“NO-NAME WOMEN” of silk-screen printing on silk, 2009.

Bojagi Cloth, Color & Beyond by Chunghie Lee

fiber arts





You do not need to know much about bojagi’s rich history in Korean culture to understand that the eight extraordinary textile pieces on exhibit at The Korea Society in New York City are expressions of reverence. Most are square or oblong wall hangings, diaphanous silk patchworks sewn by hand in small, neat stitches. A few are kimonos, simply designed coats made of elaborately designed fabric. One is a twenty-four-foot long scroll that unfurls like a rose red storybook from the ceiling to the floor. All of them, in one way or another, are homages to the countless generations of Korean women who turned carefully chosen and often re-purposed fabric fragments into wrapping cloths that were meant to be utilitarian. They were also frequently beautiful.

Chunghie Lee is generally regarded as the most influential bojagi artist working today, and The Korea Society exhibition is entirely hers. A Korean native who earned art degrees from Hongik University in Seoul, she now teaches at Rhode Island School of Design and actively promotes bojagi artistry through conferences and education. Her work is exhibited around the world and has been collected by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, among many other institutions.

It is easy to see Lee’s esteem for the bojagi makers who came before her. The majority of the pieces in the exhibition include silk-screened images of Korean women from past eras. The images appear to come from photographs taken between the end of the nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. They are women of very modest means. Their clothes are plain. Some carry heavy jugs on their heads. They all stare into the camera with formality and resignation, their stoic expressions suggesting that vthey will be back to work the moment the photographer moves on. Yet it is of course these who designed and stitched bojagi pieces for their family to use as all-purpose wrapping cloths. Food, gifts, ceremonial objects, and virtually everything else was wrapped and stored in bojagi.

Lee’s names for the textile pieces also leave little doubt as to her theme. Each piece is called “No-Name Women,” sometimes followed simply by the year in which Lee finished the piece. Like other forms of quilting around the world, bojagi historically was women’s work and therefore anonymous. Though Lee and others working today have refashioned bojagi into a contemporary fiber art, the makers of antique bojagi cloths are largely unknown. Their artistry was not considered noteworthy enough to warrant remembering their names.

The most dazzling piece in the exhibition is the twenty-four-foot long, thirty-two-inch wide “No-Name Women ‘06,” the scroll that runs nearly the length of the gallery floor. Made of hand-dyed hemp cloth ornamented with silk screening, the scroll is pieced from many small segments. Every few feet there are images of anonymous women. There are also Bible verses from Proverbs Chapter 31 extolling the virtues of wives who weave linen and other fabrics to clothe their families. Spilling down from the ceiling onto the floor, the scroll suggests a red carpet unrolled for celebrities. Lee offers her No-Name women as artists who deserved red-carpet treatment, despite their lack of prestige.

“NO-NAME WOMEN” of silk-screen printing on hand-dyed hemp, 2006.

Another arresting piece is the wall hanging “No-Name Women ‘12,” a forty-one-inch by forty-one-inch quilt of evenly sized red silk squares. Silk screened onto the fabric are images of middle-aged and older women, all in traditional dress. Fine red silk threads hang from the corners of the squares. As in several other pieces, the bright red silk threads here are decorative, but also seem to allude to bloodlines of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who each in turn taught or learned bojagi.

A sixty-eight-inch by fifty-seven-inch piece called “No-Name Women ‘06” is hand-dyed hemp, mostly in gray and gray/green. The wall hanging has the look of a fading black and white photograph and there are black and white images of women silk-screened onto the piece. As in the other images, the women are outside, perhaps on a break from physical labor of some kind. Notable in this piece is the visual effect of the hand-dyeing, which has left light gray “x”s over many of the photographs, as though the women, who were not noteworthy enough to be named in the first place, have now been crossed out of history.

Not all the pieces are so dark, literally or emotionally. A couple of the wall hangings and one of the kimonos are exuberant compositions of bright pastel and jewel tones. “No-Name Women ‘09” is an arrangement of unevenly sized oblongs of pink, lavender, gold, white, blue, and green silk exquisitely stitched into a spring bouquet of geometric design. And “No-Name Women Durumagi,” 2007, is a traditionally shaped coat made in highly untraditional silk tulle. The coat is a deep navy blue highlighted with bojagi strips of purple, gold and orange, a beautiful, celebratory garment that any No-Name bojagi maker would have been thrilled to wear. The Korea Society exhibition is open through May 31, 2013.







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