Her Agung-i



Acrylic, pencil, chicken bones, thread, gold fabric, and latex on canvas

Agung-I means ‘fireplace’ in Korean. In my work, the fireplace is associated with sacrifice and holiness. When it comes to the origins of the term, the most intriguing hypothesis is that the word originated with Agni, a god of fire in Hinduism. Agni is the god in charge of passing sacrificial offerings to other gods when people burn their sacrifices in rituals. Alongside Agni, the Kitchen God in Korean folklore is related to kitchens and fireplaces. People’s belief in the Kitchen God can be observed from an old saying: “If a kitchen isn’t tidy, the God will be furious.” I presume the God in this context indicates the Kitchen God. As kitchens used to be known as the ‘women’s area’, the old saying pressured women to always keep the place clean and neat.

From the time of my grandmother’s and my mother’s generation up to the current generation, the patriarchal society in Korea and the people’s elevation of men over women continued to be passed down, in various forms. Gender discrimination in particular was visualized by separating men and women in terms of space and in terms of time. For example, men and women had to use different tables during meal times; men had a bigger table than women. Moreover, some ‘traditional’ families only allowed women to start eating after the men had finished their meal. For more than 60 years, my grandmother took care of the agung-i, always tending to the embers. Her efforts and concerns about sustaining the fireplace were not to serve Agni, which is described as a male god with three heads, seven tongues, and red skin, nor was it about obeying the Kitchen God, who surveils women's behaviours Instead, it was about keeping the house warm and having a place to cook food for the family and the children under her care. Today, after her children had grown up and began lives of their own, she continues to light the fireplace, burning stray hairs, and wishing for their happiness.

 © 2020 by Jihye Baek.