Khon Mask Making
HISTORY AND ORIGINS
A Khon performance enacts the story of the Ramakien, a uniquely Thai version of the Ramayana, the Indian epic with its tales of gods and ferocious demons. Khon was first developed as an exclusively royal entertainment, popular with the kings of Ayutthaya, a city north of Bangkok that was once the capital of the kingdom of Thailand.
Central to a Khon dance performance are its intricate costumes with richly gilded crowns and elaborately fashioned masks. Each character in the Ramayana, or Ramakien as it is known in Thailand, has a different costume and headdress. Of the leading roles, the most easily recognised are the noble God-King Ram (Sanskrit)or Phra Ram (Thai), the ten-headed demon, Ravana (Sanskrit)or Thotsakan (Thai), and the monkey God and general, Hanuman. There are more than a hundred support characters and most of them wear different styles of masks and headdresses that are lavishly decorated.
For a master craftsman, the making of each mask can take one month of detailed work. The first stage is the molding of a structure of clay or plaster, about the size and shape of the actor's head. Many layers of papier-mache are applied to this form in order to build up the character's features. This material is made of sa rice paper or a special handmade tissue-thin paper made from the bark of a tree called khoi. Up to 20 layers of sa or khoi paper are glued on to the form, then the surface is dried and smoothed. The mask is then cut away from the form in two parts, and the two halves are rejoined by sewing with fine wire. Additional layers of papier-mache are added and the mask is smoothed with water-based clay and natural resin. The decoration is finished using paint, lacquer, gold leaf shell, and colored glass fragments. For the finest examples semi-precious gems are used and real ivory is used for tusks and fangs.
INCORPORATING WESTERN TECHNIQUES
For the structure of my first Khon mask, I changed the process slightly. In order to make the original sculpture that the mask was to be built on, I made a negative of my own face using Hollywood mask-making techniques and then cast it in plaster. The cast was built up into a full 3-D sculpture using clay and its form was abstracted. Many layers of papier-mache were added and then the structure was extruded.
THAI TRANSFORMATION mask-making process: plaster cast of face (l.) and addition of clay (r.).
The traditional arts of Asia typically demand a great deal of discipline and focus. Khon mask making is no different in this regard. Intense attention to subject matter, as well as to surface and detail is required to make a work of art to be considered among the masterworks of this genre. Because I have a high degree of regard for the culture and the expression of its beauty, from the onset I was intent on creating artworks that would respect its origins and would at the same time bring Khon mask making into a contemporary light.