Outside Seoul, Gwangju is by far Korea’s most artistically inclined city. Much of this can be ascribed to the fact that it’s the largest city in Jeolla, which during the 1970s and 1980s was a hotbed of political activism; the gruesome massacre of 1980 saw raw emotion splashed onto many a piece of canvas. Regional tensions have long since subsided, meaning that present-day Jeollanese have a little less to say, but it’s still worth taking a stroll through some of the city’s many galleries.
The best place to go hunting is a narrow road in the city centre, affectionately known as Art Street. This is a funky collection of shops and studios selling art materials and works by local artists. There are similar streets in other Korean cities, but this one is larger, much more accessible and forms an active part of the city’s life. Traditional art styles remain dominant but they’re complemented – and sometimes sent up – by a more contemporary set. A few arty cafés and restaurants can be found in or just off the road, though as this area is also Gwangju’s centre of after-school education, the discussions you’ll hear are more likely to be about pop than Picasso. Near the eastern end of Art Street is the contemporary Kunsthalle Gwangju gallery, a regional offshoot of the facility in Seoul, and similarly fashioned entirely from shipping containers. It’s a temporary facility, filling the vacuum left by delays to the still-under-construction Asian Culture Complex, set for completion on an adjoining plot in 2014.
More traditional in nature is the work of Ho Baeknyon (1891–1977). Better known by his pen name Uijae, he was an important painter-poet-calligrapher, and in uniting those fine arts was likely one of the main catalysts behind Gwangju’s dynamic art scene. His old house and tea plantation, as well as a museum (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm) dedicated to his work, stand on the slopes of Mudeungsan (무등산), a pleasant park bordering Gwangju on its eastern side, and easily accessible by bus from the city centre. The most interesting piece on show is a ten-picture folding screen, whose images are said to represent the world’s rainbow of personal characteristics: are you bamboo-, blossom- or orchid-like in temperament?
Lastly, those visiting in the autumn of even-numbered years will be able to attend the Gwangju Biennale (wgb.or.kr), the biggest and most important art festival in the land. Most of the action takes place at a huge dedicated hall north of the train station, and there’s so much to see that even a full day is unlikely to be enough.