For the Maskbook campaign, how artists world over are using protective masks as canvasses for creativity
Had the deadly coronavirus not struck, Saraikela in Jharkhand would have been reverberating with the beats of Saraikela Chhau — a semi-classical dance form performed using masks. Beginning 13 April, hundreds of teams would have danced in festivals and fairs to celebrate the Chaitra Parva all the way till May end. The performers would have been happy, and the artisans who craft the highly stylised masks — one of the most important aspects of the dance form — would have been content, earning their livelihood from the sale of masks and costumes. However this time around, that is not to be.
The artisans have lost their livelihood for the season, but not their spirit. Guided by Kalamandir, — a Jamshedpur-based NGO that works towards the welfare of artistes in Jharkhand, and the preservation and promotion of their art and culture, — along with The Kala Chaupal Trust, — a non-profit outfit in Gurugram, — the artists have come up with a prototype of 'Chhau Personal Protective Equipment' (PPE).
While Saraikela Chhau dancers wear a full-face mask during their performing, for PPE, artisans have fashioned a half-mask out of papier-mâché, clay, cloth and maize.
“There have been many improvisations. We decided to use less clay and more cloth and paper. We want to keep it light and have a good fit around the nose. Later, we also added a three-ply fabric inside to cover the nostrils. This way, around 4-5 artisans have managed to do 100 masks for Kalamandir, and are eagerly awaiting orders,” says Prabhat Kumar Mahato, a senior Chhau performer who is working closely with the artisans.
If it clicks, it will help the artisans. “The masks and costumes they made this year will most likely go waste. Moisture and other storage challenges will spoil them and teams will prefer to buy freshly made stuff next year. As of now, the artisans face real financial challenges because they haven’t sold anything. The sale of these masks can generate income for them. I have reached out to a few government organisations and I am hopeful for orders,” informs Amitava Ghosh, Founder-Secretary of Kalamandir.
Leenika Jacob, the Managing Trustee at Kala Chaupal, harps on the importance for good design, and according to her, the Chhau PPE is an example of that. Jacob roots for supporting communities through incubation of sustainable design practices. “It looks like masks are not going anywhere for sometime, so why not look at our cultural masks and make them trendy and usable.”
The Kala Chaupal Trust — a partner in the aforementioned campaign — is part of the larger movement around masks led by Art of Change 21’s 'Maskbook COVID-19' campaign. The narrative, however, rests on artistic expression. The project invites people to create masks with their hands using material at home, click images, and send them. The images are posted online on the Maskbook portrait gallery and their Instagram handle.
In Madhubani, Mithila artists are doing their bit to make up for the paucity of masks. Following the instructions by Ihitashri Shandilya of MithilAsmita (a Delhi-based organisation, that works with folk artists) that was shared through a video, the artists have sewn and painted masks in traditional Madhubani patterns. Some artists also bought readymade masks from medical stores, painted them, and distributed to those providing essential services.
Several people from across the world have responded with their portraits in masks, showcasing their creative expression. Hand-stitched masks on Wasli paper, masks with nails and wooden sticks, cardboard plate and plastic, children’s toys, plastic bottle-lids, leaves, flowers, and so much more appear on Art of Change 21’s digital platforms.
Not just a visual extravaganza, but the captions by the mask-makers hailing from different age groups and professions accompanying the images are also food for thought.
From Belgium, Frédérique Müller sent in a mask crafted with a white cardboard plate and material from a plastic folder that comments on human beings becoming data and curves on graphs. “The living is converted into data and curves: the climate, the biodiversity, the evolution of the virus. This representation of the environment maintains the illusion and the belief that we can anticipate and control things. Now, we see that a virus, infinitely small, disrupts our whole life. Scientists knew this possibility but this global pandemic was not anticipated, and we improvise. I think this event marks a new era. Other difficult events will occur; other viruses, climatic disasters, political instabilities (will continue to happen). We must prepare ourselves to live in an uncertain world that outstrips all forecasts and disrupts the simplicity of a curve simply ascending or descending. So my mask represents a series of curves that have strange shapes,” says the artist.
Spurred by the COP 21, United Nations Climate Change Conference 2015 held in Paris, Alice Audouin formed Art of Change 21 with a vision to connect the dots between art and environment. In 2015, it began the Maskbook campaign, an artistic participatory initiative addressing issues of waste, air pollution and global warming. The ongoing project invites people to make masks from waste and submit images. “So, we already had something related to this going on, and when the pandemic occurred people said to me, ‘Oh, you are a visionary,’ and why don’t you have a campaign dedicated to COVID-19. And that’s how we started it," Audouin explains. As she speaks, church-bells can be heard in the background.
In France, one of the countries worst hit by the contagion, churches ring bells every day to express gratitude to frontline healthcare workers.
Ever since the Maskbook COVID-19 campaign took off in early April, it has received hundreds of images from all over the world. “One thing to remember is that they are not real masks. They are creative expressions of people who want to share their messages. When you create something with hand it becomes powerful," Audouin says.
Likening it to a war, Weixuan Hu, a 10-year-old boy from Chengdu in China, interprets his mask as a strong shield against the virus. Titled ‘Defence Army’, he has made it with nails and wooden sticks.
In Brazilian artist Rubem Robierb’s portrait, a creeper for his halo and a painted butterfly on his mask makes nature the focal point of the artwork. Through his mask titled ‘Resurrect’, the artist has tried to convey that nature is not separate from human beings. “Instead of wishing that things go back to normal, we should focus on building a new sustainable “normal” with a much more conscientious approach respecting nature," he says.
When the artist received the invitation from Art of Change to participate in the Maskbook campaign, he was in the middle of the quarantine, with all art supply stores closed. He had to work with whatever was available in his studio. “I found items from other projects. I have also used real masks, but after the alterations, they are not practical to maintain safety,” explains Robierb.
One of the most striking images in this cluster belongs to French artist Lamyne M, whose mask titled ‘Western Supremacy’ is crafted out of plastic vials."I have made some 43 masks to date using vegetables, outdated pharmaceutical products, and my son's games. These masks symbolise differences in wealth depending on the country, and their ability to manage the crisis, accessibility to care, and one's social status," the artist says, thereby questioning 'Western supremacy' in global politics.