As I stare at the faces of these women, I am caught between the memory of their presence and the expressions captured within their portraits. In this space I am able to recall moments during our conversation where our shared experiences as multiracial women converge. In their faces I see myself.
This project is the confluence of many ideas, interests, and events. There isn’t a real beginning that I can point to, instead it was one idea flowing into the next and all I could do was mark the subtlety within the currents. However, there are a few eddies whose effects remain in my memory; one being my discovery of Paul Ekman’s research into the universality of human emotions and their correlating facial expressions. His research suggests that all humans, regardless of social and cultural distinctions, are hardwired to understand basic human emotions communicated through distinct facial expressions. The significance is that no matter what separates us as human beings, our faces communicate our emotions without hindrance. I came across his work several years ago and at that time I was interested in emotions that could not be communicated through facial expressions, such as the feeling of shame. Shame is an experience that is uniquely individual, and an emotion that cannot be broadcast through a subconscious network of communication. It must be concealed. I dissected my own experiences with shame to fuel my research, explored its nature, its composition, and its affects. At some point in my research, I realized my own unique cultural and ethnic background influenced my relationship with shame. Although I was raised in the United States from the age of four, my shame is regulated by my mother’s Korean values.
I wanted to understand my mother and the cultural atmosphere that has influenced her behavior. To gain insight into Korea’s cultural psyche, I instinctively turned to their horror stories. Subconsciously I understood that horror stories could provide a conduit through which a culture’s collective anxieties, desires, and fears could be transmitted. I focused my project on a vengeful female ghost archetype that has existed in East Asian folklore and mythology for centuries. In recent years Japanese Horror cinema has popularized the archetype through films such as Ringu and Ju-On. She is a character driven by the emotions rage, sorrow, desire, and despair. Emotions that are seldom visible in East Asian culture, especially among women.
The work was an attempt to understand what it meant to be a Korean woman. The cultural identity that I embraced for much of my life but over time had drifted from. I resolved that I am, and am not, Korean. I am in a space in-between, neither a part of nor apart from Korean culture. In spite of my feelings, I am bound to some of Korea’s cultural principles, some which encourage exclusion. Korea is not exactly hospitable to ethnically or racially mixed individuals. These children were referred to as “dust of the streets,” particles that irritated Korean culture and contaminated the infrastructure of their societal beliefs. I didn’t understand this when I was young but I felt its effects. Life in the U.S. was not an improvement. It was obvious I could not easily be defined by any one racial category and often this was met with hostility and rejection. Again, I was adrift in the space in-between. To assimilate into American culture, I drew over my Korean identity. Covering it with layers upon layers of marks, to obscure and forget. However, anyone who draws understands a mark that obscures does not erase. My identity became a palimpsest of experience contributing to my unique perspective and sensitivity to emotions.
Much of the work for indivisible, was created in New Orleans, Louisiana during an artist residency at the Joan Mitchell Center and Portland, Oregon–where I reside. I spent nearly a month in New Orleans, meeting, photographing, and talking with other multiracial women. Our conversations ignited an exchange of emotions and revealed uncanny parallel struggles. They too were familiar with the space I felt I alone occupied. Their recollections of poignant moments marked by emotional significance, resonated with my own. I saw in them the aspects of myself that I’ve tried to obscure, and that allowed me to forge a connection that I’d been eager to experience. However, the photographs alone could never communicate their subjectivity. The residue of our affective discourse was integral to creating the work. This residue guides my process.
Photos by Dan Kvitka
Samantha Wall has been awarded Career Opportunity Grants from both the Oregon Arts Commission and The Ford Family Foundation