Uncovering the truth through art

Keum Suk Gendry Kim 2
Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s is not afraid to tackle big issues in her artwork.


As an artist, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim has never shied away from tough subject matter. In fact, her work has tackled topics such as comfort women, dictatorship in Korea, and the Jeju 4.3 massacre.

Of course, choosing this kind of subject matter is an entirely intentional choice made by the artist, who fully believes in the power of art to comment on the big issues.

“If artists don’t talk about it, then who will? Artists coexist as members of society… and artists need to be the first to speak out. I try to empower and heal others [through my work],” she said.

Although she says it is important to remain faithful to the truth, Kim does not see it as her job to reproduce the historical record. She wants to break issues down to their universal elements, and relay them in a way that can capture people’s hearts.

“Rather than explaining, I want to describe in an artistic, narrative way,” she says, adding that although she used survivors’ testimonies as the foundation for much of her work, she also exercises her artistic license.

This is seen in her graphic novel ‘Secret,’ which tells the story of a young Korean woman enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Gendry-Kim first became interested in the topic while serving as an interpreter to cartoonist Jung Kyung-a in 2000 as she introduced her “Reports of Comfort Women” comic while she was living in France.

“We can uncover the truth through art. We can touch others, and relay stories… something that is only [possible through] art. Even though the government turns away, if it becomes an issue, a single authority or organization can’t control it.

“I think the power of art is enormous. Culture and art have power. We need to invest in it. In that way we can get the strength to live positively, endure, and avoid suicide or collapse,” said Kim.

Likewise, her work on the Jeju 4.3 Massacre brings much-needed attention to a very real issue. The fact that the novel is written in French means the issue will be brought to an audience who previously may not have known the story.

The graphic novel in question is based on the film Jiseul, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Shot entirely in black and white and with actors who spoke only Jeju dialect throughout (meaning the film needed subtitles even in its home country of Korea), the film was praised for its unique cinematic style which lends itself well to a graphic novel.

This is seen through Gendry-Kim’s traditional ink drawings in the graphic novel which are powerful for their bleak beauty. The book sometimes goes without dialogue for page after page, drawing attention to the pictures and, therefore, allows the audience to reflect on what is happening.

Through her book, rather than explaining or commenting on the tragedy, she hopes to try to bring a little more awareness of the tragedy and, most importantly, show that the events are not forgotten.

“What was most moving was that [the people] had to hide the truth for so long as if they were criminals … Even though it is only a little, I want to let the long-suffering families know that they are not alone and have not been forgotten,” she said.

What is clear throughout both these works is that the power of art is well and truly alive and that artists have a key role in society.

“We can uncover the truth through art. We can touch others, and relay stories… something that is only [possible through] art. Even though the government turns away, if it becomes an issue, a single authority or organization can’t control it.

“I think the power of art is enormous. Culture and art have power. We need to invest in it. In that way we can get the strength to live positively, endure, and avoid suicide or collapse,” said Kim.