London – Galleries & Museums

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

◄ Hallyu! The Korean Wave

Hallyu! The Korean Wave at the Victoria & Albert Museum until Saturday 25 June 2023 showcases the colourful and dynamic popular culture of South Korea, exploring the makings of the Korean Wave and its global impact on the creative industries of cinema, drama, music, fandom, beauty and fashion.

We know about Hyundai cars, Squid Games on Netflix, Parasite winning the Best Movie Oscar and Psy dancing with Gangnam Style and the huge worldwide popularity of K-Pop groups. High energy hardly starts to describe it and the choreography is absolutely exhausting. You can practise joining in the dance moves.


It’s also highly choreographed in a business sense as well. The star K-Pop bands with their ‘idols’ don’t just happen, they’re carefully chosen, trained, developed, launched and managed. Well isn’t this true of an awful lot of South Korea today? I’ve just read an article about Korea’s population decline, basically because it’s just too damned expensive to have children. You can’t afford a house to raise them in and you certainly can’t afford the education costs with all the cramming that’s required to get them into the right schools, colleges and universities. The Korean economy may be booming, but the declining birth rate is also world leading.

▲ The Lego Launderette of Dreams art installation at 133 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2.

Not far away in Kensington the Design Museum features Parables for Happiness – Yinka Ilori also until Saturday 25 June 2023. The display features the hyper-colourful design work of Yinka Ilori, part of the Nigerian diaspora in North London. The exhibit reflects how Nigerian textile designs come alive in his billboards, graphics, furniture and even shopfronts, like the Launderette of Dreams.

Apart from his very colourful work I’m also intrigued by the Marquess Estate in Islington where he grew up. It’s one of those design things which clearly did not work. It was nn attempt to create a council estate that was not a soulless high rise, rather it would be ‘a village in the city.’ It won awards, it was opened by Harold Wilson in 1975, but the intricate (non-high rise) design turned out to be an invitation for crime, a dangerous place to venture into.

Despite which Yinka clearly felt a real connection to the place. He’s done work revitalizing children’s playgrounds and comments of his own experience of the Marquess Estate playground: ‘I held my playground so high in my heart,’ he says, ‘you would think all the objects were made out of gold.’ Wonderful.

◄ Finally there’s Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Omai at the National Portrait Gallery – well sort of. The NPG doesn’t own it – yet – and in fact the gallery is currently in the process of a major renovation and won’t reopen to the public until 2023. Meanwhile they are trying to raise £50 million to stop the portrait from leaving the country.

Omai arrived in England in 1774, travelling from Tahiti in what is now French Polynesia on board HMS Adventure, one of the ships with Captain Cook’s second great Pacific voyage. The Smithsonian magazine commented in a 2021 article that ‘It’s doubtful whether any other non-European figure had inspired English portraitists to put so much oil on canvas.’ And goes on to report:



• But the man immortalized on canvas was not quite the man who posed for Joshua Reynolds’ 1775 or 1776 portrait. Back in Tahiti, a society with a highly stratified system of social classes, Mai was a manahune, a commoner, powerless and impoverished. There was nothing regal or patrician about Mai; he was a nobody who happened to hitch an epic ride to England, a regular guy who went on a most excellent adventure—all of which makes his story even more spectacular.

Of all the Omai portraits the one by Joshua Reynolds is the most famous and for two centuries it hung in Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. Then it was sold to billionaire Irish horse stud owner John Magnier in 2001 for £10.3 million. It was displayed at the National Gallery of Ireland for six years, but other than that it’s pretty much been hidden from public view. Now it’s going to take a much larger sum to ‘save’ it for the UK although quite why it has appreciated so much in the last 20 years is unclear.

Still I was pleased to have a look at it, with a small group of viewers which included London mayor Sadiq Khan. I helped write the 1996 edition of Lonely Planet’s Tahiti & French Polynesia and I’ll be returning to Tahiti in December 2022 to sail on the cargo-passenger ship Aranui to the Marquesas.