An exhibit dedicated to the people of Greece standing up for their independence two centuries ago is not meant to be viewed dispassionately.
“Raiment of the Soul” at the KF Gallery in central Seoul should be absorbed as thoughts, feelings – and possibly inspiration.
Starting last Friday, the KF Gallery has been transformed to transport visitors to another place and time. Upon their entry, visitors go though a drastic change of light to near darkness, and what they hear is a mix of sounds from a photo session and sewing movements – representative of the two instruments used by photographer Vangelis Kyris and artist Anatoli Georgiev to create the exhibition.
Rows of portraits, individually lit, show figures wearing Greek traditional dress from two centuries ago. Some are of prominent figures like King Otto, Lady Phrosyne or General Theodoros Kolokotronis, the man who led the 1821-29 Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.
But only upon a close examination does a visitor realize what sets these portraits apart from the usual oil-on-canvas works. The detailed embroidery of the garments are highlighted by actual, hand-sewn needlework on the cotton canvases. The figures wearing the costumes are not the actual historical figures, but young and old people of today’s Greece.
“The exhibition is a tribute to the heroes who gave their lives so that we can have ours today,” said Haik Kourdoglanian, owner of the Kourd Gallery in Athens, who with close collaboration with the two artists, the National Historical Museum in Greece and the Embassy of Greece in Korea, brought the exhibition to Asia for the first time.
“This is something that not only the Greeks can say, but Koreans, given their history of struggle for independence, and also Ukrainians today,” Kourdoglanian said.
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek Revolution in 1821 last year, the National Historical Museum in Greece, the country’s oldest history museum, brought out the costumes and traditional dress of heroes and heroines of the revolution, and asked Kyris, known for his unconventional approach to fashion, to bring them back to life.
Kyris did this by asking models in Greece, including a symbol of Mediterranean beauty Esther Mastrogianni, to don the costumes and pose before his camera. Georgiev would be by his side, taking in the effects of the lighting on every detail of the garment.
Kyris would give the models some directions and wait for the right moment to press the shutter, a process he called capturing a moment to put it “out of death.”
“The result is such that in the gaze of this model wearing the garbof King Otto, you can see a king who has ascended to throne at the age of 17,” said Kourdoglanian. “And here, in the facial expression of the model wearing the dress of Queen Olga, who was the second queen of Greece after the revolution, you can see both hope and belief in making the country great again after centuries of Ottoman occupation, but also shadows of what the country has had to endure.”
Once the portraits were printed on cotton canvases, Georgiev started his work, working on embroidery patterns that were his originals, not copies of the patterns on the dresses.
“I would start with the highlights, where the light is hitting the embroidered costumes,” Georgiev said. “I did not have to go back to photos or the dresses themselves. I would remember their look from the photo sessions and go from there.”
His techniques range from those used centuries ago to more modern, and are not limited to the practices of a single country.
Because he is, through his embroidery work, carrying on the legacies of the artists of many centuries ago, some of whom remain nameless and faceless in history, Georgiev works on these portraits with almost a religious ardor.
“I am praying while I work, and after I have finished a piece, I try to have only good and positive thoughts,” he said.
Another way to enjoy the exhibition is to notice the different styles of dress throughoutGreece, home to around 200 inhabited islands.
“This is a dress from Macedonia, in northern Greece, where Alexander the Great comes from,” said Kyris, pointing to a portrait of a costume from Roumlouki, Macedonia, dated to the 19th century. “What they say about this part of the region is that, while Alexander the Great ruled the area, he was always away with all the army and the men. So since it was up to many women to keep the villages safe, he would give them helmet and armors to use in defending their hometowns. That is why in this portrait, we see that the traditional head garment takes after the look of a helmet.”
Placed far within the exhibition room but visible from the entry is the portrait of Kyra Frosini, or Lady Phrosyne, whose standing up to the Ottoman empire, to eventually face execution, has made her a national martyr among the Greeks for centuries.
Her dress, weighing some 30 kilograms (66 pounds), was worn by Mastrogianni in a studio created within the walls of the National Historical Museum in Athens last year.
“It is the oldest surviving dress in all of Europe, dating back to the 18th century,” said Kourdoglanian. “Again, you can see it in the eyes of the model, the way they were captured in photograph, a sense of what Greece went through – a time period of nothingness under the rule of the Ottomans after seeing the heyday of Byzantium. That is why many Greeks today stand with the people of Ukraine, that is why many Greeks came to aid Korea when the war broke out here. And it is the same with the Korean people – we see flags of Ukraine being put up throughout Seoul. We carry the same spirit, the same heart.”
The exhibition, which has toured 80 pieces and is a growing project, may not have come to Seoul had it not been for Greek Ambassador Ekaterini Loupas.
“I knew I had to bring the exhibition to Korea once I saw it,” she said in meeting with the press at the Greek Embassy in Seoul on March 24. “Sixty years of diplomatic relations between the Hellenic Republic and the Republic of Korea is an important milestone on our common path and I could not think of a better way to commemorate this anniversary than an exhibition that offers an innovative interpretation of our tradition.”
Greece and Korea celebrated their 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations last year, but many events to celebrate the milestone were postponed to this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the embassy.
They could come to include an interpretation of the Korean traditional dresses by Kyris and Georgiev.
“We are thinking of possibly working on Korean traditional outfit in the future,” said Kyris, adding that he and Georgiev were inspired when they visited the folk museum in central Seoul earlier in the day.
The exhibition, open at the gallery through June 3, is open every Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.