Unmasking the faces of a culture

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Unmasking the faces of a culture

Masks have held a fascination for mankind throughout history, whether in shamanistic rituals, masquerade balls, theatrical performances or Korean folk festivals.
Whether simple or artistically detailed, they transform us, however temporarily, enabling us to create new personas, even new imaginative worlds of our own. The act of performing in new roles, as emblemized by the mask, is one of the oldest customs in civilization.
The exhibition “Masks of Mexico,” currently showing at the Latin American Cultural Center and Museum north of Seoul in Gyeonggi province, offers a rare glimpse of some exotic, yet familiar, expressions of this basic human instinct.
At last week’s opening ceremony, Rogelio Granguillhome, the Mexican Ambassador to Korea, called the masks in the exhibit “the faces of Mexicans... the expression of our culture.”
The museum’s main hall displays a total of 210 masks, representing the 13 states of Mexico and including a few reproductions of ancient Indio masks that are in the National Museum of Mexico’s collection. These culturally significant masks are from the personal collection of two sisters, Georgina and Adriana Luna Parra, who are anthropologists and avid art collectors.
The Mexican government has promoted the exhibition of traditional Mexican masks around the world since the 1970s. The collection is in Korea as part of an Asian tour; its exhibition here was organized by the Mexican embassy in Korea with support from the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation.
“Once a year, the Latin American Cultural Center and Museum becomes a venue for Mexican cultural affairs,” said Jose Borjon, the second secretary of culture and cooperation affairs at the Mexican embassy.
The Mexican community in Korea is small, numbering about 200, according to Mr. Borjon. Pilots working for Asiana Airlines account for about 30 percent of the Mexican population here; many others are Catholic nuns and priests.
“Since the countries’ diplomatic relations began in the ’80s, Korea has taken advantage of NAFTA and built factories for the Mexican and American markets,” Mr. Borjon said. “There are about 20,000 Koreans living in Mexico.”
Mexican masks date back to the country’s ancient religious and cultural heritage, reflecting three distinct roots: Indio, Iberia and Mestizo. If masks from Indio or pre-Hispanic culture, in which human beings were offered to gods in religious rituals, were objects of horror and mysticism, Mestizo masks expressed satirical humor.
Like masks found in other traditional cultures, Mexican masks were used in festivals, funeral processions and religious rituals as a way to express various personas or emotions. The masks representing each state of Mexico have regional characteristics, varying in the materials used (for example, the ayacahuite wood masks commonly found in the state of Guerrero), decorative elements (as with the colorful glass bead masks from the state of Jalisco) and primary purposes (a festival mask from the state of Michoacan representing a Christian saint). Most are made of wood, but gold, silver and jade are also used, as well as animal hide, hair and bones. Some are human faces, some animal and some are a highly abstract (and extreme) fusion of both.
“Masks of such kinds are found in Korean tradition as well, thereby connecting the two cultures,” Lee Bok-hyung, director of the museum, said in an opening address. Korean spectators no doubt agreed, familiar as they were with traditional Korean mask performances featuring brides, old wise men, monkeys, mythical lions and other characters. Such images provoke thoughts of the other selves we can become ― if only when our real ones are concealed.

by Ines Cho

The exhibition runs until June 13. The Latin American Cultural Center and Museum is located at 302-1 Goyang-dong, Deogyang-gu, Goyang-si, Gyeonggi province. The center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is 3,500 won ($3) for adults, 2,500 won for soldiers and students and 2,000 won for children under age 12. For more information and directions in English, visit the center’s Web site at www.latina.or.kr or call (031) 962-7171~9291.


Latin American treasures are on display near Seoul

When it opened in 1994, the Latin American Cultural Center and Museum in Korea became the first in Asia to attempt a comprehensive survey of the cultural heritage of Latin American countries. Owned and operated by the family of Lee Bok-hyung, a retired diplomat who spent much of his career in Latin America, including serving as Korea’s ambassador to Mexico, the center is a nonprofit foundation that organizes exhibitions, lectures and other events.
Sited on seven acres of verdant hills surrounded by orchards and rice paddies, the center’s museum displays a private family collection that is the work of nearly 40 years. The main hall is richly decorated with Latin American art; there are about 1,000 items permanently exhibited, including ceramic works, terra cotta, furniture, paintings, folk dolls, tribal masks, sculptures, jewelry and more, which range from the pre-Columbian to the colonial period to recent reproductions.
The outdoor sculpture garden displays 30 works by Latin American artists, including Victor Salas of Venezuela, Marco Butamante of Chile and Koki Ruiz of Paraguay. The former ambassador, now the director of the center and museum, says about 100 of the garden’s stones and works of art were brought to Korea by his wife, Hong Gap-pyo.
To complete the Latin American cultural experience, the center offers visitors simple but delicious food from the region. If lunch reservations are made, paella with prawns and mussels can be prepared. Weekend visitors shouldn’t miss the tacos cooked on the outdoor grill on the patio near the garden. Three kinds of tacos, alambre (beef and vegetable, 7,000 won), pastor (pork and salsa, 6,000 won) and quesadilla (cheese, 5,000 won), are served with nacho chips and salsa.
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