ART

Two Artists’ Quest to Free Their Ancestors


Heesoo Kwon and Trina Michelle Robinson each found their way to art because of their interests in memory and ancestry. Robinson was trying to find out about her distant relatives who had been enslaved in Kentucky, and to make them real people, not just lines in a document. Kwon wanted to create a place where her female ancestors, adversely affected by patriarchy and misogyny, could be free. 

That’s why Kwon started her own feminist religion, Leymusoom. She grew up in Seoul, Korea, studied business, and invented packaging for sanitary napkins. Then she realized, despite growing up in a house with her grandmother, mother, and sister, and going to a girls’ school and a women’s college, she was acting out of internalized shame about her body. She set out to change that, taking classes in women’s history and art. She went to the University of California, Berkeley, where she got an MFA and created her religion. 

In a recent show at re.riddle gallery, Kwon’s lenticular light boxes, photography, video, and digital collages showed the reclaiming of the Mago, a matriarchal origin story about a female deity. With her work, Kwon rewrites her history and brings family members along. 

“I don’t want to do this without my ancestors,” she said. “For me, it’s like giving them second lives in my work, and inviting them to see their bodies as free, healthy, and unlimited.”

Robinson also sees what she’s doing as making worlds — ones in which her ancestors are full individuals. Her show Excavation: Past, Present and Future at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora includes photos from a trip to Senegal, an altar, and the short film “Elegy for Nancy” (2022), which she made for a female ancestor. For the most personal photos, taken in places where her great-great-grandfather and her great-great-great-grandfather survived enslavement in Kentucky, she has a personal connection — printing the images on paper she made from cotton sourced from a Black-owned farm.

Still from Trina Robinson’s “Elegy for Nancy” (2022), video (courtesy the artist and MoAd)

Like Kwon, Robinson came out of a different discipline, studying political science and working for years in publishing. She was exploring her family’s story, and after taking a class at the San Francisco Art Institute, made “Meditations of Migrations (2016–2022), a short film about her family’s migration from Kentucky to Ohio. The film screened at some festivals and won awards, and Robinson decided that she wanted to process her stories through art rather than simply collecting them, so she got an MFA from California College of the Arts. 

“I go to these spaces, and I’m kind of creating my own narrative, hoping to fill in these gaps, these fractures of memory,” she said. “I’m hoping to unlock a memory that’s trapped inside my DNA somewhere.”

Robinson and Kwon, who is now the artist-curator at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center, have work in you can hear the wind from beneath the floorboards, an exhibition at San Francisco’s Root Division.

Heesoo Kwon, “Premolt 3” (2022), lenticular light box, 31 x 22 inches (image courtesy the artist and re.riddle)
Heesoo Kwon, “Mago Leymusoom III” (2022), lenticular print, 24 1/2 x 14 inches (image courtesy the artist and re.riddle)
Heesoo Kwon, “Shape of Leymusoom” (2022), lenticular light box, 46 x 88 inches (image courtesy Robert Borsdorf)
Trina Robinson, “Baobab Tree, Senegal” (2022), photopolymer intaglio print on Hahnemuhle copperplate, image: 11 x 12 3/4 inches, paper: 22 inches x 17 inches (courtesy the artist and MoAd)
Trina Robinson, “Refuge” (2022), photopolymer Intaglio print on raw cotton paper made by the artist, image: 6 x 8 inches, paper: 8 1/2 x 11 inches (courtesy the artist and MoAd)
Still from Trina Robinson, “Encoded” (2022), video (courtesy the artist)



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