Reflections from a Trip to Seoul, South Korea (Nourah Sammar, Palestine, ITP 2009)

Written by Nourah Sammar, Palestine, ITP 2009

Last year, from August to November 2019, I visited Seoul, South Korea, for my first vacation. I would love to share with you Seoul from an ITP participant’s view.

Gyeongbokgung Palace’s National Folk Museum of Korea instantly caught my admiration. The way ethnographic artefacts were presented – from the Joseon artistic pursuits like the musical instruments, and the faces children made while listening to their sounds, to the lavatory signs that didn’t force ‘Woman’ into a skirt – immediately caught my attention and spoke to me. Furthermore, the engaging illustrations of pixelated ink and the meaningful panel captions such as: “people are the hope”, “Place Full of Protesters”, “I am a minimum wage worker but I am not a living in a low-life”, “I want to live in a stable world where my daughters can achieve their dreams,” also spoke to me profoundly.

These quotes, along with the other small but significant touches, reflect life and the living. They inspire and impact us. They are examples of how curating is a profession helping to show a life of development, channelling a collective past progressing into sharing a better future!

In the premises of Deoksugung Palace, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art exhibits works by many artists, including the female painter Jung Chanyoung. Her work introduces us to ink colour painting, natural sceneries that are both pretty and meaningful within the context of modern botanical art. On the theme of nature, visiting separately the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites of the Jongmyo Shrine – where I got to walk on a path next to the royal spirits and the Secret Garden located behind the Changdeokgung palace – was divine.  In every view I found lessons to learn, from curatorial to national attainment.  

Further ahead, I was able to attend several exhibitions. Whilst queuing for hours on a Sunday morning to see David Hockney’s works from the Tate Collection at Seoul Museum of Art, I realised the significance and emphasis Koreans place on education and arts. The visitors to the museum were from a variety of backgrounds, expressing their views and opinions, with grandmothers and grandchildren fondly conversing.

I had noticed this earlier in my trip when visiting the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History and watching children with their parents discussing their curriculum. This stood out to me particularly, as being raised in Palestine, under the oppression of Israeli occupation; I had not witnessed students interacting with heritage and arts at a museum until visiting the British Museum as an ITP participant in 2009. Those memories from my time at the British Museum I hold onto dearly, and am happy to see such views that I was exposed to at the BM and in Seoul gradually becoming a more familiar sight in Palestine with the opening of the Palestinian Museum.

Daelim Museum’s exhibition, Serious Fun, challenged the viewer to imagine. Sejong Centre Art Gallery’s Fauvism Masterpieces exhibition was breath-taking, I couldn’t leave before it was closing time. Mesmerised, I spent an inordinate amount of time before each painting. From the works of art to the lighting, everything was unerring.

Visiting the Amorepacific Museum of Art exhibition Barbara Kruger: Forever was an intriguing experience. The economic-sociopolitical analysis and provocation in her work have always attracted me and influenced my views of visual culture. Moreover, I was inspired by the viewpoint of artists such as Min Oh and Hong Seung-Hye, contemplating the thoughtful booklet for Gallery SP’s exhibition Uhm-Uhm-Uhm. A string of my heart also pulled me to visit SM TOWN Museum as a tribute to Jonghyun, a poet and artist whose work has touched millions and continues to inspire people around the world.

Seoul has a vivid cultural life of endless potentials, with vibrant museums and art galleries presenting a diverse array of content and themes to interested visitors. Thank you for joining me on a glimpse of the place where my soul found home.