Renewal of Symbols. Contemporary Minhwa Paintings – An Exhibition at FIT

By Kyunghee Pyun, Friday, August 20, 2022

The exhibition “Renewal of Symbols – Contemporary Minhwa Paintings” is on display at the FIT Gladys Marcus Library between August 25 and December 16, 2022. It highlights the art, legacy, and the creative process behind minhwa, a Korean folk painting tradition, which was particularly popular during the late Joseon dynasty period (1392–1893).

Composed of popular motifs such as flowers, birds, characters, and animals symbolizing longevity and prosperity, minhwa painters involved careful coloring on both recto and verso side of the paper, and even silk. The method was shared by professional painters at the court as well as in the provinces. Flower motifs, birds, and animals as well as luxurious objects of fantasy were commonly found in embroidery and clothing ornaments. The names of most of the artists are unknown today.

Fig. 1 Aphrodisiac_29 (gold background, klein blue dish), 2019, 36×24 inch, ink, pigment and wash on mulberry paper. Seongmin Ahn. Courtesy of the Artist.

This exhibition of eight contemporary New York City based artists invites audiences to learn more about the laborious process behind minhwa. The displays feature underdrawings, pattern books, and completed works. In one case, the artist used previously created drawings. She then added hanji, mulberry bark paper on top of the drawing sheet and traced the outlines with a diluted (light grey) ink-dipped fine brush. Once the outlines became apparent, the artist added light hue color tones on the shapes and repeated the process called barim by adding layers of ink washes to adjust the hues, saturations, and values of colors. In some cases, light hues were applied on the verso side of the paper to create more vivid colors. After the pigments are applied on the recto side, the artist adds further dark outlines in color and brush.

The artists shown not only worked in these traditional patterns but also invented their own motifs. Transforming the folk painting tradition into contemporary art practice, familiar motifs such as peony flowers, ten symbols of longevity, and eight characters of Confucian tenets in minhwa painting resonate with the amplification of indexical messages entrenched in the visual symbols. Desire for a better career, a long life, a long-lasting marriage, and success and happiness are often seen vulgar, outlandish, or brassy. Artists and patrons of late Joseon minhwa painting involved the beneficiary of these works: their loved ones, friends, and families. Hope for a better world is still needed in the twenty-first century as more artists will find inspirations from Korean minhwa painting in years to come.

Fig. 2 Interrelation series 2015, 24”x18”, ink and color on mulberry paper.
Seongmin Ahn. Courtesy of the Artist.

In contemporary minhwa paintings, artists introduce new symbols. The 2022 Minhwa Creative Collective included four high school students who worked under the supervision of artist and teacher Seongmin Ahn, renewing and reinventing symbols meaningful for each person in their habitus. Ecological contexts of traditional motifs are significantly altered in recent decades due to global warming, air pollution, and a decreasing habitat for a number of species. Minhwa painting is continuously reinvented to address socio-political issues of our contemporary society. Seongmin Ahn’s begin AGAIN series continues the character-based lettering art and yet presents a new direction for minhwa as an idiom of contemporary art.

Artist Seongmin Ahn teaches at Queens College, City University of New York. She has mentored graduates from the Art History and Museum Professions Program (AHMP) at FIT and other students. Ahn’s public art project begin AGAIN is currently on view at John Jay College’s Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery on Eleventh Avenue at 58 Street until August 26. Seongmin Ahn worked with students in a project called 2022 Minhwa Creative Collective. Hana Glanz, Rachel Kim, Yoon Lee, and Justin Pyun collaborated with Ahn to think about new symbols for contemporary minhwa in view of political ecology, sustainability, and environmental changes. Their research papers and idea sketches are also on display. 

You are cordially invited to the opening reception of “Renewal of Symbols – Contemporary Minhwa Paintings” on Wednesday, September 14, 2022 at 4-6 pm at Gladys Marcus Library, Fashion Institute of Technology. Please RSVP to Jungmin Hur at jungmin_hur[at] by September 13, 2022.

Dr. Kyunghee Pyun is Associate Professor at the FIT History of Art Department, and a specialist in Asian and Asian American Art, as well as European Medieval Art. You can learn more about her work here.