Clenched by Yoan Choe, a collage of a young protester apparently throwing stones at a tank, facing down an armored vehicle.
Choe, who was a young child during the uprising and studied art in Gwangju, was inspired by a now-iconic image of 14-year-old Faris Odeh throwing stones at an Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip in 2000. Ten days after Associated Press photographer Laurent Rebours took the picture, Odeh was shot dead.
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Choe’s work is a collage of images of turmoil, dissent, violence and terror from around the world, reflecting the theme of the show, that the Gwangju Rising’s freedom struggle is still relevant. it was explored at a symposium on Wednesday October 12, with participants discussing how protests and art interact and inspire each other.
Parallels between South Korea’s military’s use of overwhelming force against unarmed protesters in 1980 and current footage of beatings and deaths in Iran are impossible to miss. The show opened in early September, before women in Iran started mass protests against the fundamentalist Islamic regime over the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini on September 22, after being arrested for not wearing her hijab properly.
Some of the featured artists were part of the 1980 uprising, while others were inspired by it. All are part of the Minjung artistic movement, which expresses anti-authoritarianism through art and translates roughly to “the people” or “the masses.”
The movement often focuses on modern versions of traditional woodcuts, which feature heavily in Blood and Tears — as do artists who were shaped by the uprising and the military dictatorship’s reaction to it.
They include Sung-dam Hong, who took part directly in the uprising, and continued to be politically outspoken even after a fresh wave of protests in 1987 brought down Chun Doo-hwan’s brutal regime. Another of the artists, Sangho Lee, was tortured by Chun’s regime in 1987.
The uprising was one of the most important events in modern South Korean history, with anger at the repression galvanizing activists against Chun Doo-hwan until his regime crumbled in 1987. Chun was sentenced to death in 1997 for ordering the repression, but pardoned in 1998.
Gwangju, South Korea’s sixth-largest city, has become one of the country’s most important artistic centers in the wake of the uprising and its bloody aftermath, and now hosts its own biennale.
Blood and Tears: Portrayals of Gwangju’s Democratic Struggle is at the Anya & Andrew Shiva Gallery at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 860 11th Avenue at 59th Street.
Open: Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm until October 21. Free admission.