Face Masks: Design of the Times

by Katherine Arteche
Images courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum
07 Mar 2022

The humble face mask that has kept us safe in the pandemic is captured in a virtual exhibition for artistic documentation.

Today, it’s a little surreal to dress up without putting on a face mask before heading out the door. Never mind that we get slapped with a hefty fine for not complying with today’s regulations, but we’ve also become accustomed that wearing a face mask is for the betterment of society’s well-being — manners, courtesy, and compliance go up, while the virus goes down.

What was meant to be used as protection worn by medical professionals and quality check regulators are now donned by almost everyone the world over. Argumentative articles challenge not only the effectiveness of the humble surgical apparel, but also the models that matter — why South Korea manufactures the KF94, how it fares against China’s own KN95, and that the numbers have a real scientific purpose.

Over time, the mask that we put on has also become a form of self-expression, where productions of every color and style now run rampant on the streets, as if we’re in a giant, more effective, masquerade. From utilitarian versions to fashionable ones, the mask has now grabbed the attention of the art world, leading museum curators to compile a collection to document the material culture of the pandemic in the year 2020.

Butterfly People Mask by Rahul Mishra. Image courtesy of Rahul Mishra

The effort, led by the International Committee for the Museums and Collections of Costume, Fashion and Textiles (ICOM Costume), is a collaboration between international art organizations to produce a new virtual exhibition called Clothing the Pandemic: A Virtual Exhibition of COVID-19 Face Masks from Around the World.

As Singapore’s National Museum of Asian Antiquities and Decorative Art, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is the country’s representative in the international roster, which includes the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (United Kingdom), the Museo Kordilyera (Philippines), and the Théodore Monod African Art Museum (Senegal).

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Mask by Andrew Gn. Image courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum

The exhibition is a showcase of over 100 masks that’s curated into six different art themes: Art & Invention, Politics & Protest, Solidarity & Communities, Body & Spirit, Innovation & Sustainability, and Fashion & Pop Culture. In the ACM contribution, the collection includes two Singaporean artists, one being Andrew Gn, a Paris-based Singaporean fashion designer who fashioned a silk organza and tulle mask, with hand-embroidered floral motifs made at his Parisian atelier. His choice of white for the overall design ties in with his collection, “May There Be Light”, in which the color represented optimism and rebirth.

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Mask by Raymond Wong. Image courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum
Mask by Iwan Tirta. Image courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum

Closer to home, local artist Raymond Wong paid homage to his Peranakan and Chinese roots, whose intricate handicraft with Peranakan beadwork against the silk medium resulted in a beautiful, picturesque piece. A pair of goldfish, which symbolizes abundance and good luck in both the Peranakan and Chinese cultures, became his signature motif when he first unveiled the design in 2020.

Since the rise of the pandemic, 2020 saw the world at its lowest. Among the significant shifts in economic patterns and living conditions, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of international museums in response to public safety. This virtual showcase is a new way the art world is remaining connected, both locally and abroad, as it pushes interpretations on the newfound symbolism of the face mask.

At its core, Clothing the Pandemic highlights the importance of museum collections as sources of inspiration that can embrace current events and celebrate contemporary fashion and design.

Clothing the Pandemic: A Virtual Exhibition of COVID-19 Face Masks from Around the World on show till December 2022. Visit the exhibition online here.