By Tiffany Chang
Art by Maanasi Shyno
Content warning: This piece contains acknowledgments of the femicide, rape, and sexual assault of late Korean-American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.
Twenty-eight black and white photographs document the late artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s A BLE WAIL, a ritual performance staged at a 1975 exhibition of her early work at U.C. Berkeley’s Worth Rider Gallery. One of these images illuminates her kneeling robed figure with her arms clasped in prayer. From the slight overexposure of the image, a halo of light emerges around her head. She looks like a saint or a prophet receiving the words of God.
The religious resonance of Theresa’s pose invites associations with her most famous written work Dictee, which interrogates the image of a good Korean Christian constructed by the joint forces of French Catholic missionaries and American colonization.
I can even imagine her voice narrating her performance with the passages she wrote in her book. I envision her speaking directly to the White missionaries, who expected obedience from the Korean Christians kneeling at the Masses they held in Seoul.
Theresa has even eaten the body of Christ, made her body a willing receptacle for his sacrifice, saying, “Black ash from the Palm Hosannah. Ash. Kneel down on the marble the cold beneath rising through the bent knees. Close eyes and as the lids flutter, push out the tongue.” 
Within her image, Theresa carries the tripartite weight of a Judeo-Christian prophet, a Korean shaman, and a Joseon-era kisaeng. In unpacking the religious histories embedded in this image, the audience of this fragmentary record may pay homage to the groundbreaking Korean artist whose violent death was eerily foreshadowed by her work’s devotion to martyred women. Her performance creates a work of beauty from Korea’s religious colonization. It invites us to reflect on how we might engage in worship while refusing to stay obedient to the legacies of white supremacy. For if Theresa’s refusal to equate her performance of religious rituals to rituals of obedience to the West can be found anywhere, it is in the secret histories she imparts to her audience.
Flooding Korea with missionaries from the early 20th century, French Catholics wove themselves into Korean studies before they did its culture. While most of Korea’s Confucian scholars had only a passing interest in Jesuit literature, some were taken in by its charms. Shunned by the Vatican for practicing jesa, the traditional Korean rites for the dead, and feeling increasingly alienated from the continuing evolution of Korea’s spiritual traditions, Korean Catholics trod a controversial and persecuted path. And yet when the Japanese colonized Korea, half of the signatories to Korea’s new Declaration of Independence in 1919 were Christians. Imperial Japan gave even the most French Catholic of the Koreans something new to kneel for in secret.
In the A BLE WAIL photographs, Theresa’s hands are clasped in prayer, but she is not an obedient Christian. Reverent Christians illuminate their faces with the light which emanates from their holy altars. They don’t obscure themselves in shadow and hide the piety of their expressions from the Lord. “True” Christians (or Catholics, with all their love of ritual), pray to actual relics, or saints, if not directly to God himself. They don’t pray to white walls in a cold and sterile room, lit only by the capricious flares of candlelight.
John the Apostle warns us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (John 4:1). Theresa’s mysterious persona, wreathed in priestly white robes and a gauzy head sash which trails alongside her hair to touch the floor, challenges her audience to beware this false prophet. Would you follow a prophet who prays to nothing? If her image of a good Christian takes you in, Theresa’s performance successfully replicates Koreans’ hoodwinking of the French Catholic missionaries, who unwittingly sowed the seeds of hope in Korea’s future independence fighters.
Today, critical reception of her work still seizes upon metaphors of shamanism — that mystical word of the Orient that’s the closest thing existing in English to calling these Asian women witches. Martin Patrick of the Krannert Art Museum in Illinois says that “[t]he quasi-mystical procedures of Cha’s performances recall certain aspects of traditional Korean Shamanism, which features women priests (mudang) conducting rituals incorporating trance possession” (Patrick). Cha, a perpetual American outsider to the Korean heritage she spent her brief yet brilliant artistic life honoring, would probably not have resented such a comparison.
But as a Korean American daughter who, like Theresa, grew up in California, I see something else. When I see her frozen stills of prayer in this unrecorded performance, all I see is the tentative way my younger self fell into Sunday school church rituals at the bequest of my Christian Korean grandparents. Seeing her, my body is instantly reminded of how I got abruptly pulled out of my Christian future of kneeling when my distinctly un-Christian Korean mother learned that the stories of Jesus’ bloody sacrifice gave me nightmares that I too would one day be called upon to sacrifice my body for a God whose love I never learned how to feel.
Theresa’s performance is a Rorschach test. Whether you see it as a failed experiment in Korean American Christianity or the legacy of shamanist folk tradition, the ambivalence of its interpretations is an apt metaphor for diaspora artists tasked with creating culture from cobbled-together historical motifs.
Like Theresa, I’ve inherited an attraction to aesthetic spiritual muddling from those Korean Catholics who refused to give up jesa even at the cost of acceptance by the Vatican. So let us return to this false prophet, this woman who stays out of place even in this heroic story of proud Catholics. A self-proclaimed artist, filmmaker, and author in California before the new Millennium, she is no daughter to those French Catholic Koreans, although her name is both French (Theresa) and Korean (Hak Kyung). Although she is long since gone, she is what they call avant-garde, an artist of her time. So what is she kneeling for here? Still, after all these years?
Unlike art critics like Martin Patrick, I’m completely fine with the reality that Theresa doesn’t have to be a shaman or an obedient Christian to be a damn good performer. We even have a traditional role for female performers of ritual dance and song who kept Korean indigenous traditions alive despite increasing pressures to assimilate their art into the dominant aesthetics of a more powerful culture (in this instance, the Tang Dynasty rather than the European West): the kisaeng.
Kisaengs were female performers of a “lowborn class” who served in the King’s Court Entertainment Bureau to entertain government officials and visiting ambassadors with the arts of song and dance. Kisaengs are often sensationalized in Korean dramas as seductresses or prostitutes, making their contributions to traditional Korean literature and ritual performances largely overlooked. But one needs only to peruse the story of the kisaeng Hongdo (Lustrous Peach), whose composition of a poem about her life as a caged parrot so moved her employer that he allowed her to recuse herself from her duties to the palace, to sense the raw strength of their literary prowess. Kisaengs were freedom fighters because their performances of beauty were inextricably intertwined with their fundamentally political livelihoods. Nongae, a kisaeng serving the palace during the Hideyoshi Invasion, even killed an inebriated Japanese general on one of her nights of employment - further evidencing that the kisaengs’ politics were ever-present in the palace intrigue that governed the conditions of their art. 
Unlike the solitary figure that Theresa cuts against the darkness, kisaengs exist as a multitude. With “lemon-colored jackets and crimson skirts,” they give off “clouds of perfumed hair” in their “beautiful silks” as they enchant audiences with harmonies on their zithers and panpipes. There’s the performance of the Drum Dance, in which two kisaeng circle each other to the steady yet quickening pace of a drum. We yearn for them to touch even as they deftly avoid each other in their endless circling. There’s also the Dance of the Nine Weavings, in which 12 kisaeng line up in flowing red robes and play a Ball-Throwing game in which they launch projectiles, with streamers streaking behind them like a comet’s celestial journey, towards a small, netted goal.
Had Theresa been able to fully embrace the ghostly company of her kisaeng brethren, perhaps she would not be so lonely performing and writing for audiences who interpreted her work through a binary of Orientalist tropes or heavily Westernized references. In Dictee, Theresa’s most famous written work, she rewrites the Western canon by retelling the story of the Nine Muses of art and literature. Recasting herself, her mother, and iconic female martyrs such as Jeanne D’Arc in the place of the Muses, Theresa allows her body to become a receptacle for Western histories in a desperate bid for the West to finally hear the voices of the marginalized.
When Theresa wrote in Dictee that “[s]he allows others. In place of her. Admits others to make full. Make swarm. All barren cavities to make swollen. The others each occupying her. When the amplification stops there might be an echo,” there is also room for a different interpretation. Rather than expanding the Western canon so that it may be allowed to greedily swallow stories from outside its geographic sphere, reading Theresa’s work through the history of the kisaengs allows her to become the vessel for a different type of history. Perhaps now, Theresa may reach out to the kisaengs preceding her whose stories live on through the Korean diaspora she’s created for the Korean American artists who follow her.
If I had to choose the ritual role that Theresa seeks to revive in this performance, it would be the role of the kisaeng and not the Judeo-Christian prophet. Not just for her freedom fighting spirit, but also for her acute sense that the horizons of her artistic freedom exist within a state of entrapment. Hongdo’s parrot poem illustrates the cost of beauty in a world destined to appropriate it for the ends of the powerful:
“Around its collar it wears indigo and green, and its beak is cinnabar red. All because it knew how to talk it got caught up in the net…Words long used to hearing it can repeat with skill, but newly acquired palace language it pronounces wrong. Imprisoned in a jade cage, no way to escape.”
Words are too powerful for such living vessels of beauty to contain — or so the kisaengs’ powerful overlords say. Our imperial officials told the kisaengs to shut it down, telling them not to boast of their jewels and silks lest they tempt the masculine propriety of the scholars who safeguard the future of the Korean nation. So they packed it up and went home, leaving us haunted by what their art could have done to transform the palaces churches cathedrals museums schools we learn from these days. And now Theresa, the last of them, is relegated to going through the motions of a dance which perpetually reproduces a culture stripped of its history, frozen in time through a fading set of photographs.
Father, forgive me for I have sinned. Our final act of penitence to the lost arts of these kisaeng comes only in the truth. And what a haunting truth it is. Theresa was raped and murdered right before the publication date of the book which made her famous in America. To call her death violent seems an understatement, to mention it at all an act of blasphemy, to omit it altogether a historical erasure. There is no artistic solace for the continued violation of women like Theresa in this world. There is only the cold reality of her loss.
Apart from the words of her family and friends, her art persists in little fragments that people like me scavenge for clues about her art. Her friend Sandy says, “Her voice was like breath…You had to get close. That’s how she drew you in.” Pulitzer Prize finalist Cathy Park Hong says that her voice is “both fragile and chilling, tranquil and eerie – like wetting the rim of a water glass and rubbing the rim until you hear the glass sing.” National Book Award finalist Minjin Lee says “my admiration for her is her sense of entitlement.”
If I’m being honest, my admiration for Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is not so different from the admiration these other prominent Korean women have felt for her throughout the generations. Perhaps we want to manipulate her image and project our desires onto her because we need a savior. I want to make a living through my art but I don’t want to die like her. I don’t want to die at the hands of a white man whose violence will always overshadow every history I excavate and every meaning I revive from the dead. I don’t want to kneel, even if kneeling doesn’t have to be a display of obedience to a God I don’t believe in. I refuse to be an obedient subject, even if my body bears the cost of disobedience. I want nothing more than to be a bad Christian.
 Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung, Dictee, (Univ of California Press, 2001), 13.
 Chambers, Evan, RE-OPENING ‘DICTÉE’: INTERPRETING THE VOID IN THERESA CHA’S REPRESENTATIONS OF CHRISTIANITY, (Religion & Literature, 2012), 129.
 Chambers, REOPENING DICTEE, 130.
 McCarthy, Kathleen Louise, Kisaeng in the Koryo period, (Harvard University, 1991),
 McCarthy, Kathleen Louise, Kisaeng in the Koryo period, (Harvard University, 1991), 12.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 12.
 Cha, Dictee.
 Hongdo in McCarthy, Kisaeng, 37.
 Saltzstein, Dan, Overlooked No More: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Artist and Author Who Explored Identity, (The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2022).
 Hong, Cathy Park, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, (One World, 2020), 118.
 Salzstein, 2022.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. Univ of California Press, 2001.
Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. “Photograph 9 from A BLE W AIL.” UC Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 1975, http://oac-upstream.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/tf1g50012k/?order=11&brand=oac4.
Chambers, Evan. “RE-OPENING ‘DICTÉE’: INTERPRETING THE VOID IN THERESA CHA’S REPRESENTATIONS OF CHRISTIANITY.” Religion & Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, 2012, pp. 123-46, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24397672. Accessed 13 Apr. 2022.
Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World, 2020.
McCarthy, Kathleen Louise. Kisaeng in the Koryo period. Harvard University, 1991.
Patrick, Martin. “Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.” Frieze.
Saltzstein, Dan. “Overlooked No More: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Artist and Author Who Explored Identity.” The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/07/obituaries/theresa-hak-kyung-cha-overlooked.html