Mask making: From Animism to the Internet of Things

mask collage

My first real artistic exploration of masks came about as part of the Identity Cards project back in 2009. I’d created some fabric masks based on bird skulls as part of the textile work I was making at the time, and the collaboration with photographer Zeev Parush helped me to begin to consider the ways in which I could use this work in different ways.  However, I was still having some trouble understanding what my practice was and how this work fitted into it.

My original interest in creating textile sculpture was for its tactile qualities. The way in which it encouraged people to play was both facinating and humbling. I know this is not a view shared by some other textile sculptors, who equate this tactility with ‘craft’, presumably a degoratory label. Nevertheless, I think it is this fasciation with how people relate to art and objects in general that has led me to my current interests in haptic and relational art.

My current investigations, although far from tactile, explore the narcissistic tendency to anthropomorphise objects, and how this plays out in ritual and religious experience. This also relates to Animism, a term originally coined by Sir Edward Taylor in 1875 to mean ‘the attribution of life and sensibility to inanimate things.’


Contemporary artists such as Sarah Lucas have managed to captureSarah Lucas Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab this preoccupation perfectly, and in humorous fashion, through works like Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (1992) and Au Naturel (1994). These sentiments are mirrored, if not heightened, in the work of contemporary African artist, Romuald Hazoumè. Originally from Porto-Novo, in the Republic of Benin, Hazoumè’s ‘tongue-in-cheek’ masks both ‘belie their historic and cultural pretensions as traditional ritual objects whilst roundly mocking Western perceptions of African art.’ Hazoumè’s work also recently featured in the 2012 exhibition We Face Forward, a survey show of contemporary African art, by Manchester Museums and Galleries.

Although the concept of animism is an old one, believed to be the founding principle of religion, and perhaps a defining attribute of culture in general, it is interesting to make parallels with contemporary applications of arduino and the Internet of Things. Organisations like Makey Makey are currently selling ‘Invention Kits’, which allow users to play bananas like a piano, among other things. Similarly, the Internet of Things, in its simplest form, allows objects to be identified virtually, collapsing barriers between online and offline and changing the way we interact with everyday items.

Top image: Louise Atkinson, Commodity Mask (Blue Headphones), Collage, 2013
Bottom image: Sarah Lucas, Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, Installation, 1992

Update 27th Setember 2014

I was recently able to have a go at using Makey Makey at Gallery Camp 14 at Quad in Derby. Coincidentally this is the same week that this video also appeared on my Facebook newsfeed:

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