The Magnum Opus of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Influential Korean American Artist

LOS ANGELES — Since 2017, GYOPO, a nonprofit coalition of diasporic Korean artists, cultural producers, and professionals based in Los Angeles, has been organizing artist talks, screenings, workshops, and other public programs in an effort to provide space for cross-cultural conversations. On Saturday, December 4, the group will host their first in-person event of the year at Meldman Family Cinematic Arts Park, USC School of Cinematic Arts, a marathon reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (Cha’s archive notes that the artist intended the title to be unitalicized, one small example of the ways she bent language into her own form). Cha, an influential Korean American artist and writer, explored the nuances of diaspora, forced migration, language, and time in her sinuous experiments in performance, text, and video. Dictee, her only book, is considered her magnum opus. Tragically, in 1982, one week after the publication of Dictee, Cha was raped and murdered by security guard and serial rapist Joseph Lanza. She was 31 years old.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha at the window of her Berkeley apartment (1979) (photo by James Cha)

“Our motivation is to share Cha’s Dictee, a radical blend of experimental novel, poetry, autobiography, and cultural critique, with a younger generation who may not have had the chance to learn about her,” GYOPO members Yoon Ju Ellie Lee, Crystal Mun-hye Baik, and Yong Soon Min explained to Hyperallergic in an email. An interdisciplinary marvel, there are many ways to read Dictee, as it flits in and out of English, French, Korean, and between poetry, myth, memoir, collage, and photography. Resisting neat categorization, these experiments allow Cha to address the violence embedded within language, history, and gender norms. 

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With support from USC Vision and Voices and in collaboration with Deaf West Theater, Deaf and hearing volunteers will read the entirety of Dictee, simultaneously speaking in ASL and spoken language while pages from the book are projected in the background. A few video works from the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha archive at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) will also be on view. The event will include presentations by John M. Cha, the artist’s brother and biographer, in addition to Laura Hyun Yi Kang, a scholar and Gender Studies professor at UC Irvine, and Lawrence Rinder, a curator and former director of BAMPFA. 

Born in South Korea before emigrating with her family to San Francisco at the age of 12, Cha was deeply marked by her familial history of migration and displacement caused by military dictatorships and numerous colonialisms. She rejected the rules of assimilation, instead drawn to the stories obscured by structural oppressions. Cha’s oeuvre grapples with the inexpressible, enacting what it is like to wade through and process painful histories and memories.  

Cha’s own focus on systemic oppressions necessitates some engagement with her own passing, since the very same racialized, gendered, and sexualized conditions continue to mark our own world. GYOPO points to the “racialized and sexualized murders of Asian American and immigrant women within the public sphere,” including the Atlanta spa shootings in March, and how silence and shaming warps the discourse surrounding these tragedies. While not offering closure in a traditional sense, Cha’s art and writing refuses to look away from the pain, urging us to contend with the ways our society obscures the history of harm against Asian American and immigrant women.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s hands on her typewriter (1981) (photo by James Cha)
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, “It Is Almost That” (1977) (detail); white press-type letters and white pastel on nineteen sheets of black paper; 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches each (University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Memorial Foundation, 1992)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee: A Marathon Reading will take place at Meldman Family Cinematic Arts Park (900 West 34th St, University Park, Los Angeles) on Saturday, December 4, 1–6pm. The event is free; RSVP recommended.


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