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Year of the mask

  • 18 June 2020
2020 has been the year of the mask. The masks worn during the smoke of bushfires, during the threat of COVID-19, and during the Black Lives Matter protests. Masks are a powerful and complex symbol.

Culturally, masks are a symbol of concealment, and as such are ambivalent. In comics, bushrangers and criminals were represented wearing masks that both concealed their identity and identified their lawlessness. In the same comics, however, such heroes as Batman and The Phantom also wore masks to conceal the vulnerability of their ordinary selves. Sidney Nolan’s image of Ned Kelly represents both his threat and his inner vulnerability. 

People also wear masks to conceal their identity in the face of overbearing state power. The dominant image of the Hong Kong protests is of students wearing masks to avoid identification and reprisal. They were a symbol of public resistance and of inner rebellion. The government responded by making it illegal to wear masks. In fearful societies, too, members of minority groups who conceal their faces arouse alarm. Pressure then grows, for example, to prevent impoverished young people from wearing hoodies and Muslim women from wearing the niqab. 

People subject to discriminatory laws, social exclusion and oppressive policing commonly wear an inner mask. They keep their heads down, do not complain about ill treatment nor become involved in public life. They feel safest when they are neither seen nor heard, or behave like their comic stereotypes. They are much more likely to be regarded with suspicion in shops and on the streets, are much more likely to be stopped by police, and much more likely to be remanded and sentenced than other citizens. To be safe they must wear an inner mask.

In Australia, the experience of Adam Goodes showed the cost of throwing away the subservient, compliant mask and responding forcefully and honestly to provocation and belittlement. In this context the Black Lives Matter protests were an act of self-assertion by people who no longer accept being silenced and disregarded. 

In the time of COVID-19 the mask has become a symbol of moral seriousness — of considered generosity and of intimacy in a time of distance. It stood for the nursing staff and other workers who had weighed the risks of infection and decided to offer both their professional skills and personal warmth to people who had fallen ill.

'Ultimately the masks that people wear invite us to look into