Du-Hyun Kwon
Secretary General, International Mask Arts & Culture Organization

The Andong region has many highly renowned historic and cultural sites, such as Hahoe Village, however, the major cultural attraction of the region is the Andong International Mask Dance Festival.

Masks reflect characteristics of culture through various styles and shapes. The mask dance is an essential and ancient part of Korean culture, and each locale throughout the country has its own theme, style, and costume. These dances are an important part of Korea’s cultural heritage, the byeolsingut talnori dance, which has been designated an Important Intangible Cultural Heritage of Korea. At this year’s International Mask Dance Festival, mask dance troupes were invited from various countries providing visitors to the event the opportunity of being exposed to folk cultures from around the world.

Recently, the transmission of traditional culture has suffered due to the transformation and destruction of regional communities as well as the rise in globalization and industrialization. These phenomenon’s have incited communities to place more of an emphasis on attempting to protect intangible cultural heritage with systemic safeguarding mechanisms. When considering Korea in this aspect, a limited amount of intangible cultural heritage elements has the footing for transmission. Most elements of intangible cultural heritage are exhibited and safeguarded through awareness raising mechanisms such as performance. For that reason, festivals and community-based events act as a platform for the acknowledgement and appreciation of certain elements of ICH. The Andong International Mask Dance Festival is a good example of this.

The town of Hahwe was recently designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Based on the Hahwe mask tradition, the town decided to establish the Andong International Mask Dance Festival in 1997. This festival was founded on Hahwe masks and mask dances, and exhibits features related to mask culture handed down throughout the world and Korea.

One of the most appealing and prominent programs of the Andong International Mask Dance Festival is the Hahwe mask dance. This dance has become a brand for representing Andong and its local citizens, where they feel and exhibit pride as over 10 teams perform this masked dance. Recently this element of intangible cultural heritage of Korea has been taught in schools, subsequently acting as a safeguarding measure of ICH. Furthermore, there are roughly 20 traditional mask dances handed down in Korea. Most of the traditional mask dances are performed at the Andong festival, drawing much public attention from domestic citizens as well as international. Additionally, performances and plays related to masks from various corners of the world are invited to this festival. In other words, the Andong mask festival is a platform for various kinds of masked heritage elements to be exhibited for the promotion of cultural diversity.

The performance of ICH elements is a popular method of safeguarding heritage through awareness raising efforts and is possible when there is a venue to link performers, spectators, and interested individuals. Festivals are representative venues of performance. The freedom and relaxation felt during festivals becomes a forum for cultural understanding, establishing the ability to pass down elements of intangible heritage.

The Andong International Mask Dance Festival founded the International Mask Art & Culture Organization (IMACO) to strengthen cultural activity among its members, to build a network for international mask arts & culture based on this organization, and to enhance knowledge of culture related to masks. Masks are an important element to many cultures, but none are the same. That is, masks demonstrate characteristics of cultural diversity respective to a country. In this regard, masks can be considered the ‘face’ of culture. Precisely based on this value and concept, IMACO was created to provide a forum for cultural understanding for the future.

IMACO is currently running three programs. One program is dedicated to collecting and organizing materials in relation to masks, including their shape, correlating costumes, dramas, dances, and rituals to share them with people all over the world. The materials related to masks are also very meaningful to the culture and performance. The second program was constructed to form a network of people related to these cultural elements. By connecting researchers, producers, artists, groups, and museums, as well as providing a forum for discussion, the prospect of later generations experiencing this aspect of cultural heritage is more probable. The third program is meant to create a ‘world mask culture map’. Masks symbolize a culture and creating a map of masks in relation to their region and cultural spheres will not only raise awareness of cultural characteristics respective of the country, but also regional trends.

The Andong festival itself is outstanding. It has become a site for the succession of traditional intangible cultural heritage related to masks not only of Andong, but the whole of Korea as well. This festival acts as a forum for cultures of the world to gather and contribute to a mutual understanding of the diversity and distinctiveness of cultures worldwide. Furthermore, this forum provides the opportunity to assess the efforts and tasks necessary for the future of cultural diversity. The Andong festival should be observed and appreciated as a mechanism of awareness raising for intangible cultural heritage.