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On Exhibit: Leave Them Smiling


By Scott Fields

Published Jul 1, 2010 10:00 AM

Festively painted wooden figurines of acrobats, clowns and whimsical, mystical animals may seem incongruous with mourning, but they are important elements in traditional Korean funerary art. Used to adorn funeral biers, they are called kkoktu and reflect the hope that the transition from one world to the next will be joyful and supported by many helpers.


Photo by B.C. Koo.

More than 70 dolls from the Ockrang Cultural Foundation of Seoul will be at the Fowler Museum from Aug. 22 through Nov. 28 in a remarkable exhibit called Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World.

"We've been keeping an eye out for traveling exhibitions of Korean material," says Roy Hamilton, Fowler senior curator of Asian and Pacific Collections. "When we first saw these remarkable, engaging works, we immediately decided to try to bring the exhibition to UCLA."

Most of the kkoktu were carved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet their costumes and attitude reflect rural Korean village life during a period for which minimal written records exist.

"Although they were once common, the social change that has transformed rural Korea in the past few decades has made these figures rare remembrances of a former way of life," says Hamilton.

The most prominent ornaments are depictions of dragons and the phoenix, which — along with a variety of bird figures — evoke a sensation of soaring freedom, and hence the soul's liberation from the body. The phoenix often has a tiny bell hanging from its beak, serving as a reminder to carry the bier with care.

For more information and photos, see the Fowler website:

Korean Funerary Figures

Life in Ceramics

A second exhibition, Life in Ceramics: Five Contemporary Korean Artists, will open at the same time. Curated by Burglind Jungmann, art history professor, Life in Ceramics will last through Feb. 13. The Fowler also plans to offer a range of related programming for all ages, including art workshops, lectures by leading scholars and artists, film screenings, food-related events and musical performances.

"The exhibitions give our audience a chance to experience two very different types of Korean art," Hamilton concludes. "This is rare in Los Angeles, where most exhibitions of Korean material have focused primarily on painting or classical ceramics."

Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World. Aug. 22-Nov. 28. Fowler Museum. For more information, visit, or call (310) 825-4361.