Our new Gallery of Korean Art opened last week, and our visitors are already enjoying learning about how Korea’s belief systems have influenced art for thousands of years. This new space is arranged into four sections, each looking at a different tradition: shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and contemporary works influenced by these traditions.
Shamanism, moosok or mookyo [무속/무교] in Korean, is the oldest and only indigenous belief system in the Korean peninsula. Numerous deities and spirits are worshipped in this tradition, but there is no written body of scripture to codify this ancient religion. According to this tradition, the world is inhabited by spirits, and shamans (or moodang) are essential as mediators between spirits and humans. They are usually women and perform the role of guiding people in rites (or gut, pronounced ‘goot’) in accordance with practices transmitted through oral tradition. Most shamanistic rituals are performed to appease various deities or the spirits of the dead to avoid illness or sudden deaths of family members, so rituals for the deceased have been given a great importance. Various tomb goods such as pottery, jewelry and clothing were buried with the deceased, depending on their status.
In Korean shamanism it is understood that life is cyclical—a continuous sequence of past, present and future—which is echoed in later Buddhist teachings as well. When Confucianism was declared the state religion of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910 CE), shamanism was suppressed and has been viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s modernization until very recently. However, even those who regard shamanism as outmoded acknowledge that shamanistic rituals are a valuable repository of Korean folk art, carrying forward centuries of traditional costumes, dance, music and chanting, and today many elements of shamanism are designated Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Seoul (a government designation intended to safeguard the cultural heritage of Korea). One of the most prominent of the rituals preserved today is masked drama. This mask of a “depraved monk” (left) was worn during the Hahoe Special Ritual Drama to the Gods to appease Seonangsin, or a village god or goddess. The drama features ten characters, all of whom representing different social classes, from the ruling class to clergy, farmers and slaves. This mask of the depraved monk portrays his unruly and wayward behavior, instead of the solemnity and benevolence that a Buddhist monk should possess. The wide-open grinning mouth suggests his loose morals, and the crescent-shaped eyes reveal his womanizing behavior. This shows the sense of humor, parody and social satire that is often a part of Korean masked dramas, which combine shamanistic rituals and village entertainment. Unlike most other Korean dance dramas that involved ritual burning of the masks after performances, the masks for this drama have been preserved. You can see an example of the dance dramas in a video playing underneath this mask in the gallery.