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Asian Heritage Month Feature: Kkokdu (꼭두)—Korean Funerary Figures

Traditional Korean funerals utilized funeral biers or sangyeo (상여), decorated with wooden figures known as kkokdu (or kokdu; 꼭두 ). These wooden figures of various kinds—attendants, entertainers, guides, guards, real and mystical animals—served as companions, guides, and protectors for the departed on their journey to the next world. In other words, kkokdu exist between this world and the next, giving us insight into how Koreans traditionally cared for their departed. Although modified sangyeo are still employed in some funerary practices, the use of kkokdu has almost entirely disappeared.

This set of kkokdu, which MOA acquired thanks to the generous support from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Vancouver were prepared by the Man-Go-Dang Studio in Seoul, and combines 30 to 120-year-old figures with new figures created by them. They were installed in late 2019, and are currently on display in Case 77 in the Asian section of MOA’s Multiversity Galleries. Jiyoon Kim, my former student from the University of Tokyo was back in Seoul, and worked on this Korean collection enhancement project as my assistant throughout the process. When I visited the Man-Go-Dang Studio in December 2017, Jiyoon’s friend, Ji Young Lim accompanied me as an interpreter.

View MOA’s Collection of kkokdu on MOA CAT online.

The entrance to the Kokdu Museum in Seoul. Photo: Fuyubi Nakamura.
With Ms. Seol and Mr. Um of the Man-Go-Dang Studio in front of a sangyeo with kkokdu figures, Seoul. December, 2017. Photo: Ji Young Lim
At the Man-Go-Dang Studio in Seoul. December, 2017. Photo: Fuyubi Nakamura.