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Painter Hwang Jai-hyoung infuses soul into paintings dedicated to workers

“Hwangji 330” by Hwang Jai-hyoung (MMCA)
“Hwangji 330” by Hwang Jai-hyoung (MMCA)

Hwang Jai-hyoung, known as the “miner painter,” lived as a coal miner in the early 1980s in search of the human dignity that he wanted to express in his paintings.

He believed that an artist should actually experience the life of a worker in order for one’s art to function as a means to influence society.

While working as a coal miner for three years across Gangwon Province, including in Taebaek, Samcheok and Jeongseon, Hwang captured the lives of his fellow miners on canvas. He led Imsul-nyeon, 98992, an organization for Minjung Art, the socio-political art movement that flourished in the 1980s.
Hwang Jai-hyoung (MMCA)
Hwang Jai-hyoung (MMCA)

An exhibition of the artist’s work now on display at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, features 65 paintings and installation works, including the landscapes of a waning coal-mining village in the 1990s. Titled “Hwang Jai Hyoung: Restoration of Human Dignity,” Hwang aims to show how art can evoke social change.

Among his famously known paintings is “Hwangji 330” a hyperrealist painting that depicts a worn-out jacket and shirt worn by a fellow miner who died in an accident in the Hwangji coal mine in 1980. The two-meter painting shows an identification card hung on the jacket’s left pocket. The number 330 implies that the worker was anonymous and could be replaced by another person.

Another painting titled “Lunch” depicts lunchtime with coworkers at a coal mine tunnel. Relying on the headlights on their helmets to see, they share lunch boxes. Hwang later recalled that mealtime in the mine was the most memorable scene while working as a coal miner.

“As I sat down with them and looked into the tunnel, it reminded me of a mother’s womb,” the artist once said while recalling memories of working the mine.

While miners and coal-mining villages were the main subjects in his paintings, Hwang later expanded his works to depict social issues like the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 and political issues that involve South Korea’s former presidents. 

“Baekdu Mountains” by Hwang Jai-hyoung (Courtesy of the artist)
“Baekdu Mountains” by Hwang Jai-hyoung (Courtesy of the artist)

Born in 1952 in Bosung, South Jeolla Province, he was awarded the Minkok Art Award in 2013 and 1993; and Park Soo-keun Art Award in 2016. His works are owned by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Gwangju Museum of Art, Korea University Museum, Busan Museum of Art, and Seoul Museum of Art.

The exhibition runs through Aug. 22 at MMCA Seoul. Online reservation is required in advance at MMCA’s website,

By Park Yuna (