The Mask of Nojang (the old monk) is from a line of Korean masks that are often used in a variety of contexts, and they were common during the war by horses and the soldiers who wore them.
The masks are now primarily ceremonial and they are used for burial rites, (Hyung-a, 12). They are often made in bronze or jade, and are believed to drive away evil spirits in shamanistic ceremonies. Often, the masks are symbolic of the Korean culture, and they sometimes depict great historical faces of Korea, (Suk-Kee, 6). This is meant to remember these people in death. Frequently, the masks are also used in ritual dances and theatrical plays, (Lee, 13). This essay will focus on the Mask of Nojang, which is a particular Korea mask that is shown as part of a series at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. It is important that this mask is on display with a variety of works from multiple cultures, because many Koreans live in Vancouver and it is important to represent the culture in a prominent way.
This mask was made in Canada between 2002 and 2003 by Changhyun Han, who is from North Vancouver. He donated it to UBC in 2006. While the mask is made in Canada, Han, who moved to Canada from Korea, brought over items that were used to craft the mask. Mask of Nojang is made of gourd, cotton fibre, fruit, paper, paint and adhesive. It is 59 cm tall, 23 cm wide and 8 cm deep. At the Museum of Anthropology, it is presented in Case 77 with additional Korean masks that Han also made.
Because this mask is more recent than many of the original Korean masks, it is classed with the masks that are used for dancing. The masks are intentionally made to look grotesque and to generate fear. However, they are also designed to evoke ceremonial rights and humour. Traditionally, the masks were made of alder wood, and had several coats of a lacquer that gave them a gloss – this also helped waterproof them. The masks are also traditionally painted and have hinges for the mouth of the wearer to move around. Much of this is true with the Mask of Nojang, but there is not much space for the mouth to move around, as the mask is primarily used for display purposes. Also, this mask uses many non-traditional materials, as were previously mentioned. This leaves out the traditional alder wood, though the paint and adhesive used are similar. The primary similarity between Hon’s mask and the traditional Korean masks are that they have a similar grotesque expression that could also be interpreted as being humourous.
While this mask is for display purposes, many of the masks in this style are designed for celebrations in Korea. This is one of the most prominent traditions in the nation. “Mask-dance plays comprise the most widespread dramatic mode among traditional theatrical entertainments in Korea” (Duhyun and Meewon, 1). Similar styles of dancing are common throughout Asia, and it is often derived from music, song, and acrobatics, and is often closely associated with the religious rites from ancient times. While the dances are similar throughout Korea, some differences exist, depending on the region in which the dances are being performed. Often, a play accompanies the mask dances, and this was usually performed after religious or seasonal rites. However, it is sometimes performed on special occasions, such as during a district administrator’s birthday, (Duhyn and Meewon, 2).
The mask plays are just one of the many forms of traditional theatre in Korea, and they were developed by the Yi dynasty between the 17th and 19th centuries from a purely folk origin (Yoh, 143). “Since the Confuscial ruling class of the Yi dynasty ignored or tried to suppress all forms of theatrical entertainment, these plays have followed the tastes of popular audiences and thus reflect commoners’ resentment towards the privileged classes of those days” (Yoh, 143). Usually, the plays and dances are performed outside, and they typically went throughout the night. A couple of the most prominent forms are the Pongsan mask dance and the Yangju Pyol Sandae mask play, (Yoh, 143).
The plays that masks similar to the Mask of Nojang would have been involved in typically consist of several scenes. The plots in each of these scenes almost never keeps a consistent theme. Instead, they emphasized the common people’s rituals, lives, and shamanic activities. These are often the only factor that is linking each element of the play. “This does not, however, curtail the Korean mask plays’ theatricality, which is assured by an effective use of dance, mime, dialogue, songs, and music-including the yombul (“Buddhist invocation”), t’aryong, and gutkori (“tune performed during exorcism”), generally played by a six-piece band consisting of harps, flutes and drums” (Yoh, 147).
Another key element of the plays is the farcicality, (Yoh, 147). This is consistent with the Western concept of farce, and perhaps moreso in Korea it is a definition that places class characteristics on a character. Therefore, in the mask dances and plays, the characters are larger-than-life characterizations of the class or culture in which they belong. Each character does not have individual traits, but are often stereotypical representations of their class. “Both the apostate monk and yangban who keep concubines and the characters who oppose them represent types” (Yoh, 147). These characters are typically exaggerations, and contain many awkward repetitions and comic gestures, particularly during the dances. This theme begins to explain why the Mask of Nojang, and other Korean masks, have such exaggerated expressions.
The online catalogue describes some main elements of this work, but the correspondence is quite limited. For example, there is very limited information contained about Hon, and there does not appear to be a credible source that contains information about the artist. The UBC Museum of Anthropology describes the appearance of the piece. It is black with an oval face that has gold dotted designs throughout it. The masks has gold and green eyebrows, large black cheek bones and nose, a red curly mouth, and white eyes that are outlined with black dots. In addition, there is a black cloth that covers the back of the mask with ties that hang down. The backing of the piece is yellow with a white label that also has red characters printed into one side. The museum description goes on to describe where the masks were made, and by whom. Also, Hon’s family brought the materials to him from Korea. The description discusses the iconographic meaning, which indicates Nojang is an old monk who is depraved, but he “plays around” with young women in Somu. The way that he dances is offensive to the Buddhist commandments, due to its gestures. The text also explains how the mask was made, by carving wood and then applying layers of paper mache, before painting the object. Finally, the museum states the condition of the mask, which is considered “good.” The information contained in the catalogue is consistent with other information obtained about the mask, and there are no conflicts in the information provided. Furthermore, as indicated in the catalogue, the item was donated to the university by the artist.
The catalogue did not have a lot of information in it. For example, it would have been beneficial to obtain information about the artist. In fact, there is no biographical information about the artist, other than the fact that he is from Korea and moved to North Vancouver, where he now lives. I would have also like more information from the catalogue about some of the uses of the mask. There was no detail about the meaning behind this creation. Typically, these masks are designed to be worn, and there is usually a large area around the mouth that is open for people to make expressions with their mouths, but this is not crafted on the Mask of Nojang. Therefore, this mask would have likely been used for another purpose, other than being used in theatre or in dance, like many of the other Korean masks of this kind.
The object is displayed along with other Korean masks, but it is put on its own display, slightly away from the others. The back and the front are visible, so it shows how the mask might be worn. The mask is displayed openly at about chest level, and this makes it easy for others to see. There is not much difference between this mask and many of the other masks that are displayed around it. Several of the masks around it differ slightly, because many of them have larger openings in the mouth area. This indicates that the Mask of Nojang may have been intended to be used ornamentally, and considering the fact that the artist donated it to the university not long after its creation, it is likely that he did not make it for application purposes in theatre and dance, but instead wanted it to be displayed. There are no ethical problems with the piece’s display, as it was donated by the artist himself, and there is not proprietary conflicts.
The object is displayed in a case that also contains other Korean masks. They all look relatively similar, and are all made in the same style of Korean masks. This style is very important, as the masks are considered in Korea to be national treasures. The way that the masks are displayed does not tell a story to me. The juxtaposition is merely designed to provide the maximum amount of exposure for the mask, but it is not situated in a way that carries any real meaning behind the artwork.
Different audiences may interpret the story behind these masks differently, and it is possible that someone might become offended. Korean masks that are used for ornamental purposes are generally smaller than the regular masks, and those that are the regular size are typically used for theatre, dances, or for ceremonial purposes, for example, (Jeon, 23). However, others who are from Korea might look at the masks and be happy that a national treasure is being displayed so prominently. The masks provide a way for the Korean people to communicate their culture and to put it on display for others to gain an understanding of the culture. Putting the piece on display in Vancouver provides a way to recognize a group of immigrants who have made Vancouver their home. While there is much representation of various cultures throughout Vancouver, such as Chinatown, there is not much to represent the Korean culture, and these masks help to provide a way to showcase a cultural demographic that is important to the multiculturalism in Vancouver.
Due to the cultural significance of Koreans in Vancouver, it is important to display this artwork that is a major piece of the Korean culture. Proper representation is important, (Dean, 9). While many pieces of art are displayed in museums and are the spoils of war, the Mask of Nojang represents the joining of cultures in a peaceful and loving way. It is appropriate that the masks are on display to represent the Korean people because the masks are a pleasant, humourous symbol, even though the faces appear somewhat scary to some people and invoke fear. The museum’s display of the object could be more prominent, and this could help continue relations, though they are not colonist relations to which the prompt alludes. The object is displayed correctly, and it does not pose any problems. The museum’s curator executed their job in the best way possible with the display of the mask, as it could not trump art from other cultures in the prominence of its display. While the piece represents the Korean culture very well, it could be featured occasionally, to bring it up to the forefront, and leave many of the more prominent pieces to the back. This would help facilitate a more even display of the various cultures’ art in Vancouver.
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