Unmasked, a wall art installation by street artist Asbestos, was recently unveiled at St James’s Hospital in Dublin. The installation, commissioned by St James’s Hospital, St James’s Hospital Foundation and Creative Ireland, pays tribute to the frontline healthcare workers hidden behind face masks over the past two years of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The series is inspired by traditional gold leaf icon paintings. Asbestos worked with photographer Anthony Edwards of St James’s Hospital to take portraits of eight St James’s staff. The portraits were then recreated as photo collages onto gold leaf trays. Each tray has two doors covering the bottom half of the subject’s face, representing the masks they wore during the pandemic. These doors can be opened up to unmask the individuals we have been unable to see over the past two years.
The Creative Life Hub in Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing (MISA) in St James’s Hospital engaged with St James’s Hospital Foundation and Creative Ireland for this project to demonstrate the role and value of art in supporting hospital staff’s wellbeing, with a vision of boosting staff morale across hospital departments using the medium of street art in a unique, dynamic way at the intersection of ‘art and health’.
The participants were Matthew Houlihan, Housekeeping; Prof Joe Harbison, Consultant Geriatrician and Stroke Physician; Archana Dsouza, Education and Training Coordinator; Bernie Waterhouse, Clinical Nurse Manager; Ronnie Weston, Security and Site Contract Manager; Farjana Bashar, Staff Nurse; Shirley Morgan, Healthcare Assistant; Alfie Kelly, Environmental Operative.
‘We chose eight individuals that represent different roles and experiences in the hospital. I’ve discovered how they coped with wearing a mask, found new ways to communicate and interact with patients, and discovered the solace and reassurance that the mask brings as a symbol of safety and protection. Wearing masks often created a barrier that made it nearly impossible to communicate with patients, but as much as they wanted to stop wearing masks, these healthcare workers also felt that wearing them provided reassurance that they were keeping patients and each other safe.’ – Asbestos
In Asbestos’ work, he explores the meaning of masks and how powerful a symbol they are. The word ‘persona’ comes from the tradition of Greek theatre, where an actor covered their face with several different masks, so they could change persona. In this way, he explores different persona with each mask created or each exploration of what masks mean. In this case, he’s showing individuals unmasked after two years behind a ‘blue barrier’.
‘St James’s Hospital Foundation has been proud to engage with The Creative Life Hub at the Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing here at St James’s Hospital to use the arts to support hospital staff wellbeing and boost morale. Through this support, we have witnessed first-hand the benefits of the arts on staff wellbeing. Unmasked honours the strengths and vulnerabilities of our frontline staff and allied healthcare professionals who gave their utmost during the pandemic, and continue to do so. For this, we are eternally indebted to them.’ – Dermot McEvoy, Chairman, St James’s Hospital Foundation
Unmasked has been funded by St James’s Hospital, the St James’s Hospital Foundation (through donations made by the public in support of frontline workers’ wellbeing during the pandemic) and Creative Ireland.