31 May, 2022
The installation, by street artist Asbestos, was commissioned by St James’s Hospital, the St James’s Hospital Foundation and Creative Ireland and pays tribute to the frontline healthcare workers hidden behind face masks over the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking of his conversations with these healthcare workers, Asbestos explained: “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.”
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 covers 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’.
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 eight healthcare workers chosen from 170 staff members who had their portrait taken were; Healthcare Assistant, Shirley Morgan, Consultant Geriatrician and Stroke Physician Prof. Joe Harbison, Security and Site Contract Manager Ronnie Weston, Matthew Houlihan, Housekeeping Services, Farjana Bashar Staff Nurse, Clinical Nurse Manager Bernie Waterhouse (who was the first healthcare worker in Ireland to receive the Covid-19 vaccine), Alfie Kelly, General Support Services and Education and Training Coordinator, Archana Dsouza.
Welcoming the unveiling of the installation on the St James’s Hospital campus, CEO of St James’s Hospital Prof. Mary Day said: “The staff members portrayed in the ‘Unmasked’ mural are representative of all St James’s Hospital staff, and indeed all of our healthcare workers nationwide, in recognition of their tireless efforts, courage, determination, expertise and compassion in providing healthcare services to patients and families during the pandemic.”
“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,” commented Dermot McEvoy, Chairman, St James’s Hospital Foundation.
“As an all-of-government wellbeing programme, Creative Ireland recognises the power of the arts in healthcare settings. The HSE’s Mental Health Promotion Plan will strengthen the role of arts and creativity in the promotion of mental health and wellbeing for healthcare staff. I can think of no better example of putting policy into practice than this wonderful initiative. This is just a small gift from Creative Ireland to say thank you to all staff of St James’s Hospital for all they did during COVID-19,” said Tania Banotti, Director of the Creative Ireland Programme.
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'.
‘Unmasked’ was made possible through funding 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.
Special thanks to all the staff who came forward to be photographed for this project.
Farjana Bashar, Staff Nurse
Archana Dsouza, Education and Training Coordinator
Alfie Kelly, General Support Services
Ronnie Weston, Security and Site Contract Manager
Bernie Waterhouse, Clinical Nurse Manager
Shirley Morgan, Healthcare Assistant (centre)
Matthew Houlihan, Housekeeping Services
Prof. Joseph Harbison, Consultant Geriatrician and Stroke Physician