Maedeup, the intricate art of Korean ornamental knots, has a storied history dating back to the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. to A.D. 668). These exquisite knots were once woven into everyday items like pocket straps and norigae (traditional pendants), and they adorned musical instruments and ritual artifacts.
The Heyday of Maedeup
The Joseon Dynasty marked the pinnacle of maedeup’s popularity, especially among the royal elite. Women cherished these knots as accessories, adorning their hanbok, the traditional Korean attire, much like treasured jewelry in European cultures.
As Western fashion began to influence Korea in the 20th century, traditional knots gradually lost their allure. This shift also led to a decline in the number of skilled maedeup artisans.
An Encounter with a Master Artisan
Lee Bu-ja, now a respected 79-year-old maedeup artisan, could not bear to witness the fading glory of this craft. In the early 1980s, she embarked on a transformative journey by enrolling in a maedeup class conducted by the late maedeup artisan Kim Hee-jin (1934–2021), a master artisan recognized by the state.
While Lee’s initial foray into maedeup was casual, she soon found herself captivated by the art form. Under Kim’s tutelage, whom Lee remembers as a “strict teacher,” she painstakingly refined her skills. Lee proudly organized numerous exhibitions and received prestigious honors, including seven awards at the Korean Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition.
A Profound Contribution to Cultural Heritage
Despite her deep attachment to the 144 maedeup masterpieces she meticulously crafted over four decades, Lee made a profound and selfless decision. She chose to donate her life’s work to the National Folk Museum of Korea.
Parting with the creations that had consumed her life was a poignant experience for Lee. She likened it to feeling as if there was a “hole in [her] heart” when she witnessed her cherished drawers emptied of their contents.
Illuminating a Cherished Tradition
Lee’s motivation behind this selfless act was to illuminate the “exquisite traditional handcraft of Korea.”
To honor both the craft and Lee’s extraordinary journey as an artisan, the museum has orchestrated a special exhibition entitled “Maedeup” at its central Seoul branch. This extraordinary exhibition features Lee’s complete collection, standing alongside other traditional knots sourced from the museum’s archives.
A Legacy Perpetuated
Lee now finds solace in witnessing her artistic creations gracefully exhibited in the museum. Her deepest desire is for individuals from every corner of the world to visit the museum and revel in the splendor of traditional Korean knots.
The “Maedeup” exhibition premiered on September 5 and will remain open until November 6. Admission is free, and the museum extends a warm welcome to visitors daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with extended evening hours until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.