Kokdu: Korean Funerary Figures


A charming and unexpected showcase of figurines from the Kokdu Museum.

Kokdu (alternatively Kkoktu) are small, brightly painted wood carvings depicting people and animals. Sometimes they are natural, sometimes mythical, but they are remarkably friendly, despite their morbid purpose. Kokdu are intended to accompany a funeral bier or Sangyeo, providing guidance to the deceased. This explains the exhibition's subtitle: Companions for the Journey to the Other World.

The figurines on display come from the Kokdu Museum in Seoul, as does the impressive and ornate bier which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. They are all from the late 19th or early 20th century and represent a tradition which has fallen to the wayside in Korea's headlong rush into modernity.

To an outsider, it seems that there is some difficulty in establishing the exact traditions which created the kokdu. Their origins are ascribed to a mixture of Shamanism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and the museum admits that the Joseon dynasty's funeral manuals make no mention of kokdu, only the funeral bier itself. A historian or cultural anthropologist could certainly get a lot of mileage out of these figurines.

Their origins aside, the kokdu have a quirkiness and charm which allows them to stand on their own as works of folk art. Their poses and expressions give them an appealing playfulness which enhances the fairly rudimentary carving techniques. Somehow they are not what one expects from Korea, which is yet another reason to give the kokdu some attention.

Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World is on display at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, which is just by Trafalgar Square. They can be seen until the 8th of September, 2012.

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