Imagine the lives of Korean women in the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), a time when strict Confucian society denied women access to education and intellectual pursuits and confined women physically to their own quarters in the household. By day, the housewives carried out their designated tasks: cooking, cleaning, caring for their families. But at night, women gathered the remnants of fabrics to sew and connect with each other, making wrapping cloths known as bojagi. Hyonjeong Kim Han, the Asian Art Museum’s curator of Korean art, describes sewing bojagi as a way for female artisans at the time to “express their pent-up creativity and their deepest desires for their loved ones.”
Bojagi are traditional Korean wrapping cloths, colorful square or rectangular compositions pieced together out of scraps of silk, cotton, hemp or ramie left over from other garments. Bojagi, which are used to cover everything from bedding and tables to food dishes and precious Buddhist sutras, date back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE–668 CE), but the tradition really flourished during the Joseon dynasty. The wrapping cloths were decorative and practical, but they also had religious and symbolic uses: the women who made bojagi at the time infused their hopes and dreams for their families, friends and themselves into the cloth as they sewed.
As Youngmin Lee, a contemporary bojagi artist, explains, “The word bo means ‘wrapping happiness or fortune.’” Bojagi helped mothers maintain ties with their daughters, who typically moved in with their husband’s families upon marriage and would rarely see their own families again. “While the women are making bojagi,” Lee says, “they are thinking of their daughters’ happiness, trying to express their love.” Lee is featured in an educational video on bojagi that will be screened at the museum in December.
Daughters often used bojagi until the cloths wore out, and would then make new ones to pass on to their own daughters.
As with so many beautiful functional objects made anonymously by women throughout the ages, bojagi was not recognized as an art form until recently. The Asian Art Museum has played an instrumental role in changing that perception: Dr. Kumja Paik Kim, who preceded Hyonjeong Kim Han at the museum and was the first curator of Korean art in the United States, began acquiring bojagi for the museum’s permanent collection.
“Until 20 years ago, bojagi were not considered an art form because it was purely functional,” Hyonjeong Kim Han says. “Dr. Kumja Paik Kim discovered the beauty of bojagi and regarded it artistically.”
The Asian Art Museum has more than 30 bojagi pieces, the largest collection of any museum in the United States.
Visitors can see two primary types of bojagi on display: gung-bo, made of lavish silks, were created for royal court use and were often luxuriously embroidered, while min-bo, made and used by common people, were generally patched together and look a bit like modern abstract paintings. Bojagi for weddings and other special occasions were elaborately ornamented.
The museum’s exhibition In Grand Style: Celebrations in
Korean Art during the Joseon Dynasty features a wedding bojagi, traditionally used to wrap the customary gift of a wooden goose presented by the groom to the bride’s mother, who would pair the symbolic goose with a complementary wooden goose. “The bojagi wrapped the two geese, symbolizing the unification of bride and groom and the two families,” Hyonjeong Kim Han explains.
Today bojagi are not only collected by museums but have been revived as an expressive art form by contemporary artists within and outside Korea. “It was a dying art form until recently, but now people realize how precious and beautiful this tradition is,” says Lee, who grew up in Korea and lives in the East Bay. “I think it’s amazing that I can feel the artistic sense of ancient Korean women when I make bojagi myself.”
The Korean women who created these treasures without recognition at the time are now, many years later, receiving it. The women might not have imagined that their pieced-together wrapping cloths would one day be treasured parts of museum collections, much less inspire artists a century later and far beyond Korea’s shores.