Accepted Paper:

A Mask of One's Own  
Nataliya Tchermalykh (University of Geneva)

Paper short abstract:

How can professional artists productively inform anthropologists about new ways of theorising the masks, their agency and performativity? This paper seeks answers to this question through an ethnography of creative mask-making carried out by four female artists during the global pandemic.

Paper long abstract:

This paper uses an anthropological lens to make sense of the expanding artistic creativity, related to hygienic masks and other face-covering devices in the times of Covid-19 in relation to other social meanings attributed to these objects. My reflection is based on ethnographic accounts of mask-making by four female artists (of Japanese-Canadian, Finnish, Ukrainian origins). They are all professional mask-makers, and produced masks before the pandemic. How did the global epidemiological situation change their vision of their art? How can these visions by professional artists productively inform anthropologists about new ways of theorizing the masks, their agency and performativity?

Theoretically, I am interested in the symbolic polyvalence of masks as hygienic, aesthetic, sartorial and identitarian objects. How do new pandemic-induced meanings intersect with more ancient or traditional interpretations of masking for ritualistic purposes?

Historically, ritualistic mask-wearing was often taboo for women (e.g. performances in ancient Japan, Africain tribes, during winter carnivals in Europe). In modern times, however, masks as epidemiological objects have been mostly crafted by women. This paper addresses the entanglements of all the (controversial) aspects of masking, stimulated by the global ascendance of masks as indispensable objects of the everyday. As my interlocutors suggest, after 2019 masks became sites for aesthetic and semiotic experimentation with different facets of femininity and gendered aspects of work. I argue that mask-making and face-wearing for artistic purposes sheds light on the inversion of traditionally distributed gender roles, and allows women to overcome isolation through (feminist) carnivalesque, that is often performed online.

Panel P08a
Mask: the Face of Covid-19
  Session 1