Masks & beyond

In light of Covid-19, masks are on our mind now more than ever, not to mention also
covering our faces. The pandemic has brought the world into a place not seen before. We
have all been transformed into mask wearers.

Sewing machines around the globe have been dusted, and are rattling away in a new wave of home crafting. Being stuck at home has given many people time to sew and upcycle fabric. From designers to amateurs, people are now making, donating and designing masks from found materials. I have also joined this marathon. With this in mind, I’m going to glance at the history of masks, and look at three female artists who have playfully led them into the 21st century.

For many people, including myself, masks signify decoration, extravagance and fun. My relationship with them has been from dressing up boxes, festivals and parties. At the annual Venetian Carnival, for instance, people line the streets in traditional costumes and masks are for sale in every shop window. From ancient theatre to modern film, masks can exaggerate expressions, notably in the great films ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999) or ’The Joker’ (2019). Another function is to protect – such as builders and doctors. Even in Venice, the Plague doctor wore a long bird-like mask, where herbs were placed in the
beak for nice smells.

Throughout history, face coverings have come in many shapes and forms. A mask can disguise, expose, transform, give you confidence, give you a voice, take away your voice. Textiles play a huge part. The first recorded masks are from 9,000 years ago in the Middle East. These are in stone, but imagine face coverings before this time made from perishable materials such as leather or mud. Thought to have been used in rituals, this also reminds me of the famed African tribal masks. Decorating our faces and changing our appearance has been going on forever.

Some think this art form has been lost, but there are exciting artists who have brought this culture into the postmodern age. Lavish headpieces can be found on Instagram pages Fashion for Bank Robbers, or False Face – also great inspiration for costume parties. Seen here are young designers who have adapted masks in surreal ways. Three stimulating makers caught my eye: Thread Stories from Ireland; Polina Osipova from Russia; and French food artist Enora Lalet.

I have been following Thread Stories for a few years, and have seen the designer grow and grow in popularity. This Irish designer has a strong Instagram presence, and has featured in the likes of iD, Colossal magazine and The NY Times. Her masks are surreal, sea creature-like forms that flow and fall around the head. They are made from yarn with techniques like crochet, knitting and fringing. Each starts as a crocheted balaclava, which is layered with thread to make wild 3D shapes. The designer photographs and films herself in a performative way, throwing the masks from side to side. Most of the face is covered, apart from her eyes or mouth. Through altering her appearance Thread Stories questions online versus offline personas. We all know the feeling of choosing the best photo, or of showing off our highlights. How we show ourselves to others is so important, and the designer questions this. She wears the masks, and then deconstructs them to make a new design. Big points on the sustainable side. Thread Stories captures your imagination, like stories of wild mythological creatures.

Polina Osipova, a young designer based in Russia, has a different look to Thread Stories. Polina’s pearl infused face and head decorations, have fallen straight from a fairytale. Sparkling crystal tears drop from eyes surrounded by faux pearls; swans mirror a heart through which Polina’s face appears. It all sounds magical, right? I think so. The energy that surrounds her work is captivating. Polina photographs in an Instagram friendly way, that makes you want to just keep scrolling. She has built up a whole persona, with elaborate dresses and backgrounds. There is humour and a surreal quality,
as if you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole into wonderland. It is hard to choose a favourite from these creations. One in particular that stands out is the mask of three headed girls, translated from Russian on Instagram: ‘Three-headed girls didn’t run past here?’ – very much a fairytale reference. Other more bizarre examples are strangely realistic nosebleeds made from red sequins and beads. Polina mixes Russian folk art and culture with surveillance iconography, for a new vision. Pearled CCTV cameras are mixed with hands and eyes in unusual combinations. In this way, the artist comments on a society that is watched. Security cameras are a large part of our daily life, and in cities we are always being recorded. Masks are a way to hide ourselves from these eyes. Polina plays with this idea by placing cameras directly on her head, making us think about our compromised private spaces. The artist also combines cameras with a traditional Russian headdress, the Kokoshnik, in a fun yet provoking look at Russian life. The crystal tears that appear again and again, relate to moments at traditional Russian weddings where the bride cries tears of sadness at leaving her family. This is known as the ‘crying toll’, where family members place coins in a bucket for the bride to take. I think that Polina’s interpretation of these old customs is charming. There is a purity and elegance to Polina’s pearls, yet the underlying theme to her work, like Thread Stories, is that we are constantly being watched.

Food artist Enora Lalet, is a delicious comparison to show just how far masks can be pushed. Lalet uses the body and face as a canvas for making incredible food sculptures. She plays with food, the body and bold colours. The admiration for food goes far beyond the plate, and even the colourful marketplace. Cut, stitched and glued, food is combined to make headpieces that are awesome to the eye. Not only are Lalet’s masks made from enviously cool food, but she also explores themes like food waste. For example, in her collection ‘Cuisine Toi!’ (2017), the artist makes you think twice about throwing away. Working with eight young girls, Lalet used food waste from a French restaurant to make eight awesome headpieces. The results are an explosion of colour and texture – the opposite of what you’d imagine food waste to be. Lalet travels the world with this curious art form, using local foods for her headpieces.

I admire this use of unusual materials in textiles. Food is a difficult material for many reasons, the most obvious being that it decomposes. These masks are ephemeral, keeping their brilliance only for a few days, and recorded through photography. This unlikely material makes shapes and colours that remind me of pop art. The figures underneath the headdresses are painted and the background is often a complimentary colour. Lalet takes the traditional mask, which is usually textile based, and turns it on its back. Pure admiration!

Pushing boundaries in every subject is important to make an impact. For me, textiles is all about pushing boundaries and using interesting and less obvious materials to do so. Thread Stories, Polina Osipova and Enora Lalet are three different artists who capture our imagination. Perhaps our every day Covid masks could already do with a spruce up.