Behind the Mask

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

At the beginning of June 2020, the UK Government announced that the wearing of a face covering or mask was mandatory when travelling on public transport in England. Although this is currently not the case for Wales, in circumstances where it may be difficult for us to keep two meters apart, Welsh Government’s recommendation is that we should use a three-layered face covering but not a medical mask. Numerous videos have already been shared on social media and YouTube about how to make your own mask, and it looks as if a lot of us have been getting creative – some with more success than others! Perhaps creating your own mask helps you take ownership of the idea of wearing a face covering? This photograph by John Davies, a student at Coleg y Cymoedd, Merthyr, is one I will remember for a long time:

The photograph is part of a series of items created to show how people’s lives have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, it represents more than just wearing a mask: it is a symbol of grief for what has been lost during these last months, of voices muted and of young people’s fragile lives. But it also represents taking on responsibility, being mindful of others, and being prepared to face the future. It encompassed all of this. Why not take a look at the collections from other students from Coleg y Cymoedd who have been capturing images relating to the People of Wales in Lockdown, 2020?

Our attitude in the west towards wearing a facial mask has always been a complex one, and historically, it is something that is often linked with negativity: punishment, misdemeanour, war or danger. Strangely enough, we can accept wearing masks as a reality in other people’s lives, in other cultures, or other periods of time without asking very little questions.
However, here is a pretty sinister looking face-cover which teased my curiosity – and it really is at the extreme end of what you would call a mask. Its purpose was to take away privilege, to stop people from expressing themselves:

It is in fact a replica of a nineteenth century Scots Cap, where the leather mask forms part of the cap itself. Worn by prisoners at Ruthin Prison, Denbighshire, it restricted communication between prisoners, making sure that they did not talk to each other when they were allowed to leave their cell for exercise or to go to hospital or attend chapel.

In other contexts, and in other cultures, masks are also synonymous with freedom. For those people walking the streets in fifteenth-century Venice when carnival festivities before Lent took place for the first time, wearing a mask allowed them to protect themselves from being recognised, and removed social differences. Traditionally, the act of wearing a mask outside the official carnival has also deep cultural roots for Venetians as it signifies taking forbidden liberties, both in business life and love.

Whether it’s for the ancient Carnival of Venice (which was given a new lease of life in the 1980s and continues to be a major celebration) or Cardiff Carnival for example, covering the face and wearing a mask as part of dressing up can be joyous, and something to be proud of – a way of celebrating past traditions and expressing yourself creatively. Here is a wonderful photograph of members of the Filipino community in Cardiff (FCIC) in Masskara costumes in Cardiff Carnival 2013, a tradition which originated in the Philippines in the 1880s:

Carnival days will come again to all of us at some time. But our immediate post-pandemic world will be different, in the way we interact with each other from day to day and in our relationship with the past, including, no doubt, the way we respond to historical images. This photograph by Geoff Charles is of evacuees from Birkenhead arriving at Oswestry, giving a brief glimpse of life in the shadow of the Second World War:

Being able to connect with our cultural digital heritage both during and post lockdown is hugely important, and will hopefully incentivise us to share our experiences during these challenging times.

People’s Collection Wales is currently working with its partners to create a digital time capsule to capture the story of Wales during lockdown.

Do you have photographs of masks, or other stories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic you want to share with us? Send your items to us through Facebook or Twitter.

Cover image: ivory mask – a representation of a tragic Roman figure, and the freedman’s cap, the pilleus, is a symbol of freedom in the Roman world

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