Masks, masks, masks: NYC’s self-representation during the pandemic

New Yorkers wearing masks, photographed during the lockdown, are the protagonists of Italian photographer Francesca Magnani’s latest exhibition.

When dealing with the pandemic event of these years, future scholars of the iconography of the past will have to come to terms with the complex relationship between identity and self–representation staged with masks by their ancestors. Not just an expressively sterile way of working collectively on the great attempt to stop contagions, as was the case with the Spanish flu at the beginning of the 20th century, but the medium with which the individual actors of this “film in mask” decided to interpret themselves and, in doing so, to narrate the present.

Like and more than the unfailing (and historically codified) t–shirts, the masks have become a narration of the world, since instead of being fragmented into a myriad of solipsistic captions, the messages they have become bearers of have been directed towards the main and unavoidable themes of our time.

And what place but New York, the most photographed city in the world, could provide an ideal case study over time? For years Francesca Magnani has made its streets her own open–air studio and, with a rare mix of street photography and anthropological photography, has told the story of its curiosities and idiosyncrasies, anxieties and trends, such as the resistance and resilience that its inhabitants have shown since 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

Francesca Magnani, La città in maschera. Don’t Drink Bleach, East River, August 27 2020

With the exhibition “La città in Maschera” (The City in Masks), the Consulate General of Italy in New York presents, until 11 November, 25 of the 600 photographs selected by Magnani from the thousands taken during the two years of the pandemic, images so necessary and circumstantial that around eighty were acquired by the Smithsonian’s permanent historical archive in Washington and are now part of the first set of digital documents on the pandemic.

«[Starting in] March 2020 I saw in people’s expression and way of moving on the street an anguish, an incredulity and a confusion that often matched my own,» Magnani writes. « I walked around the neighborhood every day and progressively I saw how people started wearing their feelings and expressions on a piece of cloth.»

She continues: «When possible, I talk to people about the masks I photograph, as they often have a story I like to learn, and I have noticed people are attached to the narrative behind the mask. Also, because I never plan these portraits, each mask reminds me of a specific route I walked; it marks a point in a new time in history I was learning to navigate myself and a spark of a connection that helps me feel grounded and human.»

But the real strength of Magnani's work lies in the fluidity with which the narrative of representation flows naturally and undisturbed from Covid 19 to Black Lives Matter, passing through the not–so–implicit metaphor of George Floyd's last words. In the moment of greatest paranoia towards others, when the simple act of breathing carries within itself the germ of contagion if not extinction, the mask thus changes from a medical aid to an informative tool, from an act of defence and prevention to an action of protest and rebellion. In the logical but not obvious passage from “I can't breathe” to “I will breathe” there is the discovery that we are all connected as never before, and that only by wearing each other's mask can we recognise ourselves for what we are.

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