(Yonhap Interview) How art helps Korean adoptee connect, overcome traumatic experiences
By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, March 15 (Yonhap) -- Hojung Audenaerde met her birth mother for the first time in 2014, almost 40 years after she was sent away for adoption. As if the reunion was not dramatic enough, her mother was in a semi-paralyzed state, unable to speak and give her side of the story.
Her mother's physically challenging condition and the sad life story she heard from her biological uncle, who happened to be blind, initially left her in a state of devastation, shock and despair.
But reuniting with her mother, however tragic the circumstances were, also helped her start overcoming decades-long struggles.
"While looking into my mother's eyes, I knew she knew who I was," Audenaerde said during a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency at Gallery Now where her photo exhibition "Broken Whole" took place.
"I felt a lot of compassion. It was very emotional to me. It was both for me and for her."
The exhibition, in collaboration with her Spanish partner Bruno Figueras, explored not only her traumatic journey to find her identity and roots, but also the healing process from rejection and alienation that the involuntary relocation brought forth.
"The name really has to do with the paradox of how something can be broken but whole at the same time. This is really the meaning of meeting with my mother," the 44-year-old said.
"It really broke me in many ways but it made me more whole because I, all of a sudden, knew more about my history."
The photo provided by Gallery Now shows "Cultural Migrations" by visibleINvisible, the artistic duo comprised of Hojung Audenaerde and Bruno Figueras. (Yonhap)
The photo provided by Gallery Now shows "Closed Braids" by visibleINvisible, the artistic duo comprised of Hojung Audenaerde and Bruno Figueras. (Yonhap)
Her biological father gave her up for adoption when she was 27 months old. At that time, her father wasn't communicating with her mother. A Belgian couple living in Rome, Italy, adopted her. They soon moved to the U.S.
Audenaerde grew up in a neighborhood where there were few Asians. Growing up, she was self-conscious that she looked nothing like her parents who have blue eyes.
"I grew up all my life, not looking like anyone. For most of my life, I wanted to look like my parents and fit in."
For a long time, she lived with a sense of rejection and grief. She thought she would never look for her biological parents, painfully knowing that they didn't want her and abandoned her.
But about a week before her birthday in 2007, she started to seriously question how she was in relationships. She'd just separated from a man she was with for five years.
"I had to see what happened in my primary relationships, which is with my biological parents."
Much to her surprise, the adoption agency tracked down her father in just two months, as her documentation remained fairly intact and accurate.
"I wasn't expecting that they would find him. So I was very surprised. I didn't know what to do," she recalled. They began exchanging letters with the help of the agency, which, years later, eventually led to the life-changing encounter with her mother.
The Seoul exhibition, which ran for March 1-14, helped her face the brutal reality of her mother being paralyzed and overcome the traumatic experience of meeting her. The same exhibit opened at the House of Saint Barnabas in London, England, on Sept. 20, 2016, for four months.
Through the exhibition, she could meet a wide range of interesting people -- other adoptees, birth mothers who are looking for their children and Korean parents who have adopted Korean children -- who said they were emotionally moved by it.
"I met people who said to me this has changed the way they think about their childhood and their mother. It really affects people in many different ways and quite deeply," she said.
"I feel like we start to connect when we are vulnerable. We connect with each other around sufferings and pain."
The photo provided by Gallery Now shows "Maternal Trinity" by visibleINvisible, the artistic duo comprised of Hojung Audenaerde and Bruno Figueras. (Yonhap)
The artistic duo, Hojung Audenaerde (L) and Bruno Figuera, poses for a photo at the House of Saint Barnabas in London, England in this undated photo provided by Audenaerde. (Yonhap)