Chun Doo-Hwan: Drawing a Monster

Chun Doo Hwan was still the South Korean dictator when I arrived in 1987. I was a soldier. I was young. My only interest in politics at the time was political cartoons. I particularly loved the portraitists. They could fuck around with an image to the point where the subject and the portrait do not resemble each other, and yet the depiction had a degree of clarity no formal portrait would ever carry.

Chun Doo Hwan was and is a douchebag. And a murderer. When I drew the above portrait, I tried to stay loyal to the original image as well as I could, only lampooning his mouth and jawline. This changes the subject radically and obscures Chun to the point where the source image really bears no relationship to my depiction. Why? Photographs lie.

All nice, but that is still not my problem. I am a white, middle-aged dude drawing someone of another race. Yes, I lived in South Korea for eight years, and I love and respect Korean culture and art and food, but how can I draw someone who is not a member of my race and not come across as a racist? It is hard.

The problem is race-fetishization. There is no clear approach to this problem. I have drawn other Asian politicians and celebrities before. However, I don’t stick to only drawing Koreans. I draw hundreds of people as long as those persons have something to do with my overall project, or like in this case, for a workshop I’m a member of. If there is a pattern that sticks out in my art, I draw mostly other white dudes.

This does not mean I am not a racist. Not even close.

The problem is, am I focusing on or fetishizing over one person and seeking to oppress Asians as a collective through my art? I hope not, but I recognize that it can happen.

So I take a couple of steps to avoid the cliches typical to racist depictions of whomever I am drawing. In this case, I kept Chun’s eyes, nose, forehead, and hairline as correct as possible. His ears are pretty close, even though I did simplify them. I also decided to keep Chun’s teeth and lips proportional to the grotesque way I exaggerated his smile and overall mouth shape. Cartoonists exaggerate, it’s what we do, but we have to do it intentionally and we have to exaggerate in ways that are honest to the subject’s character and personal history without delving into their race.

Chun is a monster, but what I always felt revolted by was the lie in his mouth. His smile was not natural to his face or demeanor. He is a guy where smiles don’t work because he doesn’t do it often—kind of like Dick Cheney.

There is no easy way to cartoon and not repeat the racist cliches and tropes that were once common-place to political cartooning. I have to respect and understand the culture of the person I am depicting, and at the same time, I have to be honest not only to the subject but to myself and the people I know and love in South Korea.

Honestly, Chun is a monster. An ancient kind of monster.

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