Curator Interview: Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now

Newly open at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco is Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now ( from June 17-October 23, 2011) featuring 65 re-interpretations of the the traditional Korean textile Bojagi (Bo-Jah-ki), or ‘wrapping cloths’ by both Korean and international artists. It’s similarity to the western craft of quilting and patchwork, I was immediately drawn to the idea of this exhibition. According to the museum’s press materials:

In-yul Heo Embroidery Bojagi (Replica), 2010 Hand-embroidered silk (Via Museum of Craft and Folk Art)

“Traditional Bojagi was made from leftover pieces of cloths or papers, which were elaborately embroidered together and was a primarily non- professional activity, engaged in by women in a folk art tradition. Function determined the form and the result often created beautiful abstract patterns. Bojagi were made to protect and to decorate items and gifts wrapped inside them as alternatives to boxes and chests. Bojagi stored precious objects, clothing, bedding and covered food in the home. Although this folkloric custom continues in the country, today, the craft of Bojagi has had a great influence on contemporary artists from Korea and around the world. Wrapping Traditions: Korean Textiles Now brings together contemporary artists from Korea, and ten other countries that are inspired by this Korean folk art.”

Guest curator Chunghie Lee, adjunct faculty in the textile department at the Rhode Island School of Design, graciously agreed to answer a few questions I had for her about the exhibit:

Fashion Historia: Do you have a favorite piece in the show?

Chunghie Lee: “There are three that stand out to me the most. One conventional piece exemplifies what bogaji is and the other two because of the artist’s vision to push the meaning of bogaji and interpreted it in a whole different light. Interestingly, all three artists have completely, different backgrounds – one textile, one architecture, and the other a painter. Being Korean, and having a textile background Sora Lee’s ‘Harmony 2010’ work encompasses the traditional Samsol technique with all hand stitching, bring the calmness and serendipity atmosphere in life – 79” by 79” off-white work (raw silk). The work silently speaks of the patience and endurance that the no-name women might have lived in the past.

Kuzina Cheng "Over the River" (Image provided by Chunghie Lee)

The second piece is done by a recent RISD student of mine, Kuzina Cheng. Having just completed her sophomore year at RISD, she pushed and challenged herself, making a 60 inch by 12 feet piece with pocketed flaps. The pockets fluttered when they were filled with wind and her piece stretched across to “wrap” the canal in Providence. The canal was where she found peace in her hectic school year, to her it was her precious place. She challenged to wrap something, which essentially cannot be wrapped or kept – water and wind. Upon first glance, one may not recognize the piece as bojagi inspired, but she has stayed true to the meaning behind bojagi in an innovative way. I was impressed by her thought process and that at such a young age, she had accomplished something so big.

The third artist focused in more on the unique characteristics of bojagi. She was very interested in the use of transparent fabrics and the use of light. Catherine O’Leary transformed bojagi into something functional and fashionable. Having a painting background, she works intuitively and picked up on the bojagi characteristics immediately. Her pieces are light and look mysteriously dimensional, as if able to float away if you didn’t grasp onto it tightly. These dresses are unlike anything ordinary, they move with the body and have voluminous bottom making one feel like they are in a fairytale. She is a natural talent, does as she goes, and because of that none of her pieces are the same and all one of a kind.”

Catherine O'Leary, "Wearable" (Image Via Chunghie Lee)

Fashion Historia: Is Bojagi something you have a close personal connection with? Was it something you grew up around?

Chunghie Lee: “Contrary to what one might think, I did not grow up around bojagi. Even having been a fiber artist for most of my life (my undergraduate B.F.A. was furniture design and much later year M.F.A. on fiber-weaving and dyeing), I was oblivious to this cultural tradition. I was first exposed to it by my mother-in-law when she handed me down her precious clothes. At such a young age of 20, I didn’t realize the importance of it. It wasn’t until I was invited to come to the US as part of the Korea Metal and Fiber Artist exhibition in 1991. The tour lasted for 3 years and went across the US and parts of Canada. During the tour, I was unexpectedly asked to give a presentation about something Korean related. I quickly did some homework and looked into bojagi. As I researched into this deep rooted Korean tradition, I learned about the nameless woman and the male dominated society that Korea use to be. I had heard stories about it before, but never paid much attention. After the presentation, I have been working closely with bojagi. In 1999, I was lucky enough to be presented with another amazing opportunity, RISD had asked to me teach at their school. Speaking about it was one thing, but teaching it uncovered my passion for this Korean cultural tradition. Soon enough, without realization, I found myself in the middle of it all – I was spreading awareness about bojagi not only in the US but all over the world including from Canada to Europe and of course, Asia. It took me by surprise when I came across an article of myself being described as the bojagi ambassador. I think that was when it all hit me. Since then, I have been invited to shows and have held my own exhibitions. One of my major curated shows was held in France, in conjunction with the European Patchwork Meeting in Alsace, France, where I showcased works of bojagi, joomchi (Korean traditional textured paper) and quilt. To my surprise, people from nearly 50 countries attended the show. I still have two more one person show in this year, one in London and the other in Utania in the UK. Bojagi keeps bringing me unexpected surprises and countless opportunities, I cannot imagine my life without it now.”

Thanks so much to Chunghie Lee and the Museum of Craft and Folk Art for their help with this post. I’d love to hear from those who attend the show (open through October 23, 2011), for reactions and commentary. Below, are a selection of the 65 pieces included in the exhibit (Click one for a slideshow):

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