“Jenny” wore a red-polka dotted dress suitable for the Sunday school I attended long ago in Kansas City. She didn’t look like Julia Roberts from Pretty Woman. And she certainly didn’t look like the women I often saw lingering in dark, downtown parts of my hometown. She was a young college student at a prestigious University in Seoul. She spoke three languages. Her boyfriend thought she was a bartender. Jenny was beautiful, confident, smart, and seemed to have all her needs met. So why would she feel the need to be a sex worker?
Sex work in Korea was and is illegal. Yet it is everywhere. While interviewing Jenny at Caffe Bene in Seoul I learned many sex workers, like Jenny, operate out of officetels, or what appear to be tall apartment complexes that function as commercial and residential spaces. I lived in Seoul in an officetel and other expats commonly did as well. Sex workers selling their services often work in businesses disguised as massage parlors, talking bars, or norebangs (private karaoke rooms). Jenny worked at a private business similar to a talking club in one of these Seoul officetels. In the pyramid of sex work, Jenny’s establishment was in the top tier.
Jenny wasn’t forced into anything. She didn’t have a slave debt to pay off. She wasn’t stolen from her village and promised a factory job in the city. Jenny didn’t have children. She didn’t have student loans. Her parents were from a rural town in Korea, but they were financially stable enough to finance her college education.
At the beginning of my interview with her I casually mentioned Paulo Coelho’s book Eleven Minutes. The book is about a young Brazilian woman chasing fame and fortune. Disenchanted with love, homesick, and broke the young woman, through a series of events, becomes a sex worker. Later, when she meets and fell in love with a painter/client, she had to choose between her work and love. Although the hallmark one-line prescriptions in Coelho’s books weren’t always personally illuminating, I had assumed that a sex worker with a thoughtful and mindful character would relate to the story of a woman in the industry finding love with a client. Jenny scrunched her nose, “Sex work is not about love,” she said.
So if she wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t about money or love, then what was it about?
Ann-Marie Manker’s recent exhibit, Under the Rainbow, at Whitespace Gallery of Atlanta, brings Jenny to mind. Manker’s work is mysterious, empowered, sublime, neon, and graphic—with dark undertones. While her subject matter doesn’t include sex workers, her work embodies a delicate yet unbendable female power. Wooden panels filled with Jenny-like femme fatales in ethereal ink and acrylic break all the rules, drifting through a fantasy-scape of rainbows and black billowy clouds. Manker’s work, like Jenny’s, raises unanswerable questions.
Manker explains, “I’ve been inspired by both the characters “Black Widow” in the Avengers and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They both cross the line to get the information they need.”
In Manker’s Watering Hole, the female character also crosses lines to gain control. The character is provocative and calm; her eyes directed to the viewer. Smoky clouds of consequence are closing in on her while a light force pours over her head. This creates a virginal veil or halo outshining the darkness around her. She is wearing a number of bras: some white, some black, one red. Amidst the influence of the rainbow and the black cloud she undresses, never fully exposing her body, but revealing herself all the same. There is something honest and disarming about the image. In a previous body of work Manker has used bras to reference bra banning by some extremist groups in Somalia. I hesitate to turn an image this magical and inexplicable into just another sensationalized media story. Universally, a woman’s power doesn’t only manifest from having been a victim. It is something innate from within that doesn’t need oppression to spark it. By introducing international news, Manker’s once boundless paintings risk becoming an over-simplistic illustration of female power. When Manker tones down the media influence, her work expands the socially dictated ideas of female power and elicits endless meaning.
In Trophy 2, a young girl with a surprised facial expression looks out to another person or a mirror. In her hands she holds pubic hair. The girl is a grey-scale illustration except for part of her face. A rainbow runs off her mouth and chin, dripping onto her hands. This moment of discovery is pure and her own. It is a moment of reprieve.
If Manker’s work was meant to be sequential Groomed for the Job would be the chapter after Trophy 2. In this painting, the girl looks away from the viewer. Her blonde hair masks her identity. Overcome by rainbows, the female character looks like she has given in to the soft comfort of the white clouds. She embraces a phallic cloud form while another cloud above her head gingerly pulls back her hair. It is hard to see what the character has lost or gained in this narrative.
Manker isn’t just inspired by these women who cross boundaries to contain and maintain a power or control, it seems she enjoys and feeds off of referencing popular culture and religious connections. She subtlety layers references to the Black Hand, the film noire movie Niagara, and the most popular funeral/wedding song Ava Maria in the titles of her work and through the imagery in her paintings. The work, Praying Mantis, even looks like a frozen scene from a Tarantino film.
Over the past several years, Manker has also been greatly influenced by how the disconnected western world experiences war and violence from the couch. She has found inspiration in articles about the suppression of women whether through a bra ban or the ironic power of female suicide bombers. Her characters are violent yet peaceful. They exist in a fairytale world, walking the fine line between tyrant and victim.
In moments when Manker forces multiple cultural symbols to integrate I am not sure if she reinforces stereotypes or overcomes them. But when these symbols co-exist harmoniously they create a transcendent image. In these moments Manker achieves a colorful intoxicating curiosity—an original image that can’t be put in a box or explained.
The door to the business “Jenny” worked at was secure and guarded by CCTV. Men from all over Seoul would come to this particular establishment because the women were young and beautiful. She said the camera outside allowed her to see men before they ever entered. “I got to choose,” she explained.
Jenny and her co-workers were little discrete rainbows moving through the cement jungle that is Seoul. Manker’s work is another rainbow. Women like these make me wonder why we search for conclusions. Why try to wrap up everything into a digestible, relatable package?
Some women do what they do simply because they can.
Kayti Doolittle graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and a minor in Creative Writing. She is the Art Reviewer for Fjords Review. Kayti recently published a piece Made in Thailand for the Green Hills Literary Lantern about the complexities and interpretations of sex and the sex industry. After a year in South Korea, Kayti is currently living in Kansas City writing about sex and art.