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What kind of art should be made by an Asian woman? Breaking prejudices with artist kate hers RHEE

By Sarah Luisa Santos . June 16, 2015

Since I’m here in Germany, thoughts about the roles of women in THIS society, especially being a foreign woman, frequently occupy my mind. I think it’s always interesting to analyze how people behave in a certain context and also to start noticing a little bit more about how a few people change their behavior once you say where you are from.

And that was one of the main topics of the talk I had with American/Korean artist kate-hers RHEE, who will be exhibiting her work at Berlin Food Art Week.

So this work comes from a political experience. I would say I do a lot of pieces that deal with social engagement.”

kate hers RHEE
kate hers RHEE Photo credit: Djamila Grossman

kate-hers was born in Korea but moved to USA when she was still a baby, and this cultural heritage deeply influenced her work, which, according to her, started to develop in a more complex and profound way here in Germany.

I did my Bachelor in Fine Arts in Chicago, and then my Masters in Fine Arts at the University of California-Irvine. I made this degree whilst in California and then afterwards I came here. I have been in Germany for five and half years now!

I can say most of my important and significant development happened here. One reasons for this is because when I lived in the US I had to work all the time, to have a money job, because my tuition for my undergraduate degree was so expensive.”

Here I have the time and the means to actually focus, to start really thinking about what I’m trying to say.”

kate-hers explained to me how she feels lucky to be part of the Mengerzeile Atelier, a non profit organization that is ran by the artists that are members of it. The concept is a sustainable artistic community with affordable prices, a positive fact especially in this moment, as she tells me studios here are getting really expensive, but still cheaper than New York or LA.

Back to the topic of her work and how could she develop it here, kate-hers pointed out a really important factor of her journey: love. Not only for a partner, but also for the city of Berlin.

I grew up in Detroit, and then I lived in a bunch of different places in the US, and then I ended up in LA and thought I would stay there. It’s so gorgeous, the weather is nice, the food is fresh and good all the time… but when I came to Berlin I had this amazing experience to ride my bicycle everywhere, being able to take public transportation and not having to worry about, you know, not constantly having to put gas in my car, so I decided to stay and, of course, I met my partner – a factor that made my decision to stay a lot easier.”

Deeply active within the Korean/German community, kate-hers told me that since she’s been in Germany her wish to re-investigate her Korean cultural heritage has grown stronger. This has led her learning Korean again and planing her next trip to the country, where she will do some research for her future artwork.

kate's studio
Artist kate-hers RHEE collaborates with Jesse Bercowetz in his studio at Vermont Studio Center. photo credit: Jesse Bercowetz

kate-hers uses food and language as means to her art, to express her issues about her role as an Asian woman – not only in the world, but within the art scene.

I would say I use performative aspects in all my pieces, even the drawings to a certain degree. The piece for BFAW – a self portrait called Fleischfreude, or Flesh Joy, references a very iconic feminist artwork from the ’70s by Carolee Schneeman, a feminist artist.

I wanted to reference her and her celebration of the body, and I also use my own body in this piece.”

The work is a photograph showing the naked body of Kate covered with meat, with only her eyes wide open.

When I did this work, I also linked it to this Japanese so-called tradition, Nyotaimori, where you can eat sushi off of a women’s body. I did a lot of research on that and found out that the women have always their eyes closed during these events.”

And then I thought: I’m gonna have my eyes open, showing that I’m very aware and I’m gonna have this piece (the photo) upright, standing rather than lying down. So I try to use all these strategies to be aggressively staring back, as opposed to passively receiving the male gaze.”

And, the piece Fleischfreude came out from a very unpleasant experience she had in Switzerland, when she was mistaken for a Thai mail bride.

I was living in Switzerland, on and off for about four years, and while I was there I kept having these disturbing experiences with Swiss people who assumed that I was a mail order bride.

Let me just say, there is a certain percentage of them… it’s apparently very common that you will see a very young Asian woman with a very old white Swiss guy walking around.

In the end, that experience also made me deal with my own prejudice. Do you know what I mean? Because I used to get very angry and be like, ‘how could they think I’m a mail order bride? I don’t even look Thai!’ And then I thought about it … who cares, it’s their problem, it’s not my problem, it’s their perception and their stereotype, their racism, and it shouldn’t be placed on me.”

Objectification of women and sexism are recurrent themes in the arts, especially coming from female artists. The problems many of them face nowadays is how to address these issues without falling into that common place of not really creating new or interesting discourse, but only talking about same old clichés over and over again.

I was hoping that I could find a way to articulate this experience in a good way, that it became a much more obvious symbol of a kind of empowerment, instead of only objectification of my body.

And when I first made it, I think I was going through a lot difficulties in my work. Specially for being an Asian women and always being treated in a certain way, or having some people having certain perceptions of me. Because the work is about that too right? I wasn’t quite sure about it, so I held on this piece for a number of years before actually showing it.”

As a woman, you always have to be quite aware of how everything is gendered… especially in the art world. People have so many expectations about what kind of art should be made by an Asian woman.”

kate-hers will show this piece for only the second time here in Germany, at Berlin Food Art Week. It will be quite significant to be able to share this very political, and of course, biographical piece with a larger audience.

I’m excited to see how it goes. I care a lot about how I present my work and how people perceive it.”

Berlin Food Art Week starts on 19th of June, and kate hers RHEE work will be shown at Entretempo Kitchen Gallery

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