Grad Guide 2020: YunYoung Ahn

YunYoung Ahn employs the language of artistic expression to transcend cultural barriers, building what she refers to as the “bridge” between her worlds. In doing so she uncovers threads of connection between seemingly disparate aspects of her heritage. Ahn graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art (where she’s pursuing her master’s degree this year). Her end of year exhibition in 2020 explored her background though the lenses of spirituality, femininity and food. For 10and5’s annual graduate showcase we caught up with Ahn to learn more about her art practice and how she uses it to cultivate a wider understanding.

YunYoung Ahn

What inspired you to pursue a path in art? 

As someone growing up in different cultural backgrounds from my parent’s culture, the language of artistic expression is a bridge that connects my worlds together. It is to me a loophole that overcomes language and cultural barriers.

Tell us about your graduate exhibition in terms of concept, medium, process, and the final work(s). 

My body of work rises from a combination of the histories and ceremonies I am sculpted from. Some I embrace, while others I reject and have grown away from. Through my research, I raise questions about metanarratives that are built on the silence of others – questions I never dared to ask or even knew how to ask. I seek to reclaim the silenced voices in myself relating to femininity, spirituality and food politics. 

My research was sparked by questioning the difference in construction of the male and female versions of the traditional Korean Ha-Hwe mask used in performances. The mask intended for males allows for space to speak, whereas its female counterpart does not. Largely mirroring society today, traditional mask performances showcase men as the purveyors of this tradition and culture. However, in the practice of Korean traditional mask dances, the ones who wear the mask (regardless of their biological characteristics) are vessels into which the spirit of the mask flows, in order to tell a story. In spite of gender politics, anyone can wear the mask as long as they can be a vessel.

Gifts From Soil (2020).
Assemblage and photography.

This made me take a deeper look into traditional Korean spiritual knowledge, and raise questions about the ways it has been demonised or deemed primitive – especially as someone who grew up as a Korean Christian missionary kid in Kenya. These are questions I would not have asked if I never set foot on South African soil. I am however not interested in dismissing or bashing Christian spirituality; I am guided by the conglomeration of spiritual practices both historical and contemporary in all the places I am rooted. 

An important part of traditional Korean spirituality is its deep connection to the land, cycles of nature and, in turn, the ways in which the body is nourished through what the earth provides. Food is not only a means of sustaining the body, but also sustains the story and culture of a people and the history of a land. It is nourishment for the body and soul. Through the food stories of the places I grew up in, I find connections with parts of my heritage and the different places I have lived.

My project has been a way for me to look into unprocessed generational trauma, but it has also been a way for me to further develop a language of love through these questions around metanarratives. Love for the forgotten and ignored, and love for connection. I ask these questions to make space for a wider understanding of history, context and the various spiritual backgrounds of my heritage and place I resided in. 

‘GoHyang’ is a Korean word that cradles a special kind of warmth to describe home. My final performance piece is a ritual to call myself home. A home that I am only really starting to discover. It is a space for my voice, a place where I remind myself to ask. Ask to decipher. Ask to dismantle. Ask to rebuild. And ask – to create.

World’s Favourite Bananas (2020).
Assemblage and photography.

What are you currently interested in exploring as an artist? 

I am still very interested in the stories and history that food culture carries. I have always been interested in the meeting point of different cultures, where they are the same, where they can be different and how they can supplement each other.

What are your thoughts about the role of art in society today?

Art connects. It is a platform to reclaim and proclaim stories through all the senses in the body and spirit. The pandemic has made a lot of plans and schedules go up in the air. In times like this I believe art has been a way for people to bring the things up in the air back to earth and closer to our bodies, to our senses. And reclaiming that connection to ourselves in turn allows us space to connect with others around us in and beyond this realm.

Summer Passed Without Raspberries (2020).
Assemblage and photography.

Who are some of the South African artists you admire? 

Sethembile Msezane, Zayaan Khan, Nkosenathi Koela, Dada Khanyisa, Sara Lagardien Abdullah to name a few.

What are your plans for 2021?

I plan to begin a new journey with my Masters degree to start new projects around culture, food, history and lore based on the places I grew up in and live now.

Follow @afrasiainaddition on Instagram.

Between Moon and Sun (2020).
Assemblage and photography.

Grad Guide is an annual series from Between 10and5, profiling some of South Africa’s most exciting creative graduates across the fields of fashion, art, photography and design. Find the full 2020 Grad Guide here.

Between 10 and 5