Cover South Korean artist Qwaya talks to Tatler about his first overseas exhibition in Hong Kong (Photo: Seoul Auction)

The up-and-coming South Korean artist talks to Tatler about his first exhibition overseas, his creative process and working on South Korean indie rock band, Jannabi's "Legend" album cover

Qwaya is one of South Korea's top up-and-coming artists––with his artworks filled with vibrant colours of human figures showing vague expressions have garnered interest and capturing the curiosity of many. Despite this distinctive flavour and pattern in his works that are steadily making their way into the Korean art scene, Qwaya didn't actually start off as an artist. Upon graduating from university in 2016, he majored in fashion design and worked in the design field after.

But he soon discovered that the fashion industry is different from what he expected. Qwaya then set his sights on pursuing something that he has been enjoying since he was young: art. A year after graduating, Qwaya already participated in a group exhibition at the Seoul Museum of Art titled, moho project. 2020 proved to be a big year for the rising artist holding two of his most notable exhibitions, Knock Knock in Ryse Hotel, Seoul and Ordinary People in 2Gil29 Gallery.

The exhibition, Zero Base x Hong Kong at the Korean Cultural Centre in Hong Kong which runs from March 24 to April 24, marks the artist's first exhibition overseas and also showcases the work of other emerging Korean artists. Qwaya speaks to Tatler about his first venture outside of his native Korea, his creative process and designing for the South Korean indie rock band, Jannabi's Legend album cover.

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Congratulations on your first overseas exhibition! What makes this exhibition different from the others?

The three artworks included in the Zero Base x Hong Kong have been specifically selected for this Hong Kong exhibition. They have been newly created in the second half of 2020. I personally think it means a lot to me as this is my first overseas exhibition. These works are displayed publicly for the first time and in Hong Kong. I have great memories from my trip to Hong Kong; thus, I am especially delighted to have my work displayed in this city.

What does your name, Qwaya mean and why did you choose this name instead of using your own name?

I like the name my parents picked for me but I thought it would be nice to introduce myself with the name I picked for myself. When I was thinking about the name that can represent the story I want to tell, I made up the name “Qwaya” by combining the hanja (Chinese characters that are used in Korean) "gwaya" and the letter "Q". "Gwaya" means overnight, while “Q” can stand for words such as quiet and quest. It might look fancy when you put them into words but instead of giving it a deep meaning, I simply thought it would be exciting to work with a different name.

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You describe seeing your work as “ordinary”, but convey deep meaning and values, what can people take away from seeing your “ordinary” work?

"Ordinary" can be something very personal. The story that is personal to me or someone else can both be ordinary and universal. Instead of giving my artworks a particular meaning or value, I think it's more meaningful if someone can relate to my story and what I wanted to portray. It'll be amazing and more valuable to have people outside of Korea, people of different ethnicities and nationalities to see beyond the "ordinary" in their own way.

How or where do you find inspiration to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary?

I find inspirations from different places. I make up new stories based on the things that I see and the things I experience. It could be the stories of my friends, the stories that I hear elsewhere or the various stories that I see, hear and feel in my own life. I work on reinterpreting these stories into my own, personal stories. I believe that two-dimensional artwork has the power to keep the very little moments for a very long time. This simple process transforms something ordinary into something extraordinary.

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It'll be amazing and more valuable to have people outside of Korea, people of different ethnicities and nationalities to see beyond the "ordinary" in their own way

You said that telling stories is something you’d like to explore in your work, is there a particularly personal story that you’d like to depict?

Instead of portraying a particular story, I want to put different moments that we easily forget yet we try to hold on to and keep for a long time in my work. I want to stack up these stories one by one and turn them into a book.

A common motif in your work are the vibrant colours and human figures with ambitious expressions, what’s the reason for this?

For me, every colour has its own beauty and every colour has its own character. The way colours are put together also creates a new character. When I'm working on my paintings, despite the colours I see, what I feel is different and that feeling is more honest so I combine the two. People in my paintings mostly lack facial expression because it's honest. It takes effort to smile or to put on a specific facial expression so I decided to do something that's natural and comfortable for anyone who looks at my work.

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What thoughts go through your head when you start creating an artwork?

I think being truthful comes before anything else. Even though my artworks look a little bit vague, it's important to include elements that are necessary for my story and not force myself to add something unnecessary for the sake of it. Sometimes it is better to simply allow creativity to flow than overthinking but it's not always easy to do so.

One of your most well-known work is designing the cover of Jannabi’s Legend album, what was the creative process like for that project?

The same process applies to every collaboration that I've done. We'd first have a full discussion on the project before I turn it into an artwork. Communication is the most important part of any collaboration because I'm not the only one telling a story wholly about myself. It's important to listen to the other persons’ story and take a look at their own way of putting their story onto the canvas. It's hard to rephrase other persons’ story in my own word but at the same time, I also gain the same amount of joy.

What can viewers take away from your exhibition in Hong Kong?

I think my artwork is not complete unless they leave my hands. People add on new stories with their own kind of methods and that add up together to make it a complete artwork. I hope people enjoy my work by imagining and feeling rather than thinking that they should intentionally be getting something out of it.

Zero Base x Hong Kong runs from March 24–April 24 at the Korean Cultural Centre in Hong Kong, 7 Floor, 35 Aberdeen Street, Block B, PMQ, Central, Hong Kong.