Curation Highlight: Rapid Response Mask Collecting Project

By Natalie Wright, Graduate Research Assistant, PhD Student in Design Studies

Wright, curator of the Rapid Response Mask Collecting Project, provides insights into the project’s ongoing efforts to capture the varying and vital roles that masks play in daily life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woman wearing an elaborately embroidered face mask and shirt.
Miriam Campos wears a mask she designed and embroidered.

Following the rapid response collecting model at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, we set out to identify, commission, acquire, preserve, interpret, and display masks which materialize experiences that this pandemic has both created and laid bare. Rapid response collecting is akin to museum journalism, as curators set out to find items that speak to current events with the help of the public. Our goal has been to collect masks that exemplify the conversations that became central to different communities and that have ties to the Wisconsin region or to the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. We hoped that these parameters would lead to a multivocal collection, the first installment of which is an online exhibit that brings together 22 masks. This project continues to grow and change alongside unfolding global and local events.

An overarching theme that guides this project is the “necrocene.” This term is a combination of two words: necropolitics and the Anthropocene. The first refers to the politics of death, and how structures of power control who lives and who dies, while the latter is a geological era of human influence on the environment and climate. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of Visual Studies Jill H. Casid has written extensively on this topic, exploring, in particular, the notion of living and dying on a dying planet. Masks are one potent window into the power structures that caused the pandemic (such as the human relationship with the natural world that is explored in the online show What Would a Microbe Say), the response measures to contain and treat the virus, and the deeper psychological affect that this experience has had on individual and collective scales.

Screen shot of Vogue article featuring Brema Brema sitting in front of a rack of white sweatshirts with purple butterflies

Today, masks evidence how COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted Black and Indigenous communities. Milwaukee-based designer Brema Brema created two custom masks for Rapid Response which highlight histories of racism in Wisconsin that reach so glaringly into the present. Brema created these masks in the style of shirts that he handed out at Black Lives Matter protests after the police shooting of Kenosha-resident Jacob Blake. The twenty-four-year-old creative was formerly a refugee from Sudan and has already been featured in Vogue twice for his brand Unfinished Legacy that combines streetwear aesthetics with outspoken advocacy for the Black community.

Ableism in the COVID-19 response has also devalued and endangered the lives of disabled persons, as policymakers ordered that doctors prioritize non-disabled patients for treatment. Disabled artist and scholar Dr. Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi co-founded the “Crip Ally Care Exchange,” a mutual aid care web that connects disabled people with artist allies to help one another as a means of radically circumventing traditional support structures that perpetuate violence. Throughout the pandemic, she has created masks for disabled persons and their carers, and for Rapid Response, she designed a screen-printed commissioned mask with the words “One of Us” in reference to the 1932 American horror film Freaks.

Color photograph of a face mask mounted on a glass head form. Mask is made of a olive green cloth material with printed pink two-fingered hand designs with the words “one of us” also appearing in pink text inside the hand shapes.
One of Us, Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi, 2020, Screen-printed cotton, metal, elastic, HLATC Collection, 2020.08.001. Photograph by Dakota Mace for the CDMC.

Yatahli Otilia Rosas Sandoval, a member of the Indigenous Triqui community in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a master weaver, also created masks using traditional techniques represented in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection that speak to adaptation and cultural survivance (the active survival of Native persons and cultural practices in the face of colonization). Sandoval made these masks as an alternative to single-use medical masks and their startling plastic waste. UW Director of Marketing and Inclusion for the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences Suzanne Swift noticed this environmental toll also. In response, she created the Paradise Lost photography project to document the lost masks that are now ubiquitous. The National Museum of the American Indian saw the work of Sandoval and collected examples of Oaxacan masks for the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.

The masks that we have accessioned into the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection are now in dialogue with one another as unexpected connections can be made with each new display combination and juxtaposition. Pairing a playful Crayola™ set of children’s face masks with a fashionable Off-White™ mask in the online exhibition, for example, suggests differing forms of a similar strategy: normalizing the practice of mask-wearing by rendering it palatable and even aspirational. At the same time, the specter of the unmasked face (as represented by the final item in the digital exhibit) is in perpetual dialogue with the crafted activism, or “craftivism,” that other masks materialize in ways that reveal notions of engaged citizenship.

Photograph of two embroidered masks sitting on a yellow mailing envelope addressed to the National museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.
Two Oaxacan masks (by Miriam Campos and Yatahli Otilia Rosas Sandoval) being mailed to the NMAI. Image courtesy of Carolyn Kallenborn.

As we each continue to navigate our present moment—one at the cusp of vaccine availability as well as new COVID-19 variants and government administrations—the Center for Design and Material Culture invites you to be a citizen-scholar and to send us suggestions for masks to collect. Since the publication of the online exhibit, we have acquired more masks by Oaxacan makers that exemplify local weaving and embroidery techniques, as well as several kids’ masks from the Child Development Lab at the School of Human Ecology.

4 children's face masks appear on a white table within a collection's area.
Masks collected from the SoHE Child Development Lab await accessioning.

One perspective that we are looking to represent and collect in mask form, for example, is that of women’s labor as mask-makers in the pandemic. As with historic crises, gendered female skills such as sewing that are otherwise dismissed and under-valued have been “revealed” as critically important with the onset of COVID-19. Yet women are often asked to give this labor and skill freely as a measure of goodwill, requiring women to create solutions at the individual level in order to compensate for systematic failings. This has resulted in a stunning explosion of home-made masks.

If you know of any masks that reflect these themes, or if you have suggestions for other masks that we should collect, e-mail

View the Rapid Response Mask Collecting Project among our current virtual exhibitions.