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We Are More Similar Than We Realize: Interconnecting Identities in the Work of Ahree Lee

Ahree Lee, "Permutation" still (primary)
Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), late 19th-early 20th century, silk gauze with plain-weave and weft-float patterning patchwork
“Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi),” Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), late 19th-early 20th century, silk gauze with plain-weave and weft-float patterning patchwork 28 3/4 x 35 in, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund (AC1995.118.4) | © Museum Associates/LACMA

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California

Koreans have an ancient tradition of wrapping precious belongings and gifts in decorative cloths called bojagi (or pojagi). Although members of the nobility and wealthy Buddhist temples used square painted silk cloths, the bojagi used by the common people were typically patched together from scraps of silk and ramie left over from larger garments. These colorful cloths were sewn together by the women of the household, who were motivated both by practicality and aesthetics. By patching together square, rectangular or triangular scraps of fabric, they created abstract canvases that were not only considered auspicious in their vibrant color combinations, but also in their mosaic-like structure. Just as the life of the fabric was extended through the assembling of scraps, these bojagi cloths also represented the extension of life, a new beginning and new identity for the people who used them or received them.

Korean American artist Ahree Lee, has found inspiration in these traditional Korean patchwork wrapping cloths as she explores notions of individual and collective identity in her multi-media work. Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in greater Philadelphia. She studied English literature at Yale University and several years later earned an MFA in graphic design at Yale School of Art and has drawn from her dual cultures and dual academic backgrounds in her work. Over the years, she has gathered together “scraps” of video footage and, using state-of-the-art video editing technology as her needles, has skillfully patched together mesmerizing video portraits and intriguing narratives.

Her 2015 video “Bojagi (Memories to Light),” which was shown as part of a larger exhibition entitled “Your Piece” at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2015, most directly references the Korean wrapping cloths. She created this 15-minute long video using footage collected from home movies taken by Asian American families from as early as the 1930s to the present. Splicing together moments excerpted from these movies, Lee created a dazzling video bojagi of memories, a moving patchwork of family life, arranged to resemble an animated mandala of sorts. Although the videos were of families other than her own, she made a significant realization about her own life.

“It was incredibly moving watching the home movies and seeing Asian American families doing all the normal things families do,” Lee says. “I realized that in my head when I imagined scenes like this it was always Caucasian families because they’re always the ones depicted on TV, in movies, and in print. Seeing other Asian American families' birthday parties, picnics, Christmas celebrations and family vacations [were] a validation of my personal experience growing up.” Creating this work reinforced a sense of interconnectedness and commonality in her.

The concept of commonality is at the heart of another recent video titled “Permutation,” but its reach is more universal and its message more profound. Shown both at the San Francisco exhibition “Your Piece” in 2015 and in a different version at Gallery 825 in Los Angeles in 2016, “Permutation” is a generative video built up of fragments of faces that are positioned so that we are always looking at a complete but constantly changing face on the screen. For the version shown in Los Angeles, she gathered photographs of members of the Los Angeles Art Association (LAAA) and individuals from the greater Los Angeles community, and employed a computer algorithm to randomly select a vertical section of the images and move them across the screen to generate a single face that is constantly evolving and never the same. The effect is hypnotic, as one face blends seamlessly into another, regardless of gender, age, skin color, distribution of hair, shape of eyes or other details. Like the bojagi cloth, the sections of the faces come together to form a new entity that is even more dynamic and captivating than the original cloth or face.

In “Permutation,” Lee explores the paradox of similarity and difference, demonstrating that even in a world that seems increasingly fragmented culturally, racially and economically, we are more similar than we realize. In fact, for Lee, the vertical slices of each photograph evoke the snippets of genetic code that are spliced together to create the DNA of each individual person. “They can also be seen as a metaphor,” Lee explains, “for the thousands of snippets of DNA that each person likely has in common with people around the world.” Lee took a DNA test herself and discovered that, although she is ethnically Korean, she also has Japanese DNA. The discovery was surprising and a little shocking to her family, since Japan and Korea have a long history of conflict, and many Koreans suffered considerable abuse under Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. However, it also reinforces Lee’s point. Despite the multitude of religions, political systems, languages and cultures that often seem to divide the world’s communities, we humans share 99.9 percent of our DNA with each other, so we are biologically powerfully united, even with those peoples and cultures who we might consider to be hostile or even our enemies.

In an ongoing work, “Me,” that she began in November 2001, Lee has been turning the camera on herself to examine ideas of identity, image and aging. Taking a photograph of herself every day and adding the images periodically, she creates what she refers to as “the digital equivalent of a photo flip book,” a portrait of herself as she ages day by day.

“The act of taking and looking at my own photo is similar to what women do every day when they look into the mirror and assess their own appearance,” Lee says. Although a deeply personal study of her image and her self-perception, the work is also a commentary on social and cultural expectations of women. “In our culture, we demand that images of women be youthful and attractive, but implicit in this sequence is that over time the woman in the photos will age.” For Lee, the work speaks to the vanitas tradition of European still life painting, as it implies the ephemerality of physical appearance and the inevitability of aging and mortality. Yet, like Lee’s other video installations, “Me” also borrows from the Korean bojagi tradition. Just as the patchwork wrapping cloths prolong the life of scraps of discarded garments, the work preserves digitally in a collage of daily moments the evolution of the identity of a woman, an artist and storyteller with a unique perspective of the many intricate parts that go into being human.

Ahree Lee’s upcoming project investigates how invisible labor, specifically work that has traditionally been done by women, is essential to the life of economic systems. By re-establishing the links between weaving, craft and computer technology, she hopes to transform the narrative concerning women’s position within the power systems of society. More about the artist’s work can be found on her website.

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