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Violent History Meets Beautiful Art

Updated: Sep 27, 2021


Gwangju Korea isn’t on the typical tourist trail. It is best known as the site of the infamous Gwangju massacre on May 18, 1980. At the time South Korea was a military dictatorship. Discontent was brewing on college campuses and among pro-democracy groups throughout the country. It all came to a head in Gwangju when college students began a protest. Many townspeople joined in. The military dictatorship moved in quickly. Roads in and out of Gwangju were blocked, and communications was cut off. Army tanks rolled into town and brutally attacked the students and townspeople. Hundreds of people were killed.


The government denied culpability and tried to bury the news. Some politicians even tried to blame the violence on North Korea. But eventually the story came out. Political and military leaders who sent in the tanks were tried in court. And the Gwangju massacre gave birth to a democracy movement that spread through the country. It took time, but in 1987 Korea finally became a democracy.


For many people in Gwangju this is seared in their memory. For me, it was a reminder that this country’s democracy is new, and its history is painful. (The other day I met a man who fled Seoul during the Korean war. He walked across the entire country—200 miles-- carrying his baby brother. He was only five years old. We visited an archive and museum about the massacre, where research is ongoing. If you want to learn more, watch the movie Taxi on Netflix (it has English subtitles).


In some ways Gwangju is a memorial to a tragedy. In other ways it is the birthplace of democracy. But it is also a thriving arts community, thanks to a major investment by the government. Phil and I went there to meet a local artist named Lee Ho Guk.


We first saw Lee Ho Guk’s work in a gallery in Seoul. His paintings of bicyclists riding among cherry blossom trees captivated us because they captured our own experience biking along the rivers and streams in Seoul. Cherry blossom season in South Korea is more than a chance to see flowers; it is a national ritual involving thousands of selfies. Koreans work hard, really hard, so taking time out to literally smell the flowers sparks enormous joy. Lee’s paintings convey that sense of freedom and movement in a way that feels distinctly Korean.


His story also personifies the drive and tenacity that has enabled to grow from a poor dictatorship to one of the richest democracies in the world in the span on one generation. Although Lee Ho Guk was interested in drawing and painting since childhood, he grew up on a farm where there was no money for art school. Instead, he worked on the farm and eventually borrowed money for art lessons, living on cup noodles to save money.



We visited Lee Ho Guk’s charming studio along a park in Gwangju. We saw the full range of his paintings and learned about his technique. (It takes two years to complete each one!) We shared a lovely meal and visited Penguin Village, a once-dilapidated neighborhood that has been redeveloped as a space for up-and-coming artists--think Soho in its early years. All Gwangju has that slightly gritty feeling—you can feel the past as well as the present. In Penguin Village the art is upcycled—old shoes become a mural; bottle caps become sculpture. The past informs the present.


Enjoy these photos of the art in Gwangju, and visit us when we are back in Radburn to see Lee Ho Guk’s painting.


















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