In turbulent times such as these, artists are repeatedly confronted with the question of the form that artistic involvement can take. In the exhibition Gwangju Lessons, curator Binna Choi examines the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980 – called the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, 5·18 or Gwangju Uprising – and the Gwangju People’s Art School (1983–86) that emerged as a consequence. Moreover, she uses these events to rethink the contents and strategies of political and artistic interventions today. Such an undertaking is of urgent relevance, in light not only of the worldwide protest movements in recent years but also of the resurgence of autocratic forms of government.
In reaction to the trauma of seeing the democracy movement violently suppressed by South Korea’s military junta, a group centered around the artist Songdam Hong founded the People’s Art School. The school was open to all and provided a creative space for experimenting with democratic thinking and action while avoiding the recreation of new hierarchies. The artistic process was intended to foster a sense of community and a shared approach to a new vision of society, with the final artistic product being regarded as less of a priority than togetherness and exchange. The core artistic technique was the woodcut, which could also be used outside of the courses for creating and distributing flyers and banners. Building community and self-organization were thus invariably viewed as a form of self-empowerment.
In Gwangju Lessons, the Rwandan Dutch artist Christian Nyampeta takes the memories of the Gwangju Uprising and the People’s Art School as a starting point for his artistic reflection. He creates a dialog between the woodcuts made in the People’s Art School and materials taken from the 5·18 Archives, so that visitors can experience the many different voices of the community, the history of the uprising and the school itself. At the same time, he supplements this historical material with narratives that locate the Gwangju Uprising within a global context – as an event of relevance to us in the here and now. Nyampeta’s art creatively reinterprets the questions that arise and the examination of the historic sources. His interdisciplinary work in the fields of art, industrial design and art theory examines questions of how people who find themselves in conflict-ridden contexts are able to live with one another.
The exhibition actively invites visitors to participate: The visitors can take the linoleum tiles made by Christian Nyampeta off the wall. At a workstation set up especially for this purpose, linoleum prints can be made with the panels and taken home.