5 Korean Female Artists Who Are Reimagining Textile Art


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Jun 02, 2024

5 Korean Female Artists Who Are Reimagining Textile Art

This year’s Frieze Seoul art fair saw scores of women creating jaw-dropping works using unconventional materials. Over the last decade, every art fair seems to bring with it an increasing amount of

This year’s Frieze Seoul art fair saw scores of women creating jaw-dropping works using unconventional materials.

Over the last decade, every art fair seems to bring with it an increasing amount of fabric-based works. Frieze Seoul, whose second edition took place in September, was no exception—yet, with a rich textile history baked into the country’s DNA, it was South Korea’s homegrown contemporary artists whose dynamic creations stood out among the crowd. “Textile art is deeply rooted in Korean culture, but it has mostly been considered as craft,” says Tina Kim, whose New York gallery represents emerging and established artists, including some of Korea’s finest. “We have the tradition of bojagi [traditional Korean wrapping cloth, often piecing scraps of fabric together] from the common household, to silk embroidery in the court wardrobe.”

In addition to Kim’s booth at Frieze Seoul being awarded this year’s Stand Prize in recognition of its innovative offerings—which prominently featured sculpture incorporating fabric—the fair’s inaugural Artist Award recipient, Woo Hannah, specializes in textile installations and assemblages. “The global art market has come to widen their boundaries on what is considered fine art, beyond oil painting or monumental metal or stone sculptures,” Kim adds. “As the art world is looking outside of the Western canon, naturally that means that fabric and textile art will be included as it represents centuries of tradition for many countries.” Ahead, meet five contemporary artists who are leading the charge.

As the winner of Frieze Seoul’s Artist Award, Woo Hannah produced a sprawling fabric installation, titled The Great Ballroom, which draped from the fair’s ceiling. “As an emerging talent, I felt like I’ve had to compromise a lot for my own survival,” the artist tells W of her ongoing ambition to create large-scale installations. “With the support the award gave me, I was able to realize what I’ve always wanted to.” The artist was also the subject of Korean-based G Gallery’s booth in the Frieze Focus section, designated for galleries 12 years or younger.

Woo Hannah

Both fair contributions further develop Hannah’s signature “Milk and Honey” series, composed of stuffed and sagging fabric, adorned with intricate beadwork, to emulate a mother’s breasts at different stages in life. Perpetually interested in dichotomies—young versus old, living versus dead, joy versus pain—the artist became especially concerned with bodily ecosystems after discovering that her kidneys are significantly disproportionate in size to one another. Reflecting these preoccupations, as well as her fascination with humans’ connection to other species, Hannah is also known for her “Bleeding” orchid series. Representing the reproductive cycle, these oversized flowers ambiguously appear between bloom and decay. In addition to constructing two-dimensional works from fabric scraps, Hannah has recently begun incorporating hard metallic components, such as aluminum casted to resemble wooden branches and bones.

Also represented by Kukje Gallery, Suki Seokyeong Kang is one of Korea’s leading contemporary artists. Overlapping with the fair, “Willow Drum Oriole”—her largest institutional solo exhibition to date—opened at the Leeum Museum of Art, allowing for a deeper understanding of the artist’s multifaceted oeuvre. Combining sculpture, painting, video installation, and performance, Kang conceives her works like people in society—operating both individually and collectively.

Inside Suki Seokyeong Kang’s “Willow Drum Oriole” exhibition at the Leeum Museum of Art.

Suki Seokyeong Kang

Tina Kim says Suki possesses “a deep interest in traditional craft and exploring non-traditional material,” for example, hwamunseok, mats produced from woven sedge that are used in Korean court dances. Many of Kang’s gridded structures feature woven textiles in a full spectrum of hues, further adorned with metal chains and other highly tactile elements. As epitomized by her Leeum exhibition, Kang’s works often emulate patterns found in nature—the show’s title takes its name from the movements and sounds of an oriole flying in and out of willow tree leaves, “as if weaving a thread into the fabric of the landscape,” as the show’s press materials describe.

Born in Canada and based in London, buzzy artist Zadie Xa finds much of her inspiration in her Korean heritage and diasporic identity. Not only was her work exhibited at Austrian gallery Thaddaeus Ropac’s Frieze Seoul booth, she also designed several handbags featured at one of the hottest tickets in town: the Lady Dior Celebration pop-up concept store in the Seongsu-dong neighborhood. Xa’s multidisciplinary works incorporate sculpture, painting, textile, light, sound, and performance, simultaneously channeled through her exploration of masquerade, costuming, and identity politics.

Zadie Xa and Benito Mayor Vallejo, In the belly of our Grandmothers through the eyes of an Orca (Sojourn through Saju across the Salish Sea), 2020. Oil on canvas with hand sewn and machine-stitched fabrics, assorted buttons, shells, and drift woods.

In addition to reinterpreting traditional Korean garments, Xa’s vibrant paintings are often surrounded by equally multichromatic patchwork frames, referencing traditional bojagi quilted textiles. “I have always found rummaging through fabric stores akin to the thrill of finding something special at a vintage shop,” Xa says. “There is something inherently familiar about working with fabric which makes it appealing, approachable, and unpretentious.” While Xa’s subject matter can appear historical at first glance (she frequently incorporates Korean folklore and women-led practices, such as Korean shamanism), more subtle references to pop culture, music, and fashion make them decidedly contemporary. A testament to her works’ autobiographical nature, Xa uses recurring motifs, such as her Pekingese dog, and shells, which once housed creatures, to reflect her interest in interspecies communication. “I tend to gravitate toward fabrics that have a utilitarian feel to them,” she adds. “My understanding of textiles comes from a sculptural sensibility, rather than that of design or craft. Sometimes I like to reference painting and traditional Korean textiles—so the textiles might manifest in flat geometric assemblages—and sometimes I am interested in using textiles to make costumes and garments.”

Established in 1982, Kukje Gallery is one of Seoul’s oldest and most respected galleries, representing great postwar Korean artists, as well as international icons such as Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Calder. One of its most provocative and fearless talents is Kyungah Ham, who works across installation, video, performance, and traditional media. Growing up in Seoul, she frequently encountered unofficial political propaganda from North Korea, which ignited a lifelong curiosity surrounding the legacy of war, freedom, and social identity—and the two countries’ complex divide.

Kyungah Ham standing in front of
Needling Whisper, Needle Country / SMS Series in Camouflage / Imagine C 01-01-01,
2014. North Korean hand embroidery, silk threads on cotton, middle man, smuggling, bribe, tension, anxiety, censorship, ideology, wooden frame, approx. 1000 hours per person. Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery.

Ham’s most famous body of work—kaleidoscopic, embroidered canvases emblazoned with words or brief phrases—attests to her intrepid nature and sociopolitical approach. Beginning in 2008, Ham would create designs incorporating anything from Western art and South Korean slang (censored in the North) on her computer, then smuggled them with coded instructions into North Korea, where anonymous female artisans would hand embroider them onto canvases. The works would then be secretly returned to South Korea where Ham finished them; the artist uses joint authorship to attribute these intricate works, seemingly jubilant and optimistic in hue—and yet, beneath, laden with conflict and immense peril.

Mire Lee, Dreamcatchers: The Healing Machine, 2023. Silicone, steel wires, and fabric.

Another Korean artist making waves across the international art market is Mire Lee, whose work was recently exhibited in the 2022 Venice Biennale, as well as in her first American solo museum exhibition at the New Museum, which closed September 2023. Splitting her time between Seoul and Amsterdam, the artist is known for her otherworldly kinetic sculptural installations that combine industrial materials, like PVC hoses, concrete, steel rods, and low-tech motors, with silicone, towels, nets, chains, and more. Intentionally ambiguous and highly visceral, Lee’s animatronic sculptures walk the line between living organisms and machines. Often evoking oozing carcasses or isolated body parts, her works explore sex and human desire as much as environmental decay, embracing the grotesque and unconventional.

Stephanie SpornWoo Hannah at G GallerySuki Seokyeong Kang at Tina Kim GalleryZadie Xa at Thaddaeus RopacKyungah Ham at Kukje GalleryMire Lee at Tina Kim Gallery