The artistic journey of Maia Ruth Lee, ranging from sculpture to video, culminates in a body of work that explores the complexities of uprootedness and the pursuit of home. Having been born in South Korea, then moved to Nepal at a very young age, before moving again to New York City, Lee intricately weaves the threads of migration, identity, and the human experience of moving across countries and cultures, especially how it’s not always easy to settle somewhere completely new and foreign. 

Maia Ruth Lee's oeuvre challenges preconceptions, fostering empathy for the diverse narratives of human migration. By sharing her journey, Lee contributes to a broader understanding of the inequalities inherent in the migration experience, urging society to embrace inclusivity and dismantle barriers, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities.  

Maia Ruth Lee by Dario Catellani. Image courtesy of The Amp.

Central to Lee's exploration is the Bondage Baggage (B.B.) series, which are sculptures that have been inspired by the distinctive Nepalese luggage packing method, a testament to her childhood in Nepal. The meticulous weave of found fabric and rope suggests a precarious equilibrium, conveying the tensions of migration. How the individual compartments are stacked together also mirrors the delicate balance of identity during displacement. This happens because when she ties and releases knots to arrange these compartments, the act parallels her own experience of settling in a new place. It allows her to question if the individual baggage can carry the forces that have so far shaped their identities or if they are forced to mould into new ones.

B.B. 23-2, B.B. 23-4, B.B. 23-16 by Maia Ruth Lee. Image courtesy of The Amp.

Lee also creates paintings that emerge from her Bondage Baggage sculptures. She takes her bound luggage and makes imprints on canvas with India ink. Lee introduces primary colours along with black, infusing her canvases with vibrant energy. The final canvas pieces echo the act of unfolding and liberating the sculptures, emphasizing the theme of liberation from the confines of identity and space. The revelation she deduces is not about her identity consistently undergoing repackaging; rather, she transforms into something entirely new—she becomes herself.

Lee's video work, The Letter, further delves into her narrative. By juxtaposing her family home videos from the '90s, captured by her father during their time in the Himalayan region, with letters she wrote during the 2020 pandemic, Lee creates a dialogue across generations. This interplay explores the universal themes of untethered feelings and the unknown chapters that migration unfolds, including how the languages they speak change and how they have differing worldviews. The Letter showcases how immigration can create rifts between generations and how something as tightly knit as a family can be affected by it. 

Still from The Letter by Maia Ruth Lee. Image courtesy of The Amp.

Lee's research on migration and identity can be summed up with a quote by Gloria Anzaldúa: "The skin of the earth is seamless," also the title of her 2023 exhibition at the Tina Kim Gallery.  The quote, paralleled with the bundled sculptures, suggests a shared vulnerability and interconnectedness among people around the world. It prompts viewers to reflect on the permeable boundaries of identity and the common human experience that transcends geopolitical borders.

B.B.M. Cobalt Umbra 1–23 by Maia Ruth Lee. Image courtesy of Hyperallergic.

In conclusion, Maia Ruth Lee's artworks serve as a poignant commentary on the intricacies of migration, uprootedness, and the quest for belonging. Through her sculptures, videos, and paintings, she invites audiences to contemplate the shared humanity that unites humankind across diverse landscapes, ultimately aligning with a vision of a world with reduced inequalities.

You've successfully subscribed to Arts Help
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Great! You've successfully signed up.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.