Skip to main content

Facemask art and pandemic politics

by Edwin Coomasaru
Articles / Article • 06.08.2020

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.

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.3 Shonibare’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.

In a recent conversation with John Akomfrah, the feminist and postcolonial theorist Tina Campt reflected on links between COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. Speaking about the importance of choosing one’s own fate at ‘the end of the world as we know it’, rather than to ‘have the breath be pressed out from you by COVID-19 or from a police officer whose foot is on your neck’,4 Campt highlighted the political dimensions of the pandemic. In the United Kingdom, Black communities and people of colour are dying disproportionately from coronavirus. Unequal access to healthcare, work, housing and PPE are all contributing factors, alongside a culture of racism within the healthcare profession. Many people of colour work in jobs with low pay and high risk of exposure, whether it be public transport or the NHS.

In the years proceeding and at the very start of the pandemic facemask designs were largely created by women and non-binary artists. Later on, Ai Weiwei decorated ten thousand facemasks with middle fingers and sunflower seeds to raise funds for charities supporting human rights and pandemic relief organisations FIG.8. When face coverings gained a higher public profile in debates about collective responsibility, famous white male artists began to engage with PPE. Martin Parr printed a number of his photographs onto facemasks, available for £20 each, with proceeds going to his foundation FIG.9. The organisation supports local and emerging photographers, as well as preserving Parr’s own archive and shoring up his legacy. Banksy also created pandemic-inspired art: producing a series of works for London tube trains of rats holding surgical masks and anti-bacterial gel [fig], which have since been removed. While Parr and Banksy may well have just wanted to help shift public attitudes towards PPE, they may have also exploited the pandemic for profit and press headlines.

There is still some resistance to wearing facemasks in public – at the end of April only twenty-five per cent of people in Britain routinely wore them – and they have come under attack in the conservative press.5 There also seems to be a perceived conflict between wearing a mask and manhood: when the Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that face coverings would become mandatory in English shops, he insisted that the government sought ‘balance in the need to restrict the spread of the virus, whilst also allowing the ancient liberties of a gentleman’.6 After the initial resistance to be seen wearing a mask in public by such male world leaders as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, studies conducted in the America found that men are less likely to wear facemasks, fearing them to be ‘shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness’.7 Scientific American has argued that in such a trend ‘we see echoes of this condom rejection embedded in white masculine ideology [. . .] they risk ending up dead on the battlefield they insisted on creating’.8 Much of the public rhetoric around COVID-19 affirms such a worldview by using war semantics.9

COVID-19 might radically reshape ideas of masculinity, as the pandemic highlights the ways in which complete autonomy is impossible, and as facemasks become part of our daily lives, art will play an important role in responding to and in turn shaping the public imagination. Across the world masks are also among the earliest artistic objects, associated with ritual ceremonies or carnivalesque performance: they have long been used to conceal and reveal structures of power or social change. The pandemic will transform our world in profound ways, and it may reshape the ways in which we think of vulnerability as collective rather than individual. COVID-19 has forced us to consider ourselves as indelibly interconnected, and artists will help us give an image and a practical tool for our viral times.


About the author

Edwin Coomasaru

is a historian of modern and contemporary British and Sri Lankan art.


See also

‘Life After People’: Maxim Dondyuk’s project for Chernobyl
‘Life After People’: Maxim Dondyuk’s project for Chernobyl

‘Life After People’: Maxim Dondyuk’s project for Chernobyl

09.07.2020 • Reviews / Exhibition

Brexit politics and feminist prophecies: Candida Powell-Williams’s tarot deck
Brexit politics and feminist prophecies: Candida Powell-Williams’s tarot deck

Brexit politics and feminist prophecies: Candida Powell-Williams’s tarot deck

18.12.2019 • Reviews / Exhibition