Korea bojagi artist marries modern influence with ancient methods and gets unique results | By Stephen Wunrow (Fall 2021 issue)
Master artist of bojagi Jung Hi La, is noted for her traditional approach to the textile tradition of bojagi, the handicraft and art form created by piecing fabrics together in a pattern to make a wrapping cloth.
La, who lives in Suwon, Gyeonggi-do Province, thinks of herself as being open to influences from global art, while she pursues perfection of this ancient art form. She will be a featured artist at the international gathering, The Bojagi Forum to be held in 2022. The gathering of international textile artists meets every two years in South Korea, but was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Bojagi (also called chogakbo) in tradition is a women’s pursuit, widely available to women across social and economic classes, because it is created from fabric scraps. Bojagi was created for a practical reason: To wrap gifts, groceries or anything that needed to be gathered and carried. Over time, it became an art form, and now it manifests as textile art of all kinds, or fine handicrafts such as pouches or scarves. Bojagi patterns can be regular and geometric, they can be made from irregularly cut pieces of fabric, and can be made as a representational or abstract art piece.
La said through a translator that she visited an art museum in Washington, DC in 2016 and saw “something like a bojagi” in a souvenir shop window. Upon investigation, she discovered it was a reproduction of an art piece by Mondrian. The fitted geometrical concept Mondrian developed is surprisingly similar to a bojagi. Returning to Korea on the airplane, her mind was formulating ideas for a Mondrian-inspired bojagi piece, which she started on as soon as she got back.
Many bojagi artists, including La, are influenced by global art and trends, which is evident in any exhibition of bojagi artists. La said the ideas of Mondrian helped her to develop a more modern artistic style while retaining her traditional methods.
La said she remembers being dressed in beautifully home-sewn clothing made by her grandmother. “The other students always praised or envied me,” she said. Her grandmother was talented in all kinds of needlecraft, and knew how to dye fabrics with natural dyes, she said, and became her inspiration for her lifelong love of textile arts.
As a young adult, she was interested in singing, and performed a traditional style of folk singing known as minyo. The singers wore traditional dress (hanbok) for the performances, and a lot of gently-used hanboks were available to her for free. Her first bojagi were made with repurposed hanbok fabrics, mainly silks.
The artist said that after she married and was living in Suwon, she began to explore dyeing fabrics and sewing, and her interest in bojagi grew. She eventually found a teacher based in Suwon, and learned from her and other teachers for about eight years. Through the grapevine, she would hear about teachers instructing in unfamiliar techniques, and would ask to learn from them. At one point, she traveled to Japan to learn from an artist there.
La’s bojagi have been in exhibitions in Korea, Japan, Europe and the U.S. Five years ago she received the title of Master in the textile artists’ organization to which she belongs. In addition to teaching, she instructs in bojagi skills and mentors about 10 students.
Two years ago, she said, she had eye surgery on both eyes. She recovered from the surgery, but it was a reminder that her time is getting short, and her health is not as good as before, she said. The artist’s ambition is now “to do my best until I cannot do it anymore,” La said, including making as much artwork as she can, and travelling for learn and exhibit her art whenever possible.
Stephen Wunrow is an adoptive parent, co-founder and publisher of Korean Quarterly. He works as a freelance photojournalist and plays jango in a local Minnesota poongmulpae, Shinparam.