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Breathe exhibit explores pandemic through masks

Royal Alberta Musuem hosts 45 pieces from submissions across Canada.

Tucked in a tiny room just off the Royal Alberta Museum’s permanent Human History Hall is a new display of hand-crafted masks. The 45 masks hang in a circle by the thinnest of fibres. The room is completely darkened except for funnels of white light shining on the masks adding drama and significance to the space. 

Breathe is a mesmerizing mask exhibit showcasing humanity’s resilience during COVID-19. The pandemic created not only a paralysis in the economy and workforce, it also froze the creative juices of many Canadian artists. 

Lisa Shepherd and Nathalie Bertin, two Métis artists, shared their disbelief as the world came to a halt. They took to social media and encouraged both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists across the country to channel their experiences by creating handmade face masks. 

Artists responded with masks reflecting their culture, traditions, and social practices. Although the exact number of created masks is unknown, it is thought close to 2,000 were contributed. In its totality, the exhibit is a powerful record of the 21st-century pandemic. 

“I’m really excited for people to see this. They all share equally. It is an amazing showcase of art and healing, and how art can help us get through a pandemic,” said Elaine Alexie, RAM’s curator of Indigenous studies. 

Shepherd's and Bertin’s call to action occurred during the pandemic’s first wave in March 2020. In the final selection, the chosen 45 arrived from every corner of Canada, including the territories. 

The juried contribution embodies a visually stunning representation of artistic resourcefulness. Artists use diverse materials such as birch bark, velveteen, glass, copper, cedar, sealskin, paper, and fox tails, to name a few. A written panel accompanies each mask illustrating personal experiences and a broad band of emotions. They range from fear, sadness, and confusion, to love, hope, and healing. 

“I didn’t know what it was,” said retiree Tim Windley, who wandered into the exhibit when it opened July 14. “It’s amazing work that’s gone into making the masks – the bright colours, the expressions, the thoughts. It’s all amazing.” 

Jennifer Lui, a federal government employee based in Ottawa, visited friends in Edmonton and dropped by with her multi-lens camera. 

“It’s wonderful to know they’re handmade and very contemporary for our times. It’s interesting to see how the Indigenous comments respond to this historic event,” Lui said. 

Breathe was first exhibited at the Whyte Museum in Banff from Sept. 24 to Jan. 17. It came to Alexie’s attention as an online exhibit. 

“They were very expressive, very unique, and I thought it was very creative to take something so newly introduced and be able to utilize it,” said Alexie. “They were trying to capture that time. The lockdown forced them to pause and reflect and take a step back from daily life. They began to pay attention to little things they hadn’t noticed before, such as bird songs. It shows the depths of how COVID affected us.” 

She goes on to speak about how the title, Breathe, was selected. 

“It shows the importance of breath, of breathing. COVID affects the breathing system and attaching a mask to the face can help breathe. In some cultures, the mask is about healing and protection. Masks are connected to breathing. It is something we take for granted.” 

As a bead artist, Alexie has a special appreciation for beaded masks. Quillpocalypse Now offers a special connection to her. Crafted from porcupine quills, moose hide, velveteen, rawhide, sinew, silk ribbon, braided yarns, cedar, and 24-karat gold spikes, it resembles a First World War gas mask. She noted it is very difficult to work with porcupine quills. 

In an artist statement, Graham Giniw Paradis wrote, “This COVID mask is an Indigenous futurism statement inspired by a nightmare of a post-apocalyptic world where the birch-bark population (one of our traditional materials used for quill work) has been decimated by settler resource extraction.” 

Another textile artist, Celina Loyer, Aboriginal programmer at St. Albert's Musée Héritage Museum, also features traditional elements in Assomption of Survival. Styled as a sash-like mask woven from acrylic yarn, it harkens back to fur-trading ancestors who used sashes as tools. In her artist statement, Loyer noted the mask’s tensions mirror the how tension affecting individuals during the pandemic. 

Cree artist Dianne Brown-Green's mask is a delicate, whimsical creation constructed from hand-made milkweed paper, acrylic paint, and beads. The Journey salutes the Monarch butterfly’s resilient survival in a world where it deals with predators, weather conditions, loss of habitat, pesticides, and herbicides. 

“What’s exciting about this is that she made milkweed paper and milkweed is the primary source for the Monarch on the prairies,” Alexie said. 

Nathalie Bertin shares her deep spiritual connection to nature through All That We Need, a mask fashioned from beads, birch bark, leather, and cotton twine. Although the mask appears light and airy, it challenges us to stop and register the world around us. 

At first glance Towanna Miller’s Corona Covid, a black, embroidered mask, is reminiscent of the 17th-century beaked, plague masks physicians wore when treating patients. Instead, the architecture of Miller’s mask is inspired by the crow in a beaded design using a flat-style peyote stitch and Iroquois raised beads. 

Terre Chartrand dips into the Anishinaabe knowledge of copper as an anti-microbial metal in An Appeal to Mishibijiw. She stated the ornamental copper mask started as a tribute to ancestral knowledge, but as it took shape, it evolved into the face of a panther or lynx honouring sacred and healing properties. 

“What is special about the copper mask is that she didn’t have all the smithing tools and made do with what she had. It was really resourceful,” said Alexie. 

Joeann Argue has survived cancer, cardiac issues, and COVID-19. Breathing is something she thinks about a great deal. Her cloth mask, Breathe: A Mask for Pandemic Times, is minimalist yet a striking face covering that represents the danger of breathing to ourselves and our potential for infecting others. 

In a more complicated design, Louise Vien pays tribute to her sister, a front-line ER nurse. Vien devised Hero, a red rose on black fabric using red silk ribbon, black cashmere, beads, dentalium shells, metal cones, and cotton. 

The Breathe exhibit is open Wednesday through Sunday until Oct. 11 at 9810 – 103A Avenue. Single tickets and annual passes are available at