Tam Dean Burn | Mask Made

In this short talk commissioned by the Learning & Engagement team, actor, performer and singer Tam Dean Burn reflects on the imagery of masks in pop culture and artworks in the National Galleries of Scotland collection.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about so many changes to our lives not least the daily practice of wearing face masks. Although a necessary inconvenience we undertake for one another, covering our faces with masks impacts the way we interact with each other. One loss is the possibility of reading facial expressions, an essential visual element of communication. This has been particularly acute for deaf and hearing impaired people and those relying on lip reading.

At the end of 2020, after almost of a year of habitual mask wearing, we asked actor, performer and singer Tam Dean Burn to consider the history and practice of how masks have been used in performance. He took as his starting point the wide range of artworks depicting masks in our collection, notably Scottish artist John Bellany’s striking print One Singer, One Song from 1990.

In this short film recorded at home, Burn takes us on a journey from Bellany’s symbolic use of masks in his paintings and compositions, to reflections on how his own musical heroes Iggy Pop and David Bowie played with masks in performances. Wearing a Mexican mestizo* tribal mask borrowed from the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre in Glasgow, Burn also reminds us that culturally, masks are ancient in their origins, being the ‘primary symbol of the theatre’.

On 10 September 2020 NGS and community makers made 500 face coverings from designs based on artworks in the collection. They were distributed to local North Edinburgh communities in partnership with North Edinburgh Arts. Whilst our experiences of living with COVID are changing rapidly, it looks like we will all be living with face coverings and masks for some time to come.

This feature is part of our regular programme of talks that has gone online whilst our galleries are currently closed.

*this widely used term is contested.

By Tam Dean Burn, 14 January 2021