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  • God Pictures in Korean Contexts: The Ownership and Meaning of Shaman Paintings by Laurel Kendall, Jongsung Yang, and Yul Soo Yoon
  • Boudewijn Walraven
God Pictures in Korean Contexts: The Ownership and Meaning of Shaman Paintings, by Laurel Kendall, Jongsung Yang, and Yul Soo Yoon, Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016, ix + 161 pp.

Shamans of the Hwanghae province tradition bring colorful paintings of the selection of deities they worship in large suitcases to all their major rituals, to be hung on the walls of the space where the ritual is held. The status of these pictures is ambiguous. When they have served their purpose and are put back in the suitcase, they are briskly folded and handled with relative insouciance. Anyone around to help can do it. Nonetheless, in other ways it becomes clear that the paintings have power and need to be treated with circumspection. The god pictures have to be fêted with a ritual from time to time; they have to ‘‘play.’’ When there are too many paintings to actively ‘‘participate’’ in the [End Page 182] ritual while hanging on the walls, with the lavish offerings piled up in front of them, the shaman may pick up a suitcase full of folded pictures and briefly dance with it in her arms to give the deities inside, too, their share of attention. If ritually neglected the pictures may harm their owners, causing all kinds of misfortune. In one case I have encountered, the neglect was supposed to have caused problems with the organization of an international conference the owner, who had inherited the paintings from her shaman mother, was preparing for. These god pictures are paraphernalia, things to be used and to be replaced when worn, as well as concrete and powerful manifestations of the deities. It may also happen that a shaman points at a painting and says, ‘‘that’s me’’ when it depicts the personal spirit who is the most determining influence in her or his life. This is an extreme example of the more general close personal relationship shamans tend to have with the paintings of the deities they worship.

The ambiguity of Korean shaman paintings, and not just of the Hwanghae tradition, is at the heart of God Pictures, a short but important book, which devotes much needed attention to what, following Appadurai, we have come to call the ‘‘social life’’ of the objects used in Korean shamanism. It demonstrates vividly that material objects are closely intertwined with immaterial things. The authors emphasize the agency of the paintings as perceived not only by the shamans and their clients, but also by collectors, in this respect inspired by Alfred Gell, who has noted that not only primitive animists but also our contemporaries tend to attribute causation to inanimate objects (in his parlance, they ‘‘abduct’’ causation from the objects). Furthermore, they also heed ‘‘Gell’s suggestion that relationships between humans and objects be studied in the manner that anthropologists study other kinds of relationships,’’ relationships that are ‘‘fluid, contingent, and open to debate’’ (121). Given this approach, their conclusion not surprisingly is that there are no simple, unequivocal answers to the question what is the meaning of the god paintings. Instead, they present an intriguing and finely argued overview of the options.

The complexity of the matter is reinforced by the fact that the paintings (again as active agents, by provoking desire) have aroused the interest of outsiders. It is one of the strengths of this book that the discussion is not limited to the meaning of the god paintings in their original ritual context, their relationships with the shamans and their clients, but takes into account the full range [End Page 183] of their contemporary ‘‘life.’’ Aiming to study the actual state of affairs in the early twenty-first century, the book reflects on ‘‘the circulation of shaman paintings from sacred to secular space’’ (4), asking what happens if god paintings become commercial items to be bought by collectors and achieve the status of art, and inquires whether the pictures lose their sacredness and power when displayed on the walls of a museum (tentative answer: not always or not for everyone). Interestingly...


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pp. 182-185
Launched on MUSE
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