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In air pollution masks, a canvass for solutions

Raising awareness about environmental issues like air pollution and climate change is no

Maskbook’s “Air Mask” by Wen Fang

easy task. The problems are often slow-moving disasters, compounded by decades of policy choices on issues like whether to invest in mass transit or roads or whether to build coal-fired power plants or other forms of electricity generation. 

But a group of international artists and social entrepreneurs working in a collective known as Art of Change 21, have sought to do that in a novel way. The group works to promote environmental and sustainability issues, and during a brainstorming session in 2014, a Chinese artist named Wen Fang came up with an idea.

“She’s coming from Beijing and she said, ‘we don’t have Facebook in China but if we did it would be called Maskbook because everyone wears masks against air pollution.'” says Art of Change 21’s Erica Johnson, in an interview with Global Journalist. “It was kind of a joke but it was where the seed for Maskbook started.”

The idea was to use air pollution masks as canvases, using objects associated with pollution and transforming them into works of art. Maskbook, as the project is known, displayed a large collection at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, the meeting that led to what’s become known as the Paris climate agreement.

Since then Art of Change 21 has helped host more than 70 Maskbook workshops across 50 countries that allow participants to share their ideas about pollution and climate change by creating a piece of art on an air pollution mask. 

Erica Johnson of Art of Change 21 (courtesy)

The Paris-based Johnson,  Maskbook’s project director, spoke with Global Journalist’s Rosemary Belson about the continuing project and Art of Change 21’s efforts to expand its global reach.

Global Journalist: Explain the idea behind Maskbook.

Johnson: We call it an art action project. It is in one part this collective, global work of art.

Through the Maskbook workshops, participants from all over the world can make a mask. The mask is a canvas for creation where people can use upcycled waste…and transform this mask into a message for the environment. So there is this global collective. It’s also a way to support a community in fighting against climate change.

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GJ: What message do you want viewers to take from this?

Johnson: This is a global project so we have people making masks all over the world and proposing their solutions… It’s really interesting because we can see different concerns that people have from different countries.

In France it might be more about the food we consume. Where in China it’s more about the waste we produce, the harm we do, how to try and curb that and focus on air pollution, as it was in New Delhi as well. It’s going to be a different message in Kenya than in Germany.

What we’d like for people to take away from the portrait gallery is not only that this is a positive and creative action for the environment, but you can find similarities because you see the same type of elements coming up on the mask…It’s a showcase of different concerns, solutions and talents but also really links people together.

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GJ: What’s the future of this project?

Johnson: The No. 1 priority is to keep reaching out to different places and to different publics to continue to build this community and enrich it with art and portraits but also with stories and talks about these issues.

It’s really like a living and breathing project in constant evolution. We are always looking for ways to evolve, get better and grow our community.

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