kimura byol-nathalie lemoine’s life has been continually unfolding in the centre of a series of concentric circles. The self-confessed South Korean intersex was adopted and raised in Belgium, lived in Seoul for 13 years, and has made Montreal home since 2006. For more than 30 years, this award-winning multimedia artist has focused on video, writing and Pop art calligraphy to give voice and visibility to minorities.
Zer* film portfolio consists mainly of video shorts, sometimes lightweight, sometimes heavy. A good example is Hairy, where kimura byol-nathalie lemoine explores how ze would feel by adding more hair to zer body, calling the very concept of masculinity and hair for the stereotypical Asian male into question.
Couilles (testicles) is a nod to zer own intersexuality, a pan shot of a white girl with Caucasian curves and iPhone headphones between the buttocks symbolizing small white balls. “I’ve been criticized for not showing my own body, but I really think that would have been just too easy….”
kimura byol-nathalie lemoine’s clear and assertive artistic vision is certainly not for everyone. “Lots of producers and industry people have criticized me for not making so-called real movies. That’s because I’m not part of the big money machine. I’m not into making big production, recognizable films. What I’m into is making punchlines on video.”
Zer small jabs at straight conventions have been shown in a multitude of queer, feminist, Asian, and general public festivals across Canada, the US, Europe, and Asia.
In spite of all this visibility, some decision-makers are turning their backs on kimura byol-nathalie lemoine’s art, claiming that this way of dealing with queer issues is too subtle. “In many queer festivals, the tendency is to feature a lot of sexuality, bodies, and fluids, but being gay is not limited to that. I understand that people like to do this, and I also like to watch it, but there’s also the matter of dealing with the subtleties of everyday life. The LGBTQ+ audience should be given the opportunity to experience different perspectives as well.”
In a fictional scenario that kimura byol-nathalie lemoine was recently working on, some relatively muscular exchanges were necessary to avoid cliché. “I had to put up a real fight to include a gay character who’s not effeminate. Since I love bears, I decided the character would be a bear. We’re still going to talk about sexuality, but only because it makes sense in the story.”
Describing zerself as Asian, adopted, intersex, atypical, activist and archivist, kimura byol-nathalie lemoine also uses the words like asocial, introverted and solitary to complete the self-portrait.
If zer temperament encourages working solo, the art world has also had a major influence on the choices ze has made. “I worked as part of a team on the 6261 documentary, which received support from the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the NFB. Some people criticized me for not knowing anything about cinema and insulted me as well for good measure. I understand that we can disagree and have arguments, but I simply won’t put up with gratuitous nastiness. On my next project, I worked alone, camera, sound, and editing.”
kimura byol-nathalie lemoine’s origins have also had an impact on zer place in an arts community still dominated by white people. “When you’re the only Black, Arab, Latino, Indigenous, or Asian in a group and have issues, you’re often the only one to stand up for them. Visible minorities don’t have much power. That’s also why I chose to work solo. I can’t be bothered defending myself all the time and proving that everything I say has merit.”
Who is ze anyway?
Understanding zer identity, zer preferences, and zer relationship to the rest of the world has gradually evolved over several decades.
And art has often been the preferred tool for getting there. kimura byol-nathalie lemoine regularly skipped school at lunchtime to go to the movies. “I’d often stay until the 8:00 pm show without buying another ticket. But I was the only Asian in the cinema and much taller than average. So, it was easy for employees to spot me.”
Despite a driving passion for the seventh art, the young kimura byol-nathalie lemoine never imagined finding a place for zerself there. “I always read the interviews with actors in Première magazine and dreamt about it but couldn’t see myself actually making films. I had other priorities and really didn’t think I had any stories worth telling.”
The winds of change
In the summer of 1988, kimura byol-nathalie lemoine heard about a competition for apprentice filmmakers. Contestants had to submit a project on the theme of Being Young in Europe Today. “I had never written a screenplay before and didn’t even know the format, so I wrote a 30-minute poem about how I felt as an Asian in Europe instead. My idea was selected, and the Wallonia-Brussels Multimedia Centre provided me with a team of student wannabe filmmakers.”
Cutting the poem into sequences, they were able to create Adoption, an experimental film without dialogue. Despite being proud of making zer first film, kimura byol-nathalie lemoine had another idea in mind at the time. “The Summer Olympics were being held that same year in Seoul, South Korea. That was something I really wanted to see. I thought that maybe it was time to find my birth mother and, if my film became known, maybe she would see it.”
kimura byol-nathalie lemoine’s wishes came true in spades. In addition to winning first prize in the Being Young in Europe Today film competition, Adoption also attracted major attention in South Korea. “I was invited to the South Korean embassy to screen my film, but they didn’t like it because I was critical of their country. Fortunately, they still invited me to South Korea anyway, along with 23 other adopted South Koreans from a number of other countries to show us how great their country was. I took the opportunity to get tons of footage with my Super 8 camera.”
A step-by-step quest
If Belgium was where ze began questioning zer identity as an adoptee in a Western nation, zer time in South Korea from 1993 to 2006 was where ze leaned that zer father was Japanese and to understand that ze had a place in the LGBTQ+ community. “An openly lesbian classmate of one of my roommates invited us to some gay bars. We went along out of curiosity. Then one day I found out my roommate had a crush on me. While I felt no sexual desire for her, we did have a lot in common since we were both adopted and raised in Europe. One thing led to another and I thought I might be bisexual. When I started having real feelings for another girlfriend, I thought I was a lesbian. Up until then I had hardly ever given my sexuality a second thought.”
kimura byol-nathalie lemoine was forced to emigrate again because of the way the LGBTQ+ community was being treated in South Korea. “I’d probably still be living there if I hadn’t come up against such outright homophobia. I lost my job because of it and was also assaulted. I had no choice but to find another place to live.”
That other place turned out to be Montreal, a city where ze felt free to acknowledge and embrace zer intersexuality. “After sorting out everything else about where I came from, I started to explore my gender identity. The city opened my mind and gave me a kind of spatial and mental freedom to really think things out.”
Funding with a bias
Some 15 years after settling in Montreal, sexual and cultural minority issues still remain at the core of zer work. Even though zer creations are mostly playful and rarely confrontational, it doesn’t keep kimura byol-nathalie lemoine from taking a stand on funding for the arts whenever asked. “While CALQ (Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec) grants are generally for $25,000, that drops to $15,000 for artists of colour. Yes, it helps, but we’re not considered on the same level as others. It’s like there’s one class for them and another one for us. There’s also tremendous competition between immigrants and children of immigrants, since we all fall into the same second class.”
kimura byol-nathalie lemoine loses no time in denouncing the selection process. “It’s mandatory that we explain why we emigrated and where we came from. It’s restrictive, it’s repetitive, and it’s a form of discrimination.”
How scholarships and residencies for queer artists are managed is also far from perfect. “Sure, there’s more support today than there used to be in Quebec for LGBTQ+ projects and possibly a lot more if you’re white. But for many organizations, you won’t get the same support if they don’t think you’re queer enough, if you’re not out and loud enough, or, if you’re a lesbian, not stereotypically tomboy enough. You really have to ask yourself if this is the way artists should be selected for support. Obviously, things have to change.”
*In order to respect kimura byol-nathalie lemoine’s intersexuality, the author has used neutral pronouns (ze, zer, zerself) in this article.