Seeing the Unseen

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke

Sometimes one’s art is simply how one lives. Che Sehyun practices many disciplines, from competitive lacrosse and martial arts to youth education and grant-funded international travel. He graduated from the University of Washington with a triple major in English, physiology and comparative history of ideas. He’s a student of world religion and shamanism. He takes photos, makes videos, writes and performs music. But none of those endeavors is the sum of his work; he is a work in progress, and that progress is his art. Perhaps that’s what the Neddy committee recognized last year when they awarded him the prize in Open Medium, despite his relative newness to the fine-art scene.

It seems like you parachuted into the Neddy win and hit the ground running. It’s been cool seeing you navigating the arts economy and its professional relationships in real time.
I was an educator before. I was working with kids and I kept finding that art was the best way to engage young people, to develop them holistically. I’ve always had this sense that school was only a little part of the equation. People have a family life, friends, their own calling or purpose. They have community. All these things they don’t really cover in school. Life skills. I’m having to learn finance and taxes and being creative with all that stuff. I never really had strong parent figures to tell me this is how it is in a job or a workplace. I’ve had different mentors, but I always rebelled.

The Neddy changed a lot of things, helped me believe in myself as an artist, where I could do this for a living versus a hobby. And then thinking about what I want to do with my life. I think the heart of it now is me discovering who I am, what my family history is like, what my ancestral history is like.

And what’s that like?
I studied Buddhism in college, and I got deeper into it and started learning about my own history. Then I started learning about Taoism and now shamanism. Oh my gosh, these stories and these ways of seeing the world and these concepts and values are so profound! They say you don’t need to reinvent the wheel; people have already figured out what it means to live a life of purpose, what the real values are that help promote true goodness in the community.

For example, I don’t believe in justice anymore. I used to be all about social justice and an activist when I was in college. But a lot of times justice now feels like revenge. Shamanism promotes harmony instead of justice, where even after some incident happened, you still remain accountable, you still have these relations and you still want it to be good afterward. You don’t want bitterness or resentment or regret or hatred after things are “solved.”

In shamanism you don’t really look at skin color. It’s not about the features, it’s about your spirit. And the spirit, in the very basic sense, is the unseen. So when I talk about the spiritual life and my music and my art, on a very basic level, it’s just seeing beyond the surface, beyond the reflection of the light, seeing deeper inside. These ancient values, there’s a lifestyle built around them and that’s what I’m trying to do with my art, where now I realize what it means to have a culture and be a part of a culture and try to influence culture.

Your art isn’t work that exists purely as something beautiful to hang on your wall, as some ornament. Your art is your life and your mission.
I’d love to make art that influences the globe. That’s the silver lining of global domination [laughter]. The same forces that are trying to dominate and take over everything are the same ones building bridges to connect everybody. Being in America, as much as I have problems with how racist and capitalist and misogynist [this place is], I feel blessed to be here because I get to learn from so many different cultures. I get to live with Native people and learn from them. I have friends who are Black and Latino and they’re in touch with who they are. I want to make art that speaks to kind of a global consciousness because that’s the direction the world is heading—and our consciousness needs to match that, so we don’t keep screwing over everything and everybody.

Che Sehyun performs at Upstream Music Fest with Storme Webber on June 1 and with the G’ma Project on July 7 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.