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Artists spearhead migration to JejuMainlanders increasingly drawn to Jeju for artistic freedom and creative inspiration
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승인 2014.02.23  10:45:56
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▲ The 12th Korea Experimental Arts Festival in Seogwipo is one of an increasing number of cultural events across Jeju. Photo by Kristen Bialik

Some come for the promised Jeju “plenties” of wind, rocks, and women. Others are drawn to the Olle trails or the limitless stretch of ocean. Others come for the beauty of Mt. Halla. Whatever the reason, people are flocking to Jeju and not just for vacation. They’re coming to settle.

Jeju has long been a site of settlement for multicultural outsiders, be they migrant brides, migrant workers, foreign language teachers, or temporary students. The number of incoming settlers began to noticeably rise in 2010, with a total of 437. Yet this was followed by a near-parabolic surge of migrants, the number reaching 2,343 in 2011, 4,876 in 2012 and released data for 2013 show that 7,823 settlers arrived.

While the presence of international settlers has long been known, Jeju natives and the local Jeju government have noticed the influx of a new population: the “munhwa ijuja,” or cultural migrants, Korean citizens from the mainland who come to Jeju seeking a cultural shift.

The munhwa ijuja movement spans generations, capturing the imagination of people from their 20s all the way up through retirement age. They come for any number of reasons, some seeking alternative education, others seeking a more peaceful and nature-rich environment to work or retire in. Many hope to escape the high-pressure, high-stress environment of Seoul or the high living expenses of city life and want to live more simply.

Yet the Jeju Culture and Art Foundation is interested in one subset of the munhwa ijuja in particular: artists. The foundation, with funding from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Arts and Culture Education Service, has just finished a seven-month research project examining the influx of Korean artist migrants to Jeju Island. Ko Hee-Song, team leader on the research project, said the foundation only noticed the scale of the influx of artists last year. It was then they decided to engage in a deeper investigation of the motivations behind the artistic migration, as well as how the movement might impact Jeju’s own culture and art scene.

The research involved focus groups, one-on-one interviews and a survey of 97 cultural migrants involved in the arts who had moved to Jeju in the last few years. The majority of these artists appear to be in their 30s or 40s and most are female, though their artistic inclinations span a wide range of genres.

The researchers spoke to writers, painters, filmmakers, playwrights, dancers, musicians, architects, photographers, and those who provide administrative support for the arts. They come from art communities in Seoul, Jeonju, Busan, and Daegu, but flock to the countryside in search of a more peaceful place in which to work, to escape the pressures of the mainland cities, or to challenge their art and have greater independence in their work.

The researchers were particularly interested in examining the relationships between the artist migrants, Jeju artists, and the Jeju community as a whole. A challenge many cultural migrants experience is the feeling of being forever strangers in a not-so-strange land.

In remote areas of the island, where many migrants settle, there is a strong “gwendang” (Jeju dialect for relatives) folk culture, with tight and exclusive inner social circles. Many cultural migrants find they can’t quite integrate themselves into the local social networks. However, despite the fact that many artists report difficulty in making close friendships and network ties, the artists are overall very happy with the Jeju lifestyle.

What has proven a bigger challenge for most artists is simply that the art scene and infrastructure on Jeju is, understandably, much smaller compared to cities like Seoul. Though many came to Jeju specifically to leave those art scenes behind, it does mean that many of the artists reside here with no income and have trouble selling their work.

Neither income nor gwendang culture appear to be a major point of concern for most artists. Many said they did not come to Jeju for financial gain. Rather, they were drawn to Jeju for solitude and a refreshed, peaceful creative space in which to work. Because many of the artists value solitude and creative independence so highly, the Art and Culture foundation found it difficult to accurately estimate just how many artists are here. Yet many also report a desire to connect with other artists on Jeju and create a dialogue.

▲ Shim Bo-Seon, professor at Kyung Hee University, says settlers see the island with “fresh eyes.”

That’s where the Jeju Art and Culture Foundation come in once again. The foundation hopes to support the artists in any way they can and help strengthen network ties between migrant artists, Jeju-native artists, and the Jeju community. Some artists were able to connect through the research focus groups alone, but the foundation hopes to host artist forums, festivals, and events to bring the artist community closer together.

The munhwa ijuja phenomenon is new and the mainland artistic community is only just beginning to establish roots here. The foundation expects the inflow of artists to continue increasing and eventually reshape the Jeju art scene, though exactly how remains to be seen, especially given the challenges of a Jeju art market.

Kyung Hee University professor Shim Bo-Seon, who helped lead the research, concluded our talk with a Korean saying that translates roughly as, “Every town has its own shaman, but the townspeople don’t often recognize it,” meaning the most sacred aspects of a place are often taken for granted by its people. With the surge of artists seeing Jeju with “fresh eyes” and their own artistic vision, the foundation hopes that by creating an artistic network both migrants and Jeju natives can create new works, partnerships, and styles inspired by the island muse that called them here.

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