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Mask project shows power of art in unifying cultures

Blind masseuse Nika begins the process of having a plaster cast made on Sunday. The mould will eventualy be made into a mask on display at Meta House on Friday.
Blind masseuse Nika begins the process of having a plaster cast made on Sunday. The mould will eventualy be made into a mask on display at Meta House on Friday. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Mask project shows power of art in unifying cultures

Nika lies flat as two paper tubes are inserted into her nostrils, allowing her to breathe as her face is covered in plaster by artist Myong Hee Kim.

Nika is a well-known blind masseuse, invited to participate last weekend in this unique peace-building project.

After the plaster solidifies, the resulting mould is used to make a paper mask – one of 15 that will go on display at Meta House on Friday night and among thousands more that will make up the Japan-based “Peace Masks” project.

The mulberry-fibre paper, known in Japan as washi, actually has its roots in China but is used throughout the region – one of the reasons it was chosen for the project, as it symbolically unites the cultures using it. According to Kim, the paper lasts “hundreds” of years.

The project originated from Kim’s desire to express peace and reconciliation through art. Ethnically Korean but having lived in Japan for decades, she set out making the masks as a way of showing that despite the centuries of conflict and often acrimonious relations between the two countries, they were all human at the end of the day, as emphasised by the faces frozen in mask form.

The initial art project culiminated in an exhibition of 1,580 masks of Japanese and South Koreans displayed in Seoul and Yokohama during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was co-hosted by the two countries.

“Since then, we’ve been to different places all over Europe, the United States, parts of Asia . . . doing these types of workshops,” says Kya Kim, Myong Hee’s daughter and the current project director.

Finished peace masks as part of the Peace Masks project.
Finished peace masks as part of the Peace Masks project. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

The project arrives in Cambodia for the first time as a collaboration with the NGO Women Peace Makers, an organisation that has conducted research and worked to build understanding between ethnic Khmers and Vietnamese in Cambodia. Its work revolves around listening and speaking – with their most recent published research about Phnom Penh’s Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese populations’ perceptions of each other, published in November last year. Their current project involves a team of 12 “listeners” made up of Cambodians of different ethnic backgrounds, who will be conducting interviews in the country’s border regions.

“[Their aim is to] listen to people on the border and see what the reality is on the ground and see if the perceptions in Phnom Penh are really reflective of the situation,” says Raymond Hyma, of Women Peace Makers.

To add another sensory dimension, those listeners also had their faces cast in plaster.

“We think it’s really powerful to use art in the peace-building process. It’s very important in order to understand the other to know oneself first [and] that’s the kind of approach that we are offering to this process,” says Kya.

The idea is that while your face is encased in slowly drying plaster, you reflect upon your own identity. Surrendering yourself to the process is also an exercise in trust, and in being comfortable with one’s self, Kya says.

“It’s not an easy process to be covered completely – the face – with plaster. It requires vulnerability. That act of courage is a very important part of peace – the first step to peace,” she says.

The Peace Mask Exhibition will be on display on Friday at 6pm at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard. The masks will then be part of an exhibition beginning on May 9 in Kyoto, Japan.

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