However grim and dispiriting, the coronavirus pandemic has given individuals the freedom to express themselves in a rather unique way: through their masks. Following mask mandates and other COVID-19 community guidelines, a great political and social divide has evolved, sparking controversy among the nation.
People are finding new ways to adapt to this new normal by voicing their opinions without ever directly using language. Sophomore visual arts major Reuben Simpson has found ways to express himself by creating masks with a message.
“I wanted to represent something, or do something unique with my mask, just because I saw a lot of masks every day that inspired me, like through work,” Simpson said. “So I wanted to use my mask in a way where I could show people what I believed in or what I stood up for, while not having to actually say or instigate anything.”
Seeing masks with a message while at work was just the beginning for Simpson. He noticed an influx in vocal expression in the political scene both on and off campus, but due to COVID-19, Simpson was required to find ways to intertwine his love for art and his passion for creating change in the community.
“I saw people using their masks to speak their mind, whether it be in protests or just in [general] scenarios,” Simpson said. “I think that kind of stimulated a lot of thought with what I could do with my masks and how I could kind of push it further.”
In addition to creating masks with a message, Simpson has found alternative ways to showcase his art and opinions; he has been able to paint on various pieces of clothing, aside from masks, and has gifted them to friends.
“I like to give a lot of clothes to people who are active within the community,” Simpson said. “So, that’s a way that I’ve disassociated myself from my art and been able to just create art that can be represented by those communities.”
Boise State alumni Nisha Jae Newton graduated in the spring of 2019 with an undergraduate degree in history, secondary education and sociology. Since graduating, Newton has dedicated their time to community organizing for Black power, queer empowerment and liberation.
“I am not socially granted many opportunities to unapologetically vocalize what I experience or what I need to communicate for liberation, and wearing artwork says it for me,” Newton said. “The art speaks for itself in a way that is healing on myself and the people around me in a beloved community.”
Newton has worn various masks and articles of clothing to many protests across the nation, some of which have been designed by Simpson himself. However, with freedom of expression comes outside criticism.
“I’ve been traveling to different cities and states to support local organizers [and] learn from their movements,” Newton said. “Although the beloved community is affirming and supportive, I have also received an influx of backlash for unapologetically wearing revolutionary artwork.”
People have certainly been given more freedom in terms of being able to express themselves through their masks, but with art, not everyone can be pleased. New generations are finding ways to voice their opinions in ways we never thought possible, and the coronavirus pandemic is providing yet another example of that.
Another individual, Roy, who is a junior at a local high school and has asked to keep their last name anonymous, has worn customized masks with a political message on their school’s campus, but has also faced backlash from faculty members. Despite this, Roy still uses it to communicate their beliefs.
“I gave [Reuben] the quote and everything [for the mask] so it was done specifically for me,” Roy said. “It doesn’t make me feel like I stand out, but it definitely does empower me.”
As the debate over mask mandates persists, young folks both on and off campuses will continue to express themselves through art on their masks. Despite the social divide that masks have brought, students are still finding ways to communicate and express their opinions with one another.
“I think it is important to note that you can have a voice or stand up for what you believe in without actually talking,” Simpson said. “So, I think being able to just say those things or represent those things through what you’re wearing, can be powerful, especially if you’re out in the [community].”