The Gyopo Gap: Korean-Australian Art

Photo: Soo-Min Shim

Last year I started thinking about applying for a PhD in Korean art. Having completed my previous studies at the University of Sydney, I began the task of finding a supervisor for my interests there. However, at the time was no Asian art professor at all to supervise me at the University of Sydney and in fact, not a single Korean art academic currently exists in Australia. Instead, I was advised by several academics that I should move abroad to America. At this time I discovered an article by Asian Art scholar John Clark about his supervision of PhD students at the University of Sydney from 1993-2013.[1] Over these 20 years he noted that there were 12 PhDs on North-East Asia, 10 on South-East Asia, but none on Korea or Myanmar.[2]

Clark noticed a severe gap in the art world curatorium and academe at large regarding Korean-Australian representation. He observed at “a launch of a special issue of Artlink on contemporary Korean art at the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney… the organisers did not invite any Korean-Australians to speak, despite the involvement of Korean-Australians in the issue and the presence of Korean-Australians among the attendees.”[3] As of 2017, the Korean diaspora consisted of 7.4 million people, becoming the world’s fifth largest diasporic population.[4] Members of this mass diaspora are called Gyopo. In Australia there are over 123,000 gyopo.[5] Despite a history of Korean immigration to Australia extending over 70 years, and the growing number of Korean immigrants in Australia, I often felt isolated in the hostile industry of the art world.[6]

There is still a need in Australia for a deeper and more sustained interest in Asian art history.[7] This dearth of representation derives from exclusionary mechanisms operating within mainstream Australian society that derive from a perception of Australian art as a component of Western art and not of cognate regional relations in Asia. It is important to recognise these mechanisms and dominant ideologies of cultural ‘otherness’ in a study of Gyopo art.

Frustrated at this invisibility, I conducted 10 interviews with Gyopo artists, art workers and curators who all expressed a degree of frustration at the expectations placed on them to perform ‘Korean-ness.’ For example, the first manager of Visual Arts and Exhibitions at the Korean Cultural Centre, Juno Do, recounted that the most popular exhibition he curated there was about minhwa (Korean folk art) called ‘Fortunes Within’. In comparison, earlier exhibitions which were focussed on the contemporary, such as ‘Korean Art Today’ did not enjoy such popularity.[8] During his four years curating at the centre, Do found that Korean craft and traditional arts were substantially more popular than contemporary art as Australian audiences continued to search for elements of Korean-ness, that may be more subtly expressed or not expressed at all in contemporary manifestations.[9]

I thought about the few exhibitions on Korean art that I have seen on Gadigal land and the ways that diasporic art remains in the shadow of “international” artists in these blockbuster international art surveys. For example, the 2016 exhibition New Romance: Art and the Posthuman at the Museum of Contemporary Art contained no artists from the Korean diaspora. Another exhibition held in 2011, Tell Me Tell Me at the National Art School Gallery had three artists from the Korean diaspora (one Korean-American, two Korean-English) but no Korean-Australian artists.

All ten interviewees recounted at least one situation in which their art or curatorial practice was subsumed under a greater homogenising lens of ‘Asian’ and in particular received as ‘Chinese’ art. My interviews highlighted a need to further fracture our understanding of what it means to be East Asian-Australian. Only then can we begin to foster a stronger intellectual community rather than encouraging potential students like myself to look elsewhere. Only then can we begin to understand the Korean-Australian experience as distinct and valid from Korean-American identity but also from Asian-Australianness more broadly.


[1] John Clark, “Asian Art History in Australia: Its Functions and Audience” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 16:2, 202-217 (2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3]John Clark, “Asian Art History in Australia: Its Functions and Audience” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 16:2, 202-217 (2016): 207.

[4]“Korean Immigration”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accessed October 15, 2018,

[5] “Korean Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, last modified February 8, 2017
“2016 Census Community Profiles,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, last modified October 23, 2017

[6]B.S. Seol, “The Sydney Korean Community and the IMF drifting people” People and Place, 7:2,23-22 (1999): 24.

[7] See Olivier Krischer and Stephen H. Whiteman “The State of Play in Asian Art Research in Australia and New Zealand” Australia and New Zealand Journal of Art, 16:2, 123-133 (2016): 123.

[8] Interview with the author.

[9] Interview with the author.

Soo-Min Shim

Author: Soo-Min Shim

Soo-Min Shim is an arts writer and arts worker living on stolen Gadigal land. She received her Bachelor of Art History and Theory (First Class Honours) from the University of Sydney and is currently a Director at Firstdraft Gallery. She is currently a studio resident at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art Creative Studios. She has written for several Australian and international publications including Art & The Public Sphere, ArtAsiaPacific, The Artling, Art + Australia, Art Almanac, Artist Profile, Runway Conversations, un Extended, and Running Dog.

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