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The Art: The Jeju Island Series

Zakii’s body of work isn’t just technically accomplished; it’s incredibly diverse as well. We’re going to take a look today at his Jeju Island series of pictures, and think about what they might mean for Zakii’s work as a whole.

Right from the off, there’s something incredibly surreal about his work, and just a little unsettling. The crustacean in the first picture is immediately threatening: just look at the size of those claws! We don’t envy the person who’s got to face off against that monster. Similarly, the octopus in the second picture is an immediate alien presence: it lends the piece a mythological air, and it’s reminiscent of sea monsters like the Kraken, even if the original Kraken legends are a little distant geographically from Zakii’s home and art.

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These pictures form part of the art exhibition ‘Hands Across the Water,’ which acted as a showcase for art created by Zakii and a number of other artists back in 2013. The artists visited Jeju Island, Seoul and the Korean Demilitarized Zone whilst creating art for the exhibition, with Zakii’s pictures highlighting haenyo women who live on Jeju island. The giant sea creatures in the pictures, meanwhile, were inspired by the Korean foods Zakii sampled on his travels. These two elements come together to form an unusual image: the haenyo recast as the heroines in a 1950s monster movie, and an impressive encapsulation of Zakii’s journey.

If we had to compare the Jeju Island series to Zakii’s other works- ‘Tales from the Perfumed Garden,’ for instance- they’re connected by the way they subtly celebrate their subject matter, even if the subject matter’s true nature is kept hidden, or isn’t immediately obvious to us: without context, we might not have guessed that Zakii’s pictures here celebrate the food and culture he encountered. A potent symbol of independence in South Korea, the haenyo are a group of ‘sea women’ on Jeju, diving for octopus, conch and other produce from the sea. The tradition stretches back hundreds of years, with the haenyo a fantastic representation of female empowerment. As the New York Times reports, in the 17th century women instead of the men on the island began to harvest the oceans, who were called away by war or fishing at sea. By the 1960s, about a fifth of the island’s women were diving, with their work bringing in three fifths of the island’s fisheries revenue.

However, while the haenyo and their work are a rich cultural tradition, it’s ironic that the women themselves are anything but traditional. The haenyo instigated big changes in other areas of their society: on Jeju, the men paid a bride price rather than the women providing a dowry, as was traditional in South Korea at the time. At the same time their economic independence meant Jeju once had the highest divorce rate in South Korea. Within these pictures, then, there are two ideas in conflict: the haenyo are preserving their own traditions, whilst also challenging the traditions that surround them. The pictures call our attention to a tradition we’re unfamiliar with, but they also undermine the tradition of women as helpless victims in monster films: they’re more Ellen Ripley than Kay Lawrence.

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The Jeju Island series, then, could be seen as reinforcing one of Zakii’s artistic habits: he sees modern-day issues, and creates art that responds to it… even if this reaction is unconventional or unexpected. It’s easy to look as the Jeju Island pictures and see something silly and surreal. But there’s a lot more going on for those willing to look beneath the surface: a principle we can apply to Zakii himself, and look forward to sharing with you upon the film’s release.

Check out the rest of the Jeju Island series on Zakii’s Facebook page, and don’t forget to keep an eye on our Twitter and Facebook feeds too: let us know what you think of one of Zakii’s most intriguing collections of work!

Tom GibsonThe Art: The Jeju Island Series

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