Masks are a rich and vibrant source inspiration for artists, associated with ancient rituals, religious traditions, theatre and carnivals. In the Intimacy issue of Varoom, Tristan Manco investigates how masks have recently taken on new layers of psychological and sociological meaning.

The face mask has become a hugely potent symbol for the times. Synonymous with the global pandemic, but also an age of masked protests worldwide; standing up for equal rights, democracy and the environment.

In the last year face coverings have increasingly featured in art and design, reflecting those themes that masks have come to evoke, such as togetherness and isolation. 

During the initial lock-down period, illustrative responses from the creative community tended towards showing support for health services and highlighting disease prevention measures. Over time, as the effects of the pandemic began to be felt, artists began to go beyond public health messaging to reflect its impact on people’s lives.

Escif ‘This Too Shall Pass’ for the Valencia festival. Photograph by Jose Bravo

Some of the most thoughtful responses can be found in the work of Valencia based artist Escif, who paints murals worldwide, using them as a social tool and looking at existential ideas with wit and empathy. Well-known for his street art, he is a prolific artist elsewhere, working on watercolours as well as sculptural projects such as ‘This Too Shall Pass’ a large wooden sculpture of a woman in a meditative pose, created for Valencia’s Las Fallas celebrations, in which temporary works of art are set alight to celebrate the arrival of spring. 

Escif ‘This Too Shall Pass’ for the Valencia festival. Photograph by Jose Bravo

Las Fallas was postponed in 2020 due to Covid-19, although Escif’s extraordinary sculpture was still ceremoniously burnt without the crowds. To reflect the situation Escif changed the initial design by covering the face of the figure with a mask and, rather than burning the whole sculpture as is traditional, the head was saved as a symbol of peace and solidarity.

Sam3, Beware of the police brutality 2020

The idea of the mask as a muzzle features in the street piece ‘Police Abuse’ by fellow Spanish artist and renowned muralist Sam3. In Sam3’s work, the icon of the muzzle is a visual switcheroo, containing and silencing a figure of authority.

Working both on and off the street he characteristically uses a limited palette of black and white, simple lines and shapes to capture the essence of allegorical ideas that comment on society and human behaviour.

Sam3, Racism, 2021

Simplicity, spontaneity and texture are important qualities in his work, seen in his fluid paintings on rough textured walls and the textural qualities inherent in his monotype prints. There is a truth to materials and lack of artifice to his practice, that in turn creates powerful work.

Creating work on a similar theme of confinement is Muhammed Sajid, an artist and designer from Kerala now based in Bangalore, who has been gaining an international following for his distinct and characterful portraits and stylised architectural illustrations. 

Muhammed Sajid, 2020, Face off- Emotionless series

A recent personal project is a series of masked portraits called ‘Emotionless’, and these speculate on how the virus has been perceived and felt by his elders, combining the traditional cultures of his childhood with a fascinating futuristic twist, which asks the question, ‘what next for the future?’ 

Muhammed Sajid, 2020, The masks we wear

Tristan Manco’s new book – Stencil Graffiti Handbook is published by Thames and Hudson

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