The Andong Mask Maker

by Hal Swindall
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Oscar Wilde once argued that we are only really ourselves when cloaked with another identity. “A man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” he quipped. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” The implication is that masks let us express truths that are normally left unspoken. His conclusion? “The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.” But long before Wilde mused about how masks could shape truth, Ancient Greek actors wore them while delivering their immortal lines, and shamans in many cultures have performed special rites with elaborately covered faces. The use of masks is as timeless as it is universal.

In Korea, masks, called tal, also date back centuries. Traditionally revered as possessing spiritual power, they were kept in shamans’ houses outside of villages and only taken out for specific ceremonies. From the mid-12th century, they became used for a kind of folk dance in which the common folk, then called “sangmin” or “pyeongmin,” satirized their yangban overlords and expressed their feelings. The “byeolsingut,” as this dance is known, was performed with yangban consent, since it tended to let off steam for the peasants and made for inter-class harmony.

The last byeolsingut was performed in 1928, but the tradition was revived again in 1973 in Andong, a town in North Gyeongsang Province that considers itself the center of the national spirit. Just up the road from the nearby Hahoe Folk Village is the Hahoe Mask Museum, where Kim Dong-pyo, an Andong native and master mask craftsman, presents his private collection of masks from around the world to the public. He looks quite young, despite being middle-aged, and comes off as alert and responsive. As we talk, he smokes calmly. The man himself leads visitors to a small side room that is bare save for a low wooden table and stools made from tree trunk sections. It is a decidedly appropriate setting for a wood artisan who sprang from humble origins.

Kim never attended university, instead learning his trade at a woodworking school after graduating high school. After completing his military service in 1976, he continued woodcraft studies at the Hanyang Wood Carving Institute in Seoul.  While there, he met a master woodworker who became his mentor, and studied under him for one year before working as a laborer in Iran to save money. Returning to Seoul, he used his earnings to establish his own arts and crafts center. At this time, a neighbor brought him a postage stamp with the image of a traditional Korean mask on it, and asked him if he could produce one like it. Kim decided “Why not?” and tried.

His first attempt at a mask resulted in an inferior product. Angry at himself, he tried again and again to hand carve a perfect mask until he finally succeeded through self-teaching. However, learning through trial and error to make high-quality masks was not enough to make his Seoul business succeed, and Kim lost all his money after two years.

Returning to his native Andong, Kim set about establishing himself as a preserver of the Korean folk tradition for which the city is famous. There he specialized in Andong masks for the talnori, a local dance dating from the mid-Joseon period that, like the byeolsingut, was a way for the common folk to express feelings that they were not allowed to speak, and thus promoted understanding between the common folk and the aristocrats. Masks were also used in praying for rain, peace or a good harvest. Kim is interested in masks everywhere as an ancient religious phenomenon that predates Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, and considers them masterpieces of human ingenuity. In Korea, masks survived Confucian rationalism and Buddhist introspection.

After years of hard work and travel to collect masks, Kim founded the Hahoe Mask Museum in 1995, and was granted official permission to call it a museum the following year. It houses a stunning collection of masks from places as diverse as Mongolia, Italy, Africa, India, North America, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Kim bought every piece in it with his own money, and proudly shares them with all who come.

Next to the museum is Kim’s workshop, which is no larger than a two-car garage. Kim is content here, with his tools and current projects lying on his work table. On the wall is a large photo of him meeting Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Andong for her birthday in 1999. Only three people were allowed to present her with gifts, one of whom was Kim. He approached Her Majesty wearing a woman’s hanbok and talnori mask, since traditionally only male dancers act in the talnori; he smiles while telling of her surprise when he removed the mask and she realized he was a man. After his success with the Queen, there came such a demand for his masks that he is constantly busy.

Behind the museum is a tourist area, and here Kim treats us to lunch. Naturally, we eat Andong’s famous stewed chicken (jjimdak), which we wash down with dongdongju. Not everyone can secure an introduction to Kim, but his museum is there for all to see, and is well worth a visit for anyone going to the Andong area.

MORE INFO

For more on the Andong mask dance, visit www.maskdance.com.

For a discussion of masks in general with mention of Kim Dong-pyo, visit www.debbelldesigns.com/publications/the-mask-maker-s-magic.    

For the Hahoe Mask Museum, visit www.mask.kr.

Groove Korea Magazine website

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