Parisian Insights

Helena Parada Kim – Costume and Identity

- Hayley-Jane Dujardin-Edwards -

It seems as though art fairs fuel my quest for novelty. After having discovered Shozo Shimamoto’s splattered clothing at Art Paris – an experience I had shared here – I came across an interesting art work during my visit at Paris’ new fair dedicated to asian art: Asia Now.

Amongst the exposition’s impressive findings, I noticed an intriguing painting, Sonae by Helena Parada-Kim. The gallery owner explained that the artist was half Korean-half Spanish and had been brought up in Germany. This multicultural upbringing has since influenced the young artist’s creativity and in particular her questioning about one’s identity.
Looking for more art works and information about Helena Parada-Kim (and so little – if not to say nothing – did I find), I observed how often she had highlighted the costume in her portraits and it is indeed the case, here, with Sonae: Sonae is the first name of an unidentified individual, a woman whose personality is revealed not through her physical features but through her costume, a traditional Korean hanbok. Despite for her hands and the outline of her head, Sonae disappears behind her dress.

Thanks to a rare interview of the artist, I got to understand her work better. Helena Parada-Kim admits to have always refused to identify her nationality, preferring to remain in a blurry state, mingling and confusing her different cultures. It is only as a student that she began to accept handling her background, focusing on that of her mother’s, believing that women prevail in filiations. To learn more about her family, she explored her mother’s photography albums and became obsessed with these feminine figures adorned with delicate and elegant hanboks. Using these family portraits as a basis, Helena Parada-Kim thus initiated her own painted portraits, some with detailed faces, others just featuring the garments. It is the second category that fascinate me the most. Just as the photographs she had observe, they diffuse a mysterious, almost ghostly feel, because as photographs tend to fade with time, the artist has decided to dissolve her family members in her memory and in her art. Those people she has never met come alive not through personal souvenirs she lacks but through their cultural identification, a celebration of her ancestors with the help of what materially distinguished them within society and global culture. What I find compelling is how Helena Parada-Kim dares to speak of her works as portraits – the paintings are entitled with the “sitters’s” names. Using the aesthetic of classic portraiture, she brings abstraction to her art not through her manner but with her subject, allowing the costume to become the symbol of a person.

Even in her pieces that feature hanging garments, does she claim to represent family members – an approach that evokes that of Christian Boltanski when he illustrates the Holocaust with his hundreds of hanging or piled pieces of clothing. Because that’s where we can’t help but see something terribly morbid in Helena Parada-Kim’s portraits. By denying the human figure, she does indeed bring the light onto a sole cultural identity, but doesn’t she also express absence and death. Behind the charming depictions of the hanboks, her subjects clearly emerge as ghosts, the ghosts of a past she has never experienced. Although Helena Parada-Kim speaks of her series as a celebration of the maternal figure, I also clearly perceive the embodiment of disappearance, the disappearance of the self but also of a society in general: ancient traditions being replaced by a more cosmopolitan and avant-garde lifestyle in contemporary South-Korea. 
There is, of course,  nothing new in affirming how clothing helps build the identity, should it be social, sexual or cultural. Garments are cultural artefacts that distribute symbols and meanings. With her work, Helena Parada-Kim uses a cultural costume to identify her inheritance and the members of her family: material evidence prevails over humanity in the assimilation of the self.