Millimeters-thick sheets of delicately etched bronze. Pleated, laser-cut coral collars. This isn’t haute couture, though it could be. These are face masks.
Nigeria-based architectural designer Tosin Oshinowo and U.K.-based textile designer Chrissa Amuah have created three gorgeous face masks, called Freedom to Move, commissioned by Lexus, which is an official automotive partner of the annual Design Miami show. The brief asked them to create a “design object of our times,” and what’s more fitting than a mask for 2020?
The masks are designed to celebrate African design and history through a contemporary lens by fusing traditional African craftsmanship such as brass and bronze casting with contemporary innovations, such as 3D printing.
Face masks have been important utilitarian devices this year, but they’ve also been ripe for creative experimentation. There have been futuristic face shields. High-fashion visors from Louis Vuitton. Seemingly NASA-ready clear helmets. And now gorgeous sculptures. As the designers say, “if we must wear masks, let them be spectacular.”
They rendered all three of their masks in 3D modeling, then used 3D printers to print a prototype for testing. Next they created molds for casting from the 3D prints. (The acrylic shields were just 3D printed.)
Each mask has important symbolic elements. The Egaro mask, which looks like an intricate, bronze face shield, is named after an area that used to exist in Eastern Niger, known to be the birthplace of iron casting in Africa. The headpiece has a convex shape that it gets from two beautifully etched bronze panels on either side of the face. (The pattern, which the designers call “breathe,” represents the physical function integral to human movement, and visually reflects African “fractals,” or geometric patterns, according to Amuah.) It also has a metal band delicately bent in the shape of a profile extending down the outside.
The Ògún mask, named for Yoruba god of metal, technology, and war, has a face shield that extends above the eyes from an etched bronze neckpiece. Finally, Pioneer Futures combines a laser-cut leather neckpiece that extends above the mouth, in a play on the Victorian collar with an acrylic helmet. The color is inspired by coral beading, which Amuah says is significant to aspects of Nigerian culture. It’s an eye-catching statement piece that combines genres: “Age of enlightenment meets Afrofuturism,” says Amuah. All come with a transparent face shield option.
The masks took approximately nine weeks to produce. Amuah flew to Nigeria, where Oshinowo lives, to work on the series for about three of those weeks, and not only was it during a pandemic, forcing much of the ergonomic testing of finished 3D-printed acrylic pieces and bronze casts to be done virtually—it was also amid the recent Nigerian #ENDSARS protests against police brutality.
In one instance, they were caught up in a protest after landing in Benin to meet with a bronze caster, Oshinowo recalled. They waved palm trees while with the crowd to indicate they meant no harm, before someone took them into their home to wait it out. The gesture reminded Oshinowo of the “goodwill of human beings.”
That tracks with what the duo hopes people will take away from the mask collection. Both Amuah and Oshinowo see the project as a platform to elevate African cultural and design history that has often been overlooked, and place it in a contemporary, international context. It’s also meant to evoke joy. “We find ourselves in such unfamiliar territory,” says Amuah, in reference to the pandemic. “In times of war, the head is always the element that is protected.” But she says, in African culture, the head is also celebrated. These headpieces do both.
“There definitely isn’t a political message, but it’s a beautiful way to show another perspective of Africa and Africa’s contribution to the world in a way that isn’t often seen,” says Amuah. “At the end of the day as human beings we’re all in this together.”