Seo Byong Ho – potter-sculptor

It was one of the friendships in South Korea that I will continue to cherish.  Seo Byong Ho is one of the leading potters in his country and at the time I knew him he chaired the organization of international potters, having exhibitions in China, Japan and Indonesia.  I taught his six-year-old daughter at the local academy and was invited to see his studio.  That was beginning of our rich and fascinating friendship.

His work was very diverse, from traditional forms to personal statements, especially in the realm of images that portray birth.

He and his family are third-generation Catholics, but he spoke of the importance of Buddhism in his life, especially in terms of forms of pottery and the designs.  I found that inspiring.

He won prizes for his work, but was an unusually modest person.  He told me that he was the black sheep of his family and his brothers were executives in the Hyundai empire.

Seo Byong Ho

I gave him English lessons, but I learnt more about Korean culture than he learnt English.  My contact with him has become more infrequent, probably because his English has kind of disappeared.


These two plates by Byong Ho have a prized place in my lounge in Somerset West.

© Will van der Walt

Les Semboules, Antibes

July, 2018



My photographs







Churches in South Korea

If one knows that Korea was once called “The Hermit Kingdom”, seeing the number of churches comes as a surprise.  Almost 27% of South Korea’s population belongs to a church.  Protestants are estimated at 8.1 million, while Catholics, with a history of 350 years, are estimated at 5.6 million.  Buddhism, still numerically stronger, has a history of 1,700 years.

What struck me in the various regions was the contrasting styles in the architecture of the churches, most of which are creatively modernist.

An a-shaped church, West Seoul

A Presbyterian church, Insa-Dong area, Seoul

A cathedral, central Seoul

An Evangelistic church, Jongno-gu, Seoul

With the churches, there is art, always memorable and moving.

A Christ figure, Chinese Presbyterian Church

A stained-glass window, Presbyterian Church, Samseong, South Seoul

A station of the cross, Cathedral, Myung-Dong

Food for thought … In my stroll through Samseong, I saw the reflection of the church first …

A reflection, Presbyterian Church, Samseong, South Seoul

© Will v.d.Walt

July, 2007 – June 2008.

Images: Will

Snow in Daeso

I come from a country where snow is a rare commodity, thus the snowfall in Daeso where I was living was magical.  Daeso is a small town (its name even means that!) south of Eumseung, the city where BanKi-moon, UN Secretary-General, was born.   That morning early I hurried through the snow-laden streets, photographing everything I saw.  I share some images here.

In the garden of the Catholic Church – dreamy, otherworldly
Yi Sung-sin, great admiral, looking over the primary school playground
Civil War monument

This is the monument to those from Daeso who died in the Civil War (1950-1953).  Below the tall black monolith there is a relief of heroic figures.  On top of the apartment building in the background there are sirens which may be used in the event of an attack from North Korea.  A formal peace between the two countries was never brokered.  They are still in a state of ceasefire.

This figure of Yi Sung-sin you see in a number of places.  He is the great historic admiral who is credited with inventing, in the East, the modern battleship.  In the early 1590s a handful of such battleships routed the entire Japanese navy and delivered Korea from yet another invasion of the peninsula by the Japanese.  On that snow-filled morning he presided over a playground of frolicking children, a generation that has not known war.

Winter lion

I found it fascinating that the Lion is a  figure you find all over Korea, the “intrepid spirit”, a schoolboy explained to me with the help of a computer dictionary.  Here this African icon is covered with snow as it keeps guard over the primary school children throwing snowballs,  close to Yi Sung-sin.


This kind of shelter, decorative and slight, you see all over the East.  The Koreans, if I understand correctly, call it a jonya.   It struck me the more with its snow cap.

Daeso snow tree
Snow branches

I couldn’t stop staring at this tree, feeling somehow that I was hallucinating.

Will van der Walt ©

February, 2008

Image Source: Photographs by Will

Myung-dong – Two Cathedrals

Whenever I go to Seoul, I have a ten-minute test:  within that short time something remarkable will happen.  When I came to the bus stop at Daeso this morning – even before I got to Seoul – I met a man from Mongolia.  The moment he told me where he was from, I sought the physical differences from Korean people. (Is this a South African legacy?) To add odd to odd, he started speaking German to me… do all Westerners look the same?  I stumbled through the conversation.  He had spent four years in the DDR (East Germany).

Five minutes after my alighting from the metro at Myong-dong, north Seoul, a downtown area in Seoul, I’m told, the second remarkable thing happened.  At my elbow there suddenly was a dapper lady, loading me with questions –  Was I lost?  What had I come to see?  Could she help?  I replied that I had come to see the Catholic Cathedral and she said, Come, I’m off to mass.  But we were early and stopped at a bistro for coffee.

Yi Jae-sun or Elizabeth was 70 years old.  She and her family had, with the first attacks in 1950, fled from North Korea.  Her father had a teacher’s post in Chung-Tjê-ông, a small town outside Seoul.  Here they spent the war – the emergency evacuations, hiding amongst the rocks of the mountain, sleeping in the dust, while they witnessed bombs raining on Seoul. Her own immediate family survived, but her mother lost her two brothers, together with five million other civilians, the highest count in a civil war in the 20th-century.  We couldn’t find the remaining brother, she told me. The dust of the decades had covered her feelings.

How do you feel about North Korea now? I asked.

Kim Jong-ihl is their god, she said.  Integration between the two countries will not happen in our time.

Myung-dong Catholic Cathedral

I stood in the nave of the Cathedral, an impressive neo-gothic revival with high flowering ribbing.  What I found moving was the depictions of the Stations of the Cross – contemporary reliefs in deep brown terracotta,  recalling the romanesque I had seen in Europe,, especially at Hildesheim in Germany.

One of the Stations of the Cross

Outside, in front of the church on a spacious square, there was a wedding with women in traditional hanbok –  full-length bell dresses, colourful and festive.  Above them against the backdrop of the modern city, stood a Christ-the-Redeemer figure, bold and stark.

Christ the Redeemer, Myung-dong

Along the side of the Cathedral there was a bust of Kim Tae-gon, the martyr of the persecutions of the 1840s.  His Western name is Father Andrew and in the Cathedral itself there is a shrine with him wearing a tall wide-brimmed hat.  More persecutions followed in the 1860s, but the Church grew along with other denominations, notably the Presbyterians.  Father Andrew was canonized in 1984.

I didn’t see Elizabeth again and spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, amazed by the architecture, most of which has risen in the last forty years from the ashes of the war that ended in 1953.

In the ramble I found myself at the Presbyterian Cathedral, less impressive, but with its own story of martyrdom.  This time it was in living memory.  During the Civil War, Seoul changed hands four times, starting with the communists in 1950.  When these forces were driven back, all the way from the south of the Korean peninsula, it was difficult to rout all the pockets of resistance.  At this particular cathedral, which had been occupied, the church authorities assumed that the struggle was over and that they could resume services.  One of the officials, Kim-Eung-nak, entered the church and was confronted by soldiers. The plaque at the entrance of the church recalls his words to them, “He calmly said, I am an elder in this church.”  They tortured him and they shot him.  We have a grainy photograph of his face – the tentative, reticent eyes. The story stays with me.

Kim Eung-nak

At lunch-time I munched my way through another pu-chim-ghê, the Korean vegetable pancake, watching with increasing fascination how a young cook was displaying his skills at kneading long ropes of thick white dough, tossing them through the air, smashing them down, whipping them, rolling them – working his magic like a man from a circus.

Magician of dough

Will van der Walt ©

May, 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will

Jangseung – Grotesquerie at Hahoe Village

My fellow travellers were too lazy for an early morning jaunt from Andong to Hahoe Village.  So I went alone, through a dewed shadow-soft landscape to the ancient village of Hahoe (pr. Hawhere).  When you mention this place to Koreans, you are talking about the roots of the culture.  Quite unimposing, even primitive, it is a small cluster of dwellings, some of them mud and grass.  The information board tells you that it was constructed according to intricate geomantic principles, pungsu, and is associated with ancient clans.  Legend has it that Hahoe Village is where the design of yin-yang originated in the 8th-century c.e.  This symbol has only been found in China since the 11th-century c.e.
The river at Hahoe Village. Note the Yin-Yang formation.

On a previous visit I saw a performance of masked dance by a Japanese troupe and wandering around the streets was a peep into another time.  But it was really the jangseung that brought me back.  With a passion.
A throng of jangseung

The jangseung are carved logs, grotesque faces meant to scare off evil spirits or demarcate boundaries.  The gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are tame by comparison, but, no doubt, coming from the same folk impulses.  Jangseung are a rough craft, overpowering and deeply loved, even with an irony, by modern Koreans.  Traditionally, they are found on the periphery of fields or at the entrances to villages.  At the International Mask Festival in Andong, I saw children in workshops carving their own jangseung.  With commitment and glee.  Chisels and hammers.  Chips flying.

At Hahoe village it seemed that the jangseung, a whole throng of them, had been dropped off in a small field along the road to the Village.  It was entirely un-touristy.  And I was the only person showing an interest.  One mother passing by with her little girl had to curb the child’s curiosity –  for a reason that will become clear.

Standing amongst them, surrounded by them, overpowered by them, I was transfixed.  A small forest of figures,  hypnotically gross and crude, the stuff of fairy tales, frightening and enchanting… it was a magical experience.

Amongst these preposterosities, there were the two iconic  figures, called Hahoetal that the Village is known for.  They are not grotesque;  they both radiate warmth and goodwill.  The male figure is called the yangban mask and the female, the bridal mask.

Then – and this is what the mother kept her daughter from – there were figures with immense penises, indicative of the tradition of phallicism in Korea.  I find it interesting that, in a country where the one-child policy has been applied with uncommon discipline, that there has been a tradition of phallic imagery geared to fertility.

Jangseung and rocks

The jangseung are not everybody’s cup of green tea.  For me they show the vitality of a culture, a spirituality and a wild creativity.

Will van der Walt ©

March, 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will


Phallicism is interpreted as a cultural meaning of reproductive principles and male, female sexual activities aiming at good fortune, praying for the birth of a male baby, productiveness, and well-being.  Phallicism handed down in Korea, venerates natural stones or geographical features shaped like female-male sexual organs as objects of praying for the birth of a male boy, the protection of villages, productiveness, and complementary measures against geomantic problems.  Artificial sculptures of sexual organs made of stone, wood and earthen ware were also used to worship and enshrine the guardians of the village.  – Information Board, Folk Culture Museum, Seoul.    [Careful scrutiny of the second image in this post will illustrate what is being said here.]

Ten Buildings in Seoul

It is nothing less than remarkable that 30 years ago, the Korean language had to invent a term for ‘highrise’ which did not then exist.  Today 80% of the population live in highrise buildings.  The architectural revolution in South Korea is astounding.  These are some of the buildings I saw, always searchingly inventive, a beauty that strikes and all in powerful contrast to the tradition of the past millennia.
Entrance to shopping mall, Samseung
The IBK bank, Myung-dong, west Seoul


Hospital, Jongno-gu, central Seoul

IBK bank, Myung-dong, west Seoul
Hyundai building, Samseung. Note sword and shield motifs.

Cultural-History Museum, Icong, west Seoul. Based on line and circle motifs.
World Trade Centre, Samseung, South Seoul

The Asian Centre, Jongno-gu, central Seoul. Again, that adventurous line.

Unnamed building but one with muted beauty
The Post Office Building, City Hall area, central Seoul

Of all skyscrapers I’ve ever seen, this ranks as the pinnacle.  It is the Post Office Building in the City Hall area, central Seoul.  It is just so zany, so daring, so playful.  If it is a zip, what do you imagine he was doing the night before he did this design?

Will van der Walt ©

2007 – 2008

Image Sources: Photographsby Will

Hwaseong and the Music of Spheres

Hwaseong in Suwon, south Seoul, was declared a World Heritage site in the 1990s. It is a fortified Joseon city that has evolved over the centuries.  Its high point came in the late 18th century, as the French were reigning with terror. The city wall, low enough to look over, stretches for kilometers, above and through the cityscape of Suwon. Seoul itself, the thought struck me, is actually a small country.
Floodgate, Hwaseung, Suwon, south Seoul

One of the curled-roof buildings along the wall, is a floodgate post, presumably to make attacks difficult for the enemy.  And there are many variations of look-out posts.  Dozens of schoolchildren swarmed along the neat cement paths next to the walls.  There was a festive air.  But for various reasons I wasn’t up to energetic site-seeing – perhaps the intensive visits of the past six weeks were catching up on me.  At the floodgate I sat down to rest and then, as always with Seoul, the small miracle happened.

I heard music and sensed that it was live.  I moved through a  garden and came upon a small amphitheatre which would seat fifty people, if that, and on the low stage were three women in traditional Korean bell dresses each playing a kayageum.  This stringed instrument, often called the zither, produces the sounds of Eastern music as nothing else does.  It is a long panel of wood with 12 strings.  The note is played on the upper part above the bridge in the middle and the tone for that note is created on the strings below the bridge.
A traditional ensemble of musicians

 It was probably a rehearsal, but it sounded perfect to me. The strange halting rhythms, the sudden jabbing notes, the elongations and wavering, and moments of silence took me to another time and other minds.  Of course, they were beautiful too, the players, their black hair bunned, their poise and delicate movement turning them into a memorable cameo.

A young man, dashing in his traditional garb and black hair on his shoulders was taking pictures of them.  He later turned out to be a drummer of real competence, sounding quite African in style.
Solo performer

I sat for 10 minutes and then they packed up and left the stage, to be replaced by a single kayageum player, even more striking than they had been.  She played and she sang.  That I will never forget.  The music is mostly limited to a certain tonal range, breaking through it at times. There is no recurring motif as with Western music, but she could draw her listeners who had by now grown into a handful of people sitting there – the bass notes she achieved with her voice, the sad brave tone soaring, some words almost spoken with the delicacy of a bird and the strength of a warrior.  What she did was done with uncommon commitment, a pleasure and a pain weaving above deft movements of her fingers on those long strings.  You feel a deep speaking, an intimate word, a filling of the day, a song to mountains.

One of the women who had played previously asked me where I was from and then the three players returned.  Interestingly, they had a something of a Western repertoire then.  I smiled and knew it was time to leave.  They paused.  They looked at one another and then the first notes came. Of music that I feel the most, there is a handful of pieces.  There is Allegri’s Miserere, but next to it is Pachelbel’s Canon.

And it was the Canon they began to play, measured, sad and ritual.  It finished me.  Not since the solo dancer at the Insa-Dong festival have I been so moved. There is a soft marching in that music.  In the two minor chords that lie together in the heart of the sequence, there is a grieving that  rises into healing of the major chords that follow.  And it follows again.  And again, because it is a canon.  Like life and death, it keeps turning.

It came to me that eternity is not ‘a long time’.  It is three women playing the Canon on kayageum in a fortress city in Suwon.

I wandered around Hwaseong for some time and then trekked across to north Seoul by metro to Seoul University of Technology where I slipped into the fine arts department and photographed students’ work in the sculpture and ceramics section.

But the music still moves above that hot skyscraper day, the sudden and sweet notes, like shade and sun, and the voice that comes from ancient years, and it’s all held in the eight chords of the Canon that seek out the furthest hills of this beloved country.

Will van der Walt ©

15 June 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will

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