Che Sehyun’s ‘The Future Ancient’ Embraces Culture Without Borders

by Beverly Aarons

Certain human qualities are innate: the suckling instinct of a newborn baby, eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, a reflexive kick when your knee is thumped. But there are other human qualities that only emerge through collective agreement, or what we call culture: the belief in individualism or the nuclear family, the desire to eat poultry instead of insects, the preference for a hike in the woods or a Saturday night watching football. Beyond the surface, culture shapes the way human groups (and individuals) view the world and their place in it.

But what happens when a culture is disrupted, arrested, or eradicated? What happens when one human group suppresses the culture of another? How then do human beings thrive and remain authentically themselves? In the virtual public art project The Future Ancient, Che Sehyun, a Seattle-based multidisciplinary artist, explores how human beings can reconnect to their ancient cultures and fight for “collective cultural liberation.” I had an opportunity to interview Sehyun via telephone about his project The Future Ancient, practicing culture without borders, and surviving cultural genocide. 

Created in partnership with the Seattle Asian Art museum and the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, The Future Ancient features over 30 Asian Pacific Islander and POC artists and cultural workers and includes an Asian Pacific Islander artists-for-hire roster. Sehyun hopes to inspire viewers “to listen, to respect, and learn from each other’s diverse cultures and backgrounds. And empower folks, inspire folks to really just be themselves and understand who they are, where they come from, and be the center of their cultural futures and collective liberation.”

“Future ancient” is a concept Sehyun originally learned from a friend who insisted that “the secret to the universe was future ancient.” The idea made sense to Sehyun. “I was trying to connect my ancient past and then bring it with me to the future,” Sehyun said. In that process of connection, Sehyun began to understand Koreans as an indigenous people with a 5,000-year-old history rich in ancient traditions and cultural ways of seeing and interacting with the world. He wanted to tap into that, and he wanted others to have the opportunity to tap into their own ancient cultures and incorporate them into their collective futures.

The Future Ancient artist Hanako O’Leary is a Japanese-American sculptor and public artist based in Seattle (Photo: Che Sehyun)

Sehyun was born in Seattle but that hasn’t stopped him from firmly identifying as Korean which he spells with a ‘C’ as a form of protest. He says Japanese colonizers replaced the C with a K to ensure that Korea would not appear before Japan alphabetically. There’s an intensity and confidence in Sehyun’s voice as he recounts Korea’s fight against oppression: Japanese colonization, the Korean War, western religious and cultural dominance. There is also a strong sense of loss — he says his culture was stolen from him. 

“Our cultural heritage is our cultural inheritance,” Sehyun said. “It’s the wealth and wisdom and teachings and way of life that’s been passed down from generation [to generation] over thousands of years to give us the lifestyle and a way of seeing and being that really brings out our best. You know? And I feel like the toxic culture of America is the opposite, you know? Like it makes you full of fear and doubt and judgmental, and it creates all these conditions, like biases and fears and, you know, whatever mental problems.”

Both Sehyun’s parents are Korean, but he grew up feeling disconnected from what it meant to be Korean. Traumatized by the Korean War, many in his parents’ generation set aside indigenous Korean ways and embraced Christianity and a pro-military attitude. Sehyun was left culturally adrift.  

The Future Ancient artist Dee Gamble is a musician and artist born and raised in Kansas and now based in Seattle. (Photo: Che Sehyun)

“The war messed my dad up and his family big time,” Sehyun said. “And he wasn’t really around for my life. … And then my mom, she grew up super Christian and believing that the United States had saved Korean people when they had killed millions of our people.”

Sehyun made it clear that he loves and respects his mom but that her understanding of Korea’s history wasn’t correct or affirming. And when he looked to educational institutions for information, he didn’t find what he needed. Even the Korean War, a major American military conflict, wasn’t mentioned in history classes. 

It wasn’t until college that Sehyun began to reconnect to the history of Korea and its indigenous cultural ways. But even then he relied on secondary sources which left him feeling that he’d lost “having a direct connection to land and a direct connection to our cultural teachers.” For Sehyun, it’s as if he needs to cross a metaphorical border just to connect to what is rightfully his. That border restrains access to his culture and large parts of his family living in North Korea. 

“I’m Korean,” Sehyun said. “And it’s not about just the nation state of South Korea, North Korea, and geographical boundaries. It’s about the culture and kind of consciousness and lifestyle and things that come out of that culture … .”

Sehyun said that the heart of Korean culture is Taoism, Shamanism, and Buddhism. Openness, compassion, awareness, and the ability to remain in the flow of life are the spiritual tenets that guide his daily life, and it’s a culture he can practice intentionally and fully without living in Korea. 

“People in power think globally and work globally,” Sehyun said. “And they have whole systems of oppression setup globally. … In the same way that power extends beyond borders and creates this really strong system. I guess in some ways I’m trying to inspire folks to think of culture in that way. …  Wherever we are, we are creating that [culture]. And it doesn’t exist within a border that anyone can define for us, especially as diasporic people or people living as refugees or immigrants.”

The Future Ancient artist Nahaan is a Traditional T’lingit tattoo artist and cultural practitioner based in Seattle. (Photo: Che Sehyun)

The second episode of The Future Ancient specifically explores what it’s like to be stateless in the United States. For those people, culture must exist without borders because “no border exists for them” and they cannot return to their countries of origin. “When we think about culture within those contexts,” Sehyun said. “It really can’t exist within a border. Otherwise, it won’t exist at all.”

It’s important to understand the difference between cultural genocide and cultural change, Sehyun said. Cultural change comes from within and is a net benefit to the group while cultural genocide is forced upon a group by outsiders. Cultural change is evolution while cultural genocide is death. Sehyun said that people trying to survive cultural genocide must be intentional about the cultural practices they embrace if they want to thrive.

“The culture we’re in is oppositional,” Sehyun said. “We need to create one that is harmonious and life-giving and nurturing. And I believe that has already existed in our past. And so we just need to find the blueprint and make it into the present for our futures.”

The Channel, which is a part of the Future Ancient project, can be viewed on YouTube

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.

Featured image: “Korean contemporary lyrical dance, ‘the flower, So-Hwa’s dream’ choreography by MiYoung Margolis. Dancers: Christie LeeKanghee LimMiyoung Seul MargolisParmida ZiaeiTatiana Linardopoulou. (Photo: Che Sehyun)

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