In hindsight, it is amazing to think about how quickly wearing face masks became a central aspect of daily life in the United States and across the globe. As the months of the COVID-19 pandemic have passed, many of us have tried our hands at creating do-it-yourself versions; the more skilled among us have experimented and modified these designs to better fit our own faces and those of our loved ones. Masks now live in our bags, our pockets, our cars, and our laundry baskets.
But how often do we consider wearing these health-oriented accessories to be communicative acts? To be a kind of message that we send to others about ourselves? Borrowing the words of Smithsonian Folklife curator Diana Baird N’Diaye, these garments are like all items of personal adornment: they are “cultural markers.” They are ways people demonstrate “their self-definitions, the communities with which they identify, their creativity, and their style.”
For example, some people choose to coordinate their masks with their outfits as they step outside their homes. They wear patterns that reflect their personal tastes and interests—their individual flair. And whether homemade or mass-produced, these masks’ fabrics and embellishments also reflect their makers’ backgrounds, artistry, and aesthetics. So much about our world is embedded in these small bits of cloth.
This article focuses specifically, however, on the power of the mask as a cultural marker. It centers on how masks can symbolize an individual’s community investment and their solidarity with others. It also demonstrates how masks can be potent signs of political protest.
To do this, I focus on the initiatives developed by artist Maggie Thompson who I interviewed last November. Thompson’s agility, perseverance, and creativity have been exemplary during this turbulent period, as have her love for and dedication to her community. Her works are shining examples of the power of the arts to connect, support, and even to counter injustice.
Meet Maggie Thompson
Born and raised in Minnesota, Maggie Thompson is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved home to Minneapolis, where she founded her knitwear business and creative space, Makwa Studio. While her online store is filled with knitted cowls, scarves, and hats in a multitude of dynamic and energetic patterns, Thompson also identifies as a multimedia artist.
“I will integrate things like photography, weaving, laser cutting, and sewing into my work,” she explained to me during our interview. “But I always try to challenge myself by doing something new. I feel like I’m changing materials all the time in my fine art work.”
“As a textile artist and designer, she derives her inspiration from the history of her Ojibwe heritage, exploring family history as well as themes and subject matter of the broader Native American experience,” her website explains. “Thompson’s work calls attention to its materiality, pushing the viewer’s traditional understanding of textiles. She explores materials in her work by incorporating multimedia elements such as photographs, beer caps , and 3D-printed objects.”
During our conversation, I asked Thompson about her motivation for starting her own business in 2014.
“My designs are so personal and my art is so personal. In creating Makwa Studio, I really wanted to own my designs, and that was really important to me. I wanted to have my own flexibility in terms of my work and having an outlet to sell it.” Referring to her line of knitwear, she said, “I also wanted to make artwork that was more accessible, and this was another way to generate an additional form of income.”
Thompson credits much of her success in her artistic and entrepreneurial ventures to her mother, Peggy Thompson.
“My mother is a painter and a photographer, and she has been my inspiration in building an art career and has been really supportive. She has always kept my life integrated in the arts, and we grew up with a farm family mentality, where everyone helps each other. While I’ve been getting on my feet in my business, she has been helping me a lot.”
The Ribbon Mask Project
Maggie Thompson’s practice went in an unexpected direction in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic. Using leftover fabric from other projects, she began making face masks. The first one she made was for someone who was receiving chemotherapy, and the second was for a friend who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. These sewing projects soon became the seed of Makwa Studio’s Ribbon Mask Project.
This project built on Thompson’s innovation and skill as a textile artist, but it was also an extension of her desire to support her community. While the masks she created came in multiple colors and combinations, all were adorned with rows of ribbons running horizontally across the mask fronts. For every mask she sold, Thompson donated two CDC-compliant cotton masks to individuals and partnering organizations in need.
“At this point, early in the pandemic, I was thinking about how to bring more intention to the masks I was making. And I was looking at my materials. I had a bunch of ribbons, and the Ribbon Mask Project is definitely inspired by ribbon skirts and ribbon shirts. For me, this time is about adaptation and survival, which is something that Native people have had to do in the past and are still doing. It’s also about strength and resiliency.”
Ribbon shirts and ribbon skirts, with their colorful ribbon appliqués, are important components of dress for many Native peoples today, particularly in communities across the Great Lakes region. In various ways, ribbons have been used to adorn items of Native North American dress for nearly two centuries. While many historians attribute the roots of ribbon work to early trade with Europeans, making and adapting ribbon shirts and ribbon skirts is a vibrant practice for many contemporary Native clothing makers today.
Central to understanding ribbon skirts more specifically is understanding how and when they are created and worn. In the words of Leech Lake Tribal College instructor Audrey Thayer, “It’s both a political and spiritual significance when you see those ribbon skirts. It’s about surviving genocide, we’re still here, look at us, look at our beautiful nation here. The skirt ties us to the earth, ties us to the ceremonies, and ties us to our political unrest of issues for indigenous people. I would know if I saw women in a ribbon skirt in town that they were connected spiritually or politically to an issue that I could identify.”
And in many ways, Thompson echoed this feeling of connection when she spoke about developing the Ribbon Mask Project.
“I was thinking about how, when I see a fellow person wearing beaded earrings or a ribbon skirt, I immediately feel a connection to them, even if I’ve never met them. I wonder if they’re Native or how they’re connected to Native culture—if they have Native family. So the idea also was that the ribbon masks would make people feel a similar way. It would make them feel a sense of connection in this time of isolation.”
Soon after its launch, the Ribbon Mask Project took off. With the success of mask sales, during the summer of 2020 Thompson was able to hire additional sewers to help meet the demand. While online purchases for her face coverings had slowed somewhat by the time we spoke in November, Thompson was still making and donating ribbon masks to organizations with a consistent need for new masks.
The Protest Mask Project
Thompson and Makwa Studio traveled down yet another unexpected path after the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. With their mask making practice in full swing, Thompson and her colleague, Jaida Grey Eagle, were able to pivot their production to help meet the public health needs of those across the Twin Cities who were protesting Floyd’s death and the systemic racism and police brutality that caused it.
Thompson, Grey Eagle, and a team of forty to fifty other sewers began making face masks and screen-printing the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” onto them. A week and a half into the protests, they had made and donated several hundred face coverings, and they distributed them to the community. Thompson remembers that she handed them out almost daily. Making and wearing these masks, she told me, was a way for “people to be involved and also be out and be safe.”
“For us, it was more about solidarity and bringing people together with the message. I also felt like a lot of people didn’t know how to help, so making these masks was one way that people who didn’t feel comfortable about being at protests or who didn’t know where to go or donate could help.”
Once protests began in other cities across the globe, Thompson wanted these masks to be available in communities outside of Minneapolis as well. As a result, Makwa Studio created downloadable screen-printing templates on its website so that people could make these masks at home.
During our conversation, I asked Thompson about her experience participating in the protests against police brutality.
“It was a range of emotions,” she said. “There were a couple of nights I think when the National Guard was out, I felt a new kind of scared, but then being at the protests and watching the crowds come together was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of, or witnessed, or experienced. It made me believe in the good of people—seeing the city rise up and put their foot down. I was hopeful as an Indigenous person of color. And I really started to be plugged in. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the news as much as I had that year. But it really got me thinking more about voting and voting more locally—about really understanding the importance of voting at all levels.”
Looking Forward and Coming Together
As 2021 was creeping nearer, I asked Thompson how the pandemic had affected her and her art practice in other ways. She described to me how, despite the profound isolation that most have experienced since the spread of COVID-19, she has felt a new and deep sense of connection with her loved ones and with those around her.
“I have also been thinking about how to engage communities—that’s something I want to do more of. I have been thinking about how I, as a business owner, can also support other artists. Those are the things that I am thinking about. Everyone has been so isolated, and I hope that people recognize how important it is to have a community.
“I have seen a lot of people pull through for one another more,” she told me. “People know what their skills are, and they are more willing to share and help others. For example, I know All My Relations Arts [a Native arts organization in Minneapolis] quickly became a food shelf to help the Minneapolis urban Native community. I also watched artists creating drawing for kids to print out at home. In a way it feels like the world is more connected even though we can’t be together.”
Maggie Thompson’s works are testaments to the kind of resilience and innovation that is possible despite months of separation, and after nearly a year of social disruption. Through her creative vision, she answered a call to community service and demonstrated the capacity of the arts to inspire, galvanize, and to connect people in ways they never imagined.
Emily Buhrow Rogers is an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She studies Native dress and design, and her current favorite Maggie Thompson creation is her “Mountain Peak” cowl.
Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe) was born and raised in Minneapolis. She had her first solo exhibition, Where I Fit, at All My Relations Gallery in 2014 and has since exhibited at institutions such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Plains Art Museum. In 2015, she received support from the Minnesota State Arts Board Cultural Community Partnership Grant and the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Regional Fellowship to create a body of work for her exhibit On Borrowed Time at the Minnesota Textile Center. The Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Minnesota Historical Society have both acquired pieces from Thompson to be a part of their permanent collection.
To learn more about Thompson and her ongoing projects, please visit her website.