French humourist’s unique collection of vintage Thai hermit masks grows.
Stephane Peray, more famously known as “Stephff”, the signature affixed to his biting editorial cartoons, has been quietly collecting tribal art for the last 13 years. In 2012 the Frenchman opened Stephff’s Tribal Art, a gallery where he sells tribal artwork from Mali, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and other exotic locales alongside his own contemporary art and cartoons.
Peray’s affinity for travel and art stems, he says, from his seven years in the French navy.
“My ship was based in Tahiti,” says the bespectacled 50-year-old. “And we had access to islands which only monthly cargo ships would go, places now served by airports. I wish I had started picking up tribal art then, but when you’re 18 or 19 years old you don’t collect things. You collect experience instead.”
Looking for a way to keep travelling after he left the navy, the artistically inclined Peray decided to become a photographer. Basing himself in Bangkok in 1989, the young man specialised in feature photography on Southeast Asia for Asiaweek and other international news magazines.
Cartoon work came along when Le Mekong, a monthly magazine published in Phnom Penh, asked if Peray could draw political cartoons for them. Soon his cartoons were also appearing regularly in Dubai-based daily newspaper The Gulf Today. In 1997 he gave up photography to pursue a full-time career as a political cartoonist.
Here in Thailand, “Stephff” is well known for his regular appearance on the editorial pages of The Nation, but his cartoons are also published frequently in another 15 periodicals around the globe. Meanwhile his passion for collecting exotic art has recently extended to intensely decorated papier-mâché masks used in khon, Thailand’s highly ritualized dance-drama tradition. The mask is the most important costume element for distinguishing up to 300 separate khon roles.
A traditional mask begins with a plaster mould to which 15 layers of papier-mâché are added using a rice-flour glue. Once the mask has dried, it is removed from the mould and additional layers of a natural lacquer is applied to accent the mouth, ears, and eyebrows. Crowns and earflaps carefully cut from buffalo hide come next, to be followed by gold leaf and glass mosaic.
Peray bought his first khon mask, a beautiful 80-year-old Thotsakan (the Ramayana villain Dasakanta), from the late Italian photographer Luca Tettoni. Later he became focused on a very particular kind of khon mask, the ones worn by characters portraying the hermit sage known as Pho Kae (Old Father).
The typical hermit mask features a white beard, a tall, hollow crown and a bucktoothed grimace. Hermit masks are used not only by dance-drama performers, but also by monks and Thai shamans to perform a sacred empowerment ritual. They’re especially in common use by masters in the sacred Thai tattoo (sak yan) tradition. In the khrawp khru ritual, the monk or master will place the mask atop a devotees head while reciting magical Pali incantations.
Peray now has a Thai assistant who circulates the country looking for masks that might be for sale.
“Many are stored away in the back rooms of temples,” Peray says. “They were once used in annual Brahmanist rituals believed to protect the temple and monks. Nowadays hardly anyone does the rituals anymore, and the masks just sit and gather dust.”
Peray says he is planning to write a book about hermit masks.
“But first I need to expand my collection. I’ve found a Thai astrologer who has an impressive number of masks, and I’m buying them one at a time to help finance his retirement.”
Stephff Tribal Art
Supreme Ville, 38/56 Yenakat Rd | 0 2671 3535