The days of COVID-19 have us sheltering in place and keeping our distance. Masks, indispensible for medical professionals, mandatory for everyone else in some countries and optional in others, have become a symbol of social responsibility. Big-name fashion brands from Gucci to Prada have followed the lead of LVMH and shifted their manufacturing of garments to masks. In Canada, mask-making initiatives are ongoing: Kotn has partnered with Holt Renfrew, using upcycled material to create masks for essential workers, as has arts organization RAW, while Maryam Keyhani is realizing the Stay Home mantra and sewing masks that are part fashion and part art—all to fight the spread of COVID-19.
As the masks protect us, the face—our primary mode of self-expression—is mostly covered, with only the eyes exposed to convey our sentiment. The eyes are the visual doorway to our emotions, communicating tenderness, anxiety, joy, and fear. “I spent my life looking into people’s eyes,” wrote Josè Saramago, Portuguese novelist and Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1998. “It is the only place on the body where perhaps there is still a soul.”
Those little rounds that allow us to see and admire our world reveal a lot about individuals and have potent symbolic meanings throughout different cultures. For some, the eyes are a symbol of divine light and energy. For ancient Egyptians, the Eye of Horus was a symbol of prosperity, royal power, and good health. In Buddhist scriptures, the Eyes of Buddha represent omnipotent powers, and in the teachings signify one who has reached the highest degree of enlightenment. In Western culture, the eyes are often considered the mirrors of the soul where our most intimate nuances are reflected. Think about when we look down, usually in embarrassment, and in that moment looking for a refuge. Or when tears well up in the eyes and the power of that emotion—who can forget Marina Abramović in The Artist is Present at New York’s MOMA when her former partner Ulay joined her during her performance.
The eyes are a two-way source of information. They affect the way we deal with the every day—what we are thinking and feeling. And these days in particular, when the bottom half of our face is covered by an N95, a homemade surgical-style mask, a no-sew option, or even a mask made from a sock, the numbness, despair, grief, loss, and even hope are communicated with our eyes. Here, a parade of faces depicting this moment in time.
Italian screenwriter Alessandro D’Avenia is right in claiming that “There are two ways of looking at a person’s face. One is to look at the eyes as part of the face, and the other is to look at the eyes and that’s it—as if they were the face.”
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