6 August 2020

Facemask art and pandemic politics by Edwin Coomasaru

Facemask art and pandemic politics by Edwin Coomasaru

Facemask art and pandemic politics

by Edwin Coomasaru

What are the politics of artist-designed facemasks? Artists have created works in response to COVID-19, and face coverings, which have become a topic of fierce debate, are a particular focal point of the cultural imagination. Well before the outbreak, during a residency in London in 2012, Kaya Hanasaki created a series of photographs of people wearing surgical masks. Portrait in Mask was made in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, when the Japanese public was divided in its trust in government advice on face coverings.1 In 2017 Evan Ifekoya, with uncanny foresight, created a prototype for a bronze gas mask called Disco Duty, designed for clubbing in a post-apocalyptic future. Made from metal and adorned with band of defensive spikes that cover the wearer’s eyes, the mask looked like a kind of armour and offered a prophecy of what was to come FIG. 1.

In 2020 a number of artists responded to the United Kingdom government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff as early as April. The artist and activist Hilary Jack created Memorial (2020) FIG. 2, a bronze cast of a respirator mask, to commemorate NHS and care worker staff who died with coronavirus. Candida Powell-Williams crafted a ceramic gas mask, Coiled Breath (2020) FIG. 3, painted in green and blue. Such sculptures draw attention to a heightened sense of bodily fragility in the midst of coronavirus, of being dependent on breathing in a hostile world in which facial orifices are reimagined as a potential site of viral contact. Although these sculptures tap into associations with self-protection, they also highlight our collective responsibility in the pandemic.

Coiled Breath, by Candida Powell-Williams. 2020. Ceramic, textiles and plane tree bark, 19 x 13 x 9 cm

In May the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) commissioned four artists to make limited-edition facemasks, sold to raise funds to acquire contemporary art for public museums. Linder created a photomontage of a smiling pair of white teeth framed by red lipstick, collaged over a breast FIG. 4. Eddie Peake designed a series of pastel-coloured face silhouettes with lips almost touching FIG. 5. Both consider the role of mouths in our social life and their role in rituals of intimacy. David Shrigley’s design drew turbulent waves adorned by the word ‘emotions’, tapping into some of the anxieties of the pandemic FIG. 6. Metaphors of waves and floods are not only used to describe viral outbreaks, but also traumatic feelings of being out of control. Rather than thinking of our bodies as neatly sealed and self-contained, the pandemic has placed an emphasis on the way we are particularly leaky and interdependent.

Yinka Shonibare created his signature African wax fabric with designs sourced in Brixton market, but once appropriated by Dutch colonisers from Indonesian batik and sold to West Africa from the 1880s FIG. 7. Shonibare’s design reflects the connection between Europe’s history of racial capitalism and present-day violence and inequality. Speaking recently, the artist addressed how wealth generated by slavery and colonialism still impact Britain today.2 The funding that contributed to the UK welfare state is part of such a legacy, despite the increasing restrictions imposed on those who can access concentration of wealth taken by imperial conquest.3Shonibare’s design can also be viewed in relationship to the looting of African masks. During the 1897 Benin Massacre, masks dating back to the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries were stolen and donated to the British Museum. Calls for financial reparations and cultural restitution cannot be considered apart from the violent health inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic across the globe today.

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