Among the realities of the fashion industry in 2021 is that every global label, from Louis Vuitton to Off-White, Burberry, Emilio Pucci, and beyond, understands that masks are not only a physical necessity, they’re also a branding and retail opportunity. But for Los Angeles-based artist Behnaz Farahi, a mask is also an integral element of the head-to-toe Muslim woman’s wardrobe that she’s known since her childhood growing up in Tehran, though its current meaning has added another layer to her thoughtful work.
“If you look at them from a contemporary perspective, these masks are about protecting women from a patriarchal oppression,” explains Farahi during an interview in her Venice, California, studio. “But from a designer’s perspective, mostly I have been wondering about how these women express their emotions.”
Anyone who has smiled at someone while wearing a COVID mask surely can identify with the latter idea. For the Iranian-born Farahi, the meaning goes much deeper. Even before masks became a sociopolitical element of our global culture, she was thinking about inventive ways for women of all cultures to communicate while their faces were mostly covered. The result: a 2020 project that’s been dubbed “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Its title is taken from an article by feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak, which explores whether anyone in a colonized culture may truly express their voice—especially if that person is a woman.
“I was fascinated by the eyes and how they could send messages,” Farahi explains, noting that she also was inspired by the 1966 wartime propaganda film of American Admiral Jeremiah Denton Jr., who famously blinked out the word “torture” in Morse code while he was filmed in captivity as a POW in Vietnam. “But it was about more than sending secret messages; I thought about the eyes as a primary communication tool,” Farahi adds.
Farahi’s finished project is wholly mesmerizing. This pair of pleated black masks, each adorned with 18 eyes (all fit with blinking fake lashes), recognize their partner via artificial-intelligence technology, and over the course of her work, they have “learned” to communicate back and forth. “It’s a machine-based algorithm that creates a series of dots and dashes from the eyes of one mask, and the other receives the signal via Bluetooth,” Farahi says. “The communication evolved from there.”
Each mask is 3D-printed, which has become a vital tool in Farahi’s work and a central component, alongside elements of robotics and AI-focused technologies, in her private studio. “We’ve experienced so much advancement in 3D printing,” she says. “It’s not just about the different material properties and whether the pieces printed are biodegradable or are safe materials for the human body—gradually we’re getting to the point where these things can be mass-produced, and that’s just going to change everything.”
Interested in art and architecture from a young age, Farahi moved to the U.S. 10 years ago to pursue her second master’s degree and then her doctorate. A career as an architect was a thought that resulted from her father’s desire that she study a practical discipline, but never far from her mind was the idea of living in America. “I remember writing a letter to my parents that I was going to move to California, and they thought I was joking,” she recalls. “But from the time I came here, it was about a moment of finding myself in this space, as well as working with new technologies that I never thought I’d be able to do, from engineering to programming, especially as a woman.”
These days Farahi also finds nature to be a key inspiration, thanks to the close proximity her Venice studio enjoys to the Pacific surf. Another recent project, christened “Bioluminescence,” evokes thoughts of sea creatures that live in depths not easily reached, though via Farahi’s eye, they’ve been sculpted into human form. “I’m fascinated by sea creatures in general, because they’re so different to what we’re used to,” she says. “I thought about octopus skin and how it changes color, and how that might be applied in other ways. I’m curious about how these principles can be brought back to the world of design. Also, as women in a creative world, it’s incredible to think about where we want to go, and how we want our bodies to be powered by these sensory technologies.”
While it remains to be seen how her work may enjoy larger applications in design, for now Farahi is enjoying the freedom to blend cultural views with experimental mechanics. And while she will enjoy showcases such as an upcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in spring 2021 (the dates are still TBD due to the pandemic), as well as increased attention from fashion and luxury labels, Farahi remains focused on the thought processes that arise out of her studio, and how they might be applied to larger cultural conversations.
She also would like to prepare every global citizen for the idea that masks will remain part of our lives for several months to come—and rather than only seeing the limits, she’s hoping her work will push the idea of seeing the possibilities. “It’s been a bit surreal that I started working on the mask project before the pandemic,” Farahi says. “But what resulted will bring a lot of emerging technology into design. I’d rather create a conversation and spark imaginations than make a mass-produced, ready-to-wear item. The world of fashion technology has so much potential and is moving really fast. By opening up a space for innovation, we can create a vision for that future and rethink our assumptions about everything.”