Contemporary Interpretations of Pojagi

Respecting Traditions: Contemporary Interpretations of Pojagi

The Korean term pojagi refers to a wrapping cloth used to transport objects, store goods and cover surfaces. The cloth is often assembled from remnants of other fabrics, typically sewn together in a geometric pattern. Korean culture, where the technique finds its origins, has historically maintained a patriarchal emphasis. As a result, the work of women has gone largely uncelebrated. Pojagi offers a rare exception. As can be said of so many textile traditions, the fact that the cloths were made by women has in some ways preserved the identity of the tradition. Now, with growing appreciation and sensitivity towards crafts previously unnoticed, we can see a longstanding outlet of creativity and beauty produced by women whose lives may otherwise have offered little in the way of personal expression.

Pojagi cloths embody both function and beauty. Sensitive combinations of fabric colour and surface texture are common, while the fabric as a whole remains ultimately utilitarian. Chog’akpo is a variant of pojagi that uses both old and new cloth, typically of heavier fabrics than the traditional sheer aesthetic, such as ramie, hemp and silk. Seams play a large role in the design and are often emphasised rather than hidden. In particular, Gekki, the Korean term for a triple stitching technique, acts as a framing device around each individual panel and often adds structural qualities to otherwise sheer combinations of cloth.

The Museum of Korean Embroidery where a collection of over 1,000 pojagi wrapping cloths are housed explains that the ‘act of careful wrapping reflects a folk tradition that good fortune can be captured inside a pojagi. This belief established the tradition of using cloths to wrap wedding gifts, often embellished with elaborate needlework, to celebrate the marriage and wish the couple good fortune in their new lives together. It is also believed that the pieces that make up the final fabric represent the extension of life, just as the assembling of scraps extends the life of the fabric. Here, the pojagi cloth is similar in its ethos to the mending and making of quilts. Unlike the bulky quilt, the pojagi is large enough to contain a big bundle but can also be folded down into a small square when not in use. While the cloths are often used in a similar manner to that of a bag or suitcase, cloth arguably functions far more efficiently. Moulding itself to the shape of the object to be carried eliminates the undue waste so common with the boxes we carry.

Korean textile artist Chunghie Lee exhibits and lectures internationally on the subject of pojagi. In 2002, Lee taught an intensive workshop at Australia’s Annual International Textile Forum. The workshop emphasised an integrated response that encourages respect for cultural traditions while celebrating innovation and exchange. The majority of the works resulting from the workshop engaged with the formal elements of pojagi, investigating colour, cloth weight and the gekki stitch. The strong geometries established by the gekki stitch were preserved, even enhanced. In contrast, Barbara Roger printed beyond the gekki borders to establish surface patterns that united the individual blocks of cloth. ‘I’m a bit out of my depth,’ McDermott commented, revealing some of the challenges of introducing traditional cultural techniques into an artist’s established vocabulary.

Exchanges such as these are burdened with the responsibility of respect for the cultural context of the tradition, the inherent symbolism and reverence bestowed by the originating culture, and the appropriate way to incorporate elements into an artist’s own vocabulary. Aesthetic and technical appropriation without understanding can, at worst, produce mimicry and even offence instead of innovation.

Embroidery magazine, September 2003: 15.