Emotive, honest and bold – rising South Korean artist bursts on to Abu Dhabi cultural map

Siwon Ghim's exhibition marks her debut in the Gulf, and she's already painting a new future in the region

Siwon Ghim says time stops in her Seoul studio. Photo: Siwon Ghim
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South Koren artist Siwon Ghim brings her unique abstract paintings to new pastures while making her debut in the Gulf.

Born and raised in Seoul, where art schools and nightlife mingle with K-pop street performers, Ghim left South Korea for the Slade School of Fine Art in London before turning to abstract work, drawing inspiration from a conservative upbringing.

“I had to hide my feelings growing up, looking calm and okay with whatever happened. My paintings do the opposite,” she tells The National of her Abu Dhabi exhibition. "They reveal some secrets and hidden facts."

Her latest works are showcased at the Sense of Living exhibition, which opened at the Korean Cultural Centre at Yas Creative Hub last month.

The series of abstract pieces date from 2018 to this summer, taking viewers through the artist’s personal struggles of daily life and relationships, as well as navigating between the UK and South Korea.

“It was such a scary thing to do because I felt at times I was splashing meaningless gestures on a canvas,” she says. "I had no idea where to start or what to do. So the paintings at the time were pure chaos."

The artist mixes her own paints and builds her own canvas with material from Seoul’s Dongdaemun market, and says the process of creating each work in her studio – where "time stops" – can take several months.

The exhibition features works of various sizes and colour schemes, but Ghim says she is particularly attached to the centrepiece Whatever You Wish. It is a large, bright painting inspired by her final project at Slade, where the cultural differences between the UK and South Korea were keenly felt.

"The final project was about the Asian dinner table," she says. "In South Korea, we always have a lot of side dishes, but in the UK it's just one plate, and the outline of it made me think of the borders I drew between myself and other people – the distance.

"I was trying to break down these barriers, so I wanted to make it very abstract. Everything is mixed, and I intentionally chose transparent layers. It was more experimental painting, showing where I want to go in the future."

Speaking with participants at a workshop at the centre, Ghim asks students to pay attention to both their emotions and their physical impact on the body, which she says has been cathartic for her over the years.

“I urge people to be more direct with what they are feeling," she says. "We are all the same in having feelings because we are all human. I hope people will become more in tune with what they are feeling and focus on it.”

Ghim has displayed work in several galleries across Seoul and was selected as this year's Young Korean Artist at the Lee & Bae gallery in Busan. Her first international exhibition was held in the Turkish capital of Ankara in January.

She now hopes to return to London, but her first – and successful – trip to the UAE has left her with a positive impression of the Middle East and its art scene.

“I want to have more opportunities to show my work in the Middle East," she adds. "I have heard a lot about Qatar and their artisans, and I'm really curious about the museums and art galleries there. I have been given a lot of good influence in the UAE.

"I really want to see the heritage in Oman, where everything begins."

Several of her pieces are also set to be shown at Abu Dhabi Art, held at Manarat Al Saadiyat this November.

Ghim says she is pleasantly surprised by the reaction to her collection.

"My art is about expressing my feelings," she adds. "Each painting tells the story of a difficulty in my life – not the full story, but a part. I think people understand my story because they have those kind of experiences in their lives too."

The Sense of Living is on until August 19 at the Korean Cultural Centre on Yas Island

Updated: August 15, 2023, 12:29 AM