Exhibition

Maia Ruth Lee: Once we leave a place is it there

February 23 – May 6, 2024

The Institute of Fine Arts is pleased to present Once we leave a place is it there, a solo exhibition featuring new work by artist Maia Ruth Lee (b.1983, Busan, South Korea). The Spring 2024 iteration marks the return to in-person exhibitions since the start of the pandemic and proudly continues the Institute’s Great Hall Exhibition series’ commitment to celebrating the practices of exemplary women artists. The exhibition is especially animated by the goal of highlighting the practices and scholarship of women of color both within and beyond the field of art history. Public programming will prioritize academic and artistic dialogues on the topics of migration, diaspora, and decolonization.

Born in Busan, South Korea, and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal, Lee immigrated to the United States in 2011 and lived in New York City before settling in Colorado with her family in 2020. Shaped by her lived experiences of migration, Lee explores the friction and fragmentation that arises from assimilation through dislocation, alongside larger themes of community, borders, and language. The exhibition title, Once we leave a place is it there, is drawn from Myung Mi Kim’s collection of poems, Under Flag (1991). Echoing Kim’s reflection on her journey as an immigrant, Lee considers the various meanings of a flag: as a symbol of a nation, a token of imperialism, and a marker of one’s identity and spirituality.

At the center of the exhibition is Bondage Baggage Banner (2024), a newly commissioned installation—featuring freestanding sculptures, banners, and an offering table—that brings to life marginalized histories within the historic architecture of the Institute’s Marica Vilcek Great Hall. The sculptures and painted banners reflect Lee’s experimentation with different mediums in her Bondage Baggage series (2018-ongoing), a core practice in her oeuvre. The sculptures, which serve as a central starting point, are modeled after the luggage of migrant workers in Nepal, characterized by their similar net-like tying of tarp, rope, and tape. As a continuation of her Bondage Baggage series, Lee applies ink to the surface of the sculpture, which is made of fabric tightly bundled together with rope. She then cuts the rope once the pigments have dried, transforming the sculpture into a painting. Once the metaphorical “baggage” is released from its bondage, the painting reveals the traces of rope and fabric creases, evocative of the simultaneously collective and individual experiences of migration.

In the installation, five of these vibrant banners, individually painted in black, white, yellow, blue, and red, all flow down to a jesa-sang, a Korean offering table for ancestors. The five hues constitute obangsaek, the five cardinal directions and elements in Korean culture, summoning the ancestors—who have been historically pushed to the periphery—back to the center. Lee’s sculptures constitute an offering in place of the sumptuous fruits and dishes that typically adorn the jesa-sang. Blending traditions from Korean jesa with public offerings quintessential to Buddhist monasteries in Nepal, Lee’s Bondage Baggage Banner invites the audience to participate by placing an object of their choice on the table. In this way, visitors may partake in its gradual metamorphosis by honoring their own ancestors, migrants known and unknown, as well as personal reckonings with rootlessness.

Maia Ruth Lee (b.1983, Busan, South Korea) is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice spans painting, sculpture, photography, and video. She attended Hongik University in Seoul, Korea, and Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada. Lee has had solo exhibitions at the Tina Kim Gallery (NY), Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (CO), and François Ghebaly Gallery (LA). She has participated in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and an array of group exhibitions at the Aspen Art Museum (CO), Fotografiska New York, Gio Marconi Gallery (Milan), and Mai 36 Galerie (Zurich). Lee was awarded the Gold Art Prize in 2021 and the Rema Hort Mann Grant in 2017. Her work is held in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This exhibition was made possible through the generous support of Valeria NapoleoneXX.

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