By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, June 8, 2023 — This spring, the Center for Korean Studies (CKS) held its first competition for undergraduate artistic projects related to the “comfort women” of World War II.
The women — principally young girls and young women from Korea, Taiwan, China and the Philippines — were either tricked or forced into working in brothels (euphemistically named “comfort stations”) that served soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific War. Issues of accountability and the sociocultural consequences of their traumatic servitude continue to animate relationships between Japan, other nations of the Pacific and groups that advocate for recognition of the victims in countries around the world.
Fifteen undergraduate Bruins who were enrolled at UCLA as of spring 2023 submitted projects, which spanned sculpture, poetry, drawings, paintings and multimedia videos. Harnessing imagination and creativity to historical facts, the competition provided students a unique educational experience that will hopefully leave an enduring impression on them and inform others about the topic.
On May 31, CKS held a relaxed ceremony at which it conferred awards on six student winners. In keeping with the community awareness goal of the competition, several participants in the competition were non-Korean and two were young men. All submissions were displayed either on one wall of the International Institute’s main meeting room (10383 Bunche) or as a slide presentation projected on two large screens, or both.
CKS Director Namhee Lee, an historian of modern Korea, welcomed the students and gave them a brief background of the Center for Korean Studies and the competition. She gave deep thanks to Professor Jennifer Jung-Kim, who organized the competition, and then introduced Phyllis Kim (UCLA 2000), executive director of Comfort Women Action for Redress & Education (CARE, formerly the Korean American Forum of California), who, as Lee put it, “has been at the forefront of community action and educating the general public about this issue for the last 10 years.”
“It is only through education that we can write the history and hand down the memory to the next generation so that the same history does not get repeated,” said the CARE executive director, who promised to upload her photos of student submissions to the organization's website.
Jung-Kim then presented the awards and invited all students who participated in the competition to speak a little about their work. Senior Violet Miso Ko, a psychobiology major with an interest in medicine, won first place and a cash award of $500 for her striking “Flowing Tears” sculpture.
“Some of my inspiration came from the 9/11 Memorial: how the flow of water [in the monument in New York City] represents the void that you can never fill in,” said Ko. “I tried to incorporate that into my piece, and the sense of the void and the trauma that should not be forgotten by us. I also wanted to represent the flow of water as a contrast to something stagnant, to represent the change that I want to see in the future where such atrocities are not committed.”
Second prize, and a $300 cash award, were awarded to two students: Joyce Kim for her illustration, “Hope of the Young Girl,” and Rainer Lee for his poem, “I Will Speak Still.” Lee, a third-year Bruin majoring in English, was unable to attend, but his powerful poem spoke by itself. It begins with: “Once./ Peace./ Anger hardens to a walnut in the hollow of my chest, a lump never comfortable./ Silence kill; you know. They did, they too/ To us/ From us.”
Kim, a first-year student majoring in education and social transformation, described her project this way: “This piece is shown from the perspective behind young girl leaving her hometown as she is taken away to a comfort station. Following her is a path of butterflies symbolizing the memory of previous comfort women who passed, but still live on. Her life is represented by the yellow butterfly that flies on her shoulder, as she fades way into the distance holding onto her hope.”
First prize–winner Violet Miso Ko speaks about her sculpture.
Third prize, and cash awards of $150 apiece, were awarded to “The Resilience of Women” a two-frame drawing by Annika Brucia, a first-year public affairs major; “Grandma,” an illustration and bilingual poem by Chaeeun Jang, a fine arts major; and “Poetry Inspired by Stories of ‘Comfort Women,’” a four-panel written word and graphics piece by Donya Noubahrestan, an international development studies major.
Photos of the winning visual projects are shown above; and the winning poem can be accessed below. All student submissions in the competition will be posted on the CKS website later this month.
A permanent endowment created with a anonymous gift received in 2022 supports the annual CKS competition, as well as faculty creative works, an online archive, and research and programming on the comfort women at UCLA.
Read Lanier Lee's poem here.
All event photos by Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.