Artists or Slave Laborers? Performing Uncapturability in Burkinabe Performers’ Labor Rights Struggle in South Korea

Soo Ryon YOON

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


This article traces eight performers from Burkina Faso, who in 2014 protested unfair labor practices at the Africa Museum of Original Art in South Korea, where they had been hired to perform. In the process, they demonstrated political and artistic endeavors in live concerts and dance workshops to reclaim both their monetary compensation and their artists’ status. Nevertheless, public and media discourse that followed this nationwide news—no matter how sympathetic—tended to treat the artists’ experiences as merely a failed Korean dream. Using performance studies methodologies and ethnographic methods, this article uses the terms performance and performativity more capaciously to include a range of embodied acts. With this, the article argues that framing the artists’ experiences within the narrative confines of struggling migrant workers fails to capture the complex, often contradictory relationship that they have with acts of performing beyond the existing categories of migrant labor. Furthermore, the sympathetic discourse capitalizes on hypervisibility of blackness, through which the artists’ suffering becomes a spectacle. This article suggests consideration of the concept of uncapturability—the embodiment of which exposes failures of a nationalist and racialized language—as well as existing theoretical frameworks mobilized to understand the interiority of performance and the artists’ work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-339
Number of pages29
JournalPositions: asia critique
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020

Bibliographical note

I am grateful to Susan Manning, D. Soyini Madison, Joshua Chambers-Letson, and JiYeon Yuh for their feedback on earlier versions of this work. The Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s Performance Studies Focus Group Emerging Scholars Award and the International Federation for Theatre Research’s New Scholars Prize both recognized the potential of this article. I thank Aaron Tobiason for helping me with editing as well as my interlocutors (especially Emma, Amidou, So-young, and Jin-woo), who contributed to my research. Last, my sincere gratitude to two anonymous reviewers for their thorough and insightful comments that helped transform this article into a much more meaningful one. Writing and revision of this piece were supported by the Council on East Asian Studies at MacMillan Center, Yale University, and the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University.


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