¡°Hanji¡± dolls on exhibit at Frauenmuseum in Bonn, Germany / Courtesy of Dave Durbach
By Dave Durbach
In an event that reiterates Korea's historical contribution to the world while showcasing its contemporary cultural flair, a group of artists from Seoul are currently exhibiting at the Frauenmusuem (Women¢¥s Museum), in the former West German capital of Bonn.
``Hanji: Paper Road'' is an exhibition of both young and established Korean female artists who are using Korean hanji not only in the time-honored way, but are also reinterpreting the medium for contemporary audiences.
The exhibition is divided into four themes, the first tracing the history of hanji from China in 105 AD, its introduction to Korea in the next century, and its subsequent spread to the rest of Asia, to North Africa and finally to Europe in the 12th century. A display of small hanji dolls help show the step-by-step fabrication process. Also on show are some pieces on loan form the Hanji Development Institute. One can find traditional jeonji, jiseung and jiho papercraft in the form of furniture, bags, hanbok, hats, lanterns, pillows and sculptures.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the exhibition is the contemporary hanji oeuvre, featuring sculptures, lamps, dolls and wall-mounted hanji canvases by young Korean artists such as Cho Jung-eun. Kim Young-sung, Jun Chang-ho, Jung-soon Kim, Park Wol-ran, Bean So, as well as Young-ja Bang-Cho, who has been living in Germany for 30 years, and who helped initiate the exchange program between German and Korean female artists.
Bang-Cho makes it clear that hanji is a ``treasure'' that has played an important role in historical rituals, but that is just as useful today as it was a thousand years ago. It has a huge variety of uses; it grows fast, meaning that other forests are protected; and unlike other kinds of paper, it lasts for hundreds of years.
The exhibition in Bonn comes at an important time for Korean art. According to one of the organizers, Young-Soon Cha from the College of Art and Craft at Ewha Womans University, ``Korean Modern Arts suffered hardship throughout history: Japanese occupation, the Korean War, social turmoil, and dictatorships from the early 60s to the late 80s. From the 90s, Korean artists tried to find their own identities and represent them in their works. A major contemporary trend found in Korea is the quest for Korean-ness, sometimes criticised strongly in Korea itself and abroad. In my personal opinion, this is a step we should go through with.''
Of course it is also about bridging Korea and Europe. In Korea, Cha explains, ``we have relatively lots of information about Germany. From the opening of our country to abroad in late 19th century, the Germany was always a model for the study of science, engineering, medicine, law and most of all philosophy.''
In Germany, however, the Korean community, though well-established, remain relative outsiders. Bang-Cho explains that there are Koreans ``in every large city in Germany. Most came here around 1965 as guest workers in nursing, mining and shipyards. I myself came to Germany as a nurse's assistant.'' There are numerous Korean cultural, sports and church societies in Germany, many of which have existed for over 30 years."
This exhibition is about redefining that link between Germany and Korea, particularly from a feminist perspective. Cha explains, ``For us, it's very meaningful to make an exhibition in Frauen Museum, which is the world's first museum for women-artists. We can make contacts and share Asian or Korean cultures with Europeans, and we can shed light on marginalized people, for example women in a foreign society.''
``The German Women¢¥s movement has been active for a long time, since the 60s,'' says Bang-Cho. ``But in Korea it started later. Through mutual symposia like this, a lot is exchanged - what problems we have at work, cultural differences, and how jobs and activities are differentiated. Through sharing, the young generation have taken the task, the challenge of women¢¥s rights. Even art must still serve this.''
The exhibition in Bonn runs until the 12th of July. In Korea there is a Hanji exhibition at the Paper Museum in Seoul (Jongi Nara), moving to Wonju in September, and Chungju in October 2009. In September 2010, the Wonju International Paper Congress willl take place, with smaller exhibitions in Chungju, Jeonju, Seoul and Busan.
The writer is a South African freelance journalist who lived in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, until February 2009, and is currently based in Berlin as part of the International Journalists Program (IJP).