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Masks must re-emerge with new spiritual significance to soothe a deeper spiritual unease, argues one critic.

Artists Reimagine African Masks for the Pandemic

Exhibition view: //thread, THK Gallery, Cape Town (17 June–29 August 2020). Courtesy THK Gallery. Courtesy the artist and THK Gallery.

African men and women wearing protective face masks decorated in brightly coloured acrylic yarn are the subject of a new collaboration between Pierre Le Riche, who created the masks in Cape Town, and photographer Nonzuzo Gxekwa, who photographed them in Johannesburg.

Entitled The Mask Project, the series is being added to the exhibition //thread at THK Gallery, Cape Town, which continues until 29 August.

Cases of Covid-19 in South Africa have been increasing by more than 10,000 per day, with the total fast approaching 500,000. The artists say the models were photographed bare-skinned to emphasise our myriad vulnerabilities during the pandemic.

'I do feel there is an anthropological element to this project as this is a new way of being where masks are part of everyday life,' said Nonzuzo Gxekwa. 'Twenty years from now someone will find this work and it will tell them of this time.'

Nonzuzo Gxekwa, Untitled 03 (2020). Archival inkjet print on semi-gloss paper.

Nonzuzo Gxekwa, Untitled 03 (2020). Archival inkjet print on semi-gloss paper. Courtesy the artist and THK Gallery.

The masks themselves appear to be an amalgam of medical masks used to prevent the transmission of disease, traditionalmasks, and brightly coloured contemporary African fashion.

'I definitely took a visual cue from African patterns and wax prints, such as shweshwe, when designing these masks,' Le Riche said, 'but instead of blatantly copying them I considered how the colours and threads could be deconstructed and redirected to interact with the wearer.'

University of Johannesburg academic Ashraf Jamal, who wrote an exhibition text for The Mask Project, says that African masks have never been merely decorative. Like medical masks, they serve a function: connecting the material world with the spirit world.

'My argument is that Western culture is confronting the limits of a secular and pragmatic understanding of the world, that spirituality is returning with an urgent force, that masks—in the deepest sense—also carry this spiritual freightage, and that in the long run, in the West, the mask will re-emerge with a powerful spiritual significance,' he said. 'This is because the pandemic is not only a health-material-physical crisis but also taps a deeper ethical and spiritual unease, a need for profound change.' —[O]

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