Embassy Showcases 5,000 Years of Traditional Handicrafts

In the current exhibit at the Korean Embassy’s Korus House, your eyes immediately catch sight of the largest piece on display: the wardrobe. But this is no ordinary piece of furniture. The large, freestanding closet is so impossibly perfect that it’s difficult to imagine it was crafted by hand.

Wrapped in stunning wood, the uigeorijang (wardrobe) stands a sturdy six feet tall. The wood grain and pattern that decorate small strips of paneling down the length of the piece match on both sides of the wardrobe doors—the signature of a master Korean furniture craftsman.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, this type of furniture was created for upper-class male officers for the purpose of storing their uniforms. Today, the wardrobe is part of a special exhibition of traditional Korean handicrafts spread between two rooms at the Korus House, built by the Korean Embassy to serve as a venue for exhibitions, speeches, lectures and briefings. (The name “KORUS” is a combination of “Korea” and “U.S.” that rhymes with “chorus.”)

The exhibit, called “The Beauty of Korean Traditional Crafts,” includes dozens of artistic creations, from delicate horsehair hats and embroidered gowns to hand-hammered brass dinner sets and meticulously decorated musical instruments. The display reflects the 5,000 years of Korean culture and tradition that have been preserved by these artisans. It also celebrates the opening of the Korean Gallery at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Among the bright colors and ceremonial gowns on display is the traditional hwalot, or wedding dress, with its bright reds and blues. The red represents the bride, while blue denotes the groom. The dress is perfectly symmetrical, delicately embroidered, and took several months to make by hand. Two birds facing each other on the wedding dress symbolize harmony and happiness, while on another part of the gown, an embroidered phoenix represents longevity.

Embroidery is an art form in Korea. Many moons ago, the colorful needlework designs adorned the clothing of common people throughout the country and were not just reserved for special occasions or upper-class citizens.

Sue Jung, project coordinator for Korus House, said a crafts master could undergo 10 years to 15 years of intensive training to learn the practice of embroidery. “Most masters have pupils to follow them,” Jung said. “It takes a long period of time and most spend their whole life doing it.”

Jung’s personal favorites among the pieces on display are the compasses, including a traditional compass and a tortoise-shaped compass made of wood—each decorated with elegant details and characters. According to the exhibit catalogue, the yundojang is the craftsman responsible for making geomagnetic compass needles with circular representations of 24 directions drawn into them—a process that takes several years from start to finish.

Another interesting creation is the ssanghuija gwimunbal, a traditional bamboo blind made with thin bamboo and reeds that is used in Korean homes to prevent direct sunlight from coming in during the summer. Jung noted that the blinds even adorn some of the windows in Korus House.

The bamboo blind on display includes what appears to be a random pattern, but upon closer inspection, visitors can make out the Chinese character in the center of the piece. It represents “happiness.” Many of these handcrafted items include special touches such as inlaid mother of pearl and metals, ornamental engravings, woodcarvings and radiant colors.

“The Beauty of Korean Traditional Crafts” is co-sponsored by the Korean Foundation for Traditional and Intangible Cultural Properties, which was established to preserve Korean cultural heritage around the world. The word “intangible” in the foundation’s name refers to the carrying on of traditions from generation to generation.

Following the exhibit, the Korean Embassy plans to have an exhibit of traditional ceramics made by local artists. By around March of next year, the embassy will also feature the handiwork of a traditional Korean archery bow master.

The Beauty of Korean Traditional Crafts through Dec. 31 Korus House of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea 2370 Massachusetts Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 797-6343 or visit www.dynamic-korea.com.

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Christine Cub