Strange mask carver in Kon Tum

Passionate about wooden statues

Mr. A Yuk said that when he was young, he followed his father to participate in festivals in the village. During an artistic exchange in Gia Lai, he saw tomb statues with many different shapes, colors and emotions. At that time, A Yuk seemed immersed in the world of tomb statues. The masks that village boys wore when performing also captivated young A Yuk’s soul from that time.

When he returned to the village, A Yuk immediately thought of carving wooden statues to satisfy his creative passion. A Yuk asked his father for some jackfruit trees around the house to practice chiseling. Seeing his son’s passion for the traditional culture of the Central Highlands people, his father was very happy.

Strange mask carver in Kon Tum - photo 1

Mr. A Yuk and the products he crafted

With his small hands, A Yuk sketched an image on the tree trunk and then began his work. Not having the strength of a young man, A Yuk had to use his two legs to grip the wood and then use a chisel and machete to carve small pieces according to the drawn picture. “In the first days, because I was not used to it, the machete repeatedly hit my hand. It took me more than a week to complete my first product, a statue of a strong man. But the statue is still rough and lifeless,” Mr. A Yuk recounted.

After months of practicing with dozens of defective statues, A Yuk was able to create more soulful tomb statues. The statues are also gradually closer to the sincerity and simplicity of everyday life. Up to now, Mr. A Yuk is the only person who knows how to carve wooden statues in Ia Chim commune, Kon Tum city. Over the past decades, he has carved thousands of tomb statues and donated them to many other localities in the region. Even many other provinces knew about his skills, so they invited Mr. A Yuk to help make tomb statues.

“I carve statues for people a lot. Sometimes I go to Dak Lak, Dak Nong, sometimes I go to Gia Lai and Lam Dong. I’ll go to any place that invites me to carve a statue of a tomb. I don’t even get paid to carve them, I just hope that people will keep and remember these tomb statues,” Mr. A Yuk said.

Strange mask carver in Kon Tum - photo 2Strange mask carver in Kon Tum - photo 2

Mr. A Yuk carved a mask from an acacia tree trunk

Strange mask

Once he had mastered chiseling and carving tomb statues, Mr. A Yuk switched to making wooden masks for performances during festivals. He went to the forest to find acacia trees and milk flower trees to make masks. These trees have soft stems, are easy to carve and are light, making them convenient for the wearer.

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If you make smooth, clean masks, it is not considered beautiful. A beautiful mask must have an ugly, strange expression and face to be considered beautiful. Thus, when included in festivals, the atmosphere is joyful.

Mr. A Yuk

Mr. A Yuk said that these types of wood are very soft, so the maker must carve gently and skillfully, otherwise the mask will crack and be damaged. According to him, the main parts on the mask such as eyes, nose, mouth, forehead, cheeks, chin… must be carved meticulously and delicately. Elderly people’s eyes are different from children’s eyes, women’s chins are different from men’s chins, so when making them, they must be elaborate so that everyone can easily distinguish them. After months of sketching and chiseling, his first masks were completed. Holding the masks that still smelled like wood, A Yuk gave them to the gong team in the village.

Mr. A Yuk makes all kinds of masks: smiling, sad, miserable, excited, old – young, girl – boy… Usually masks for slim women, covered with black cloth representing hair and masks for men. He was adorned with a beard and his face was large and wide. A particularly recognizable feature of his products is the extremely strange and humorous faces.

Strange mask carver in Kon Tum - photo 3Strange mask carver in Kon Tum - photo 3

Making the teeth for the mask is a process that requires skill and meticulousness

“If you make a mask that is smooth and clean, it is not considered beautiful. A beautiful mask must have an ugly, strange expression and face to be considered beautiful. Thus, when included in festivals, the atmosphere will be joyful. Wearing a mask combined with a jacket made of tree roots and dried banana leaves will make the performer more eye-catching and attractive,” Mr. A Yuk added.

According to Mr. A Yuk, the most difficult thing when making a mask is creating a pose that suits the character you want to portray. In particular, making teeth is very difficult, requiring the practitioner to be skillful and meticulous.

Ms. Uong Thi Trang, Vice Chairwoman of Ia Chim Commune People’s Committee, commented that currently the young generation is not passionate about sculpting statues and making wooden masks. Mr. A Yuk is one of the few people who still preserve this profession. Recently, the locality proposed to the Department of Culture and Information of Kon Tum City to have a plan to support those who preserve and re-teach this traditional profession.