Thursday, August 11, 2011

Masks in Mas

Mas is about 8 kilometers away from Central Ubud and is known for its community of artisans. There are wood carving shops, mask makers, textile designers, glass blowers and furniture builders up and down the streets. The first day I went to Mas it was mainly to say hello to a well-known mask maker there, Oka, who one of my Swarthmore Theater Professors had studied with during his time in Bali. The masks we used in this professor’s theater classes came right from Oka. He and his brother Anom make masks of all styles—from traditional Balinese masks, to Commedia dell’Arte masks, to a set of masks corresponding to 60 characters from Tin Tin that someone in France recently requested.

It was a treat to meet Oka and see familiar mask faces from my theater classes. He invited me to come back the next day to watch him work and perhaps make something of my own. Two weeks, a literal sore thumb, and many conversations later, my mask is complete. I wish I could take more credit for it, but while I did do some of the carving, sanding and painting, most of the work belongs to Oka. To be honest, I’m sort of disappointed the mask is finished because it means I don’t have as good of an excuse to spend long afternoons there anymore.

Starting with a block of wood and an axe.

Shaping the wood.

My attempts.

Drying in the sun after six coats of white paint.

Painting the mouth.

Final touches.


My days spent in his family’s compound seemed to fly by. The first time I sat down and just watched him work, I didn’t check my watch until six hours had gone by. There is something so satisfying about the combination of creative and methodical work that goes on to create a mask and about watching a piece of wood come alive. Oka lost his son about a year ago, and so he is the primary caretaker of his grandson, two year-old Brahm. My mask work was punctuated with screeches from the dog that Brahm liked to pull around by one leg, conversations about Balinese names and culture with Oka and his brother Anom over Bali Coffee, dashing across the street for some bakso ayam (chicken meatball soup) and giving countless stickers to Brahm who cried whenever I wouldn’t give him one more. I met a family from Beijing who comes to Bali every summer and for whom visiting Oka has become part of their routine. Lin Lin, Luiy, and their four year-old daughter Dan dan have become good friends of mine and we have been timing our visits to Oka’s so that we overlap. As Lin Lin and I work on our masks, Brahm and Dan dan play together, at least until they fight together.

There was something immensely satisfying about creating a mask during my first bit of time here, not only because it was an experience that connects me to a traditional part of Balinese culture, but also because it enhanced my experiences with these masks that I had already had in my theater classes. I also like the poetry of the idea that in my first few weeks away, I have created what is, essentially, another self.

Even though the mask is complete, I have a feeling I’ll be in Mas again soon.