The Mask is the Place

Magnhild Kennedy, aka Damselfrau, creates elaborate, wearable sculptures that enchant the viewer as well as the wearer. Magnhild has made a career producing strange and almost supernatural characters which have been worn by Daphne Guinness, Björk and Erykah Badu, and celebrated in galleries such as Norway's National Museum of Decorative Arts. There is something spectral and intangible, yet strangely familiar in the forms she creates. It’s like they come from a fairytale that we knew well as children but somehow forgot as we grew older. Jonah Emerson-Bell looks to gain a deeper understanding of the secret life of these creatures and the creative process behind them.

There is something spectral and intangible, yet strangely familiar in the forms she creates. It’s like they come from a fairytale that we knew well as children but somehow forgot as we grew older until one day, scrolling through Instagram, the Damselfrau account appears and suddenly that archetypal image comes rushing back to mind and something comes alive.

Magnhild has made her career producing strange and almost supernatural characters that she wears and photographs. Her artwork is made from a vast array of materials like fabrics and “shiny bits”, tassels, hair and pompoms (which are a favourite of hers) or whatever she finds that will do the job. Each mask is unique and feels like it has its own personality and biography. Intrigued by these unusual and beautiful beings, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the secret life of these creatures. What I got instead was an exploration into the creative process which is both otherworldly and profound.

Damselfrau, 'Mimir'.

JEB: How did you arrive at making masks as your form of artistic expression?

MK: Looking back, masks had always been there, but they never appeared that clearly to me. Number one I didn't know it could be a job, honestly. But when I moved to London from Norway in my late 20s, there was this really huge, beautiful, fashion and clubbing environment. You’d make an outfit for the night out of tape and egg cartons and whatever and get photographed at the party, and look at the other people.

This was all a new universe to me and it was really, really inspiring. And it sort of informed me from zero to 100, very fast, of what you can do with a little. So I made outfits for these parties. One night I made a mask for an evening and this format pretty much just stuck with me from that one experience. And at the time, I was working in a vintage designer shop, and it was very small. My boss was very nice to me, and he let me sit and just fiddle behind the till. There wasn't a lot of space behind the till so it was kind of limited to what you could make. But you can do a lot with a little on a face. And I remember very well this piece I made where I was just like, “oh, I've landed somewhere completely different.”

This was in 2012, I think. And I made a green mask called Stikker, and I felt like I had arrived in a country or like I'd landed somewhere where the work could live properly. Then I kind of understood that this is the thing now and I don't have a choice really, I just do this stuff and make it work.

Damselfrau, 'Chiioln'.

JEB: I love that idea of arriving in a country or at a place because, looking at your work, It seems really otherworldly, like these characters are coming from another land, or maybe that's just my projection.

MK: Oh, that's great. I don't know what the intention is; other people tend to see what I do better than I can. But for me, I don't come from a place with a long line of mask culture. Well, not since Christianity took over anyway. So there was nowhere in me and how I grew up that I could go and look for reasons why this appeared here, and why it became natural for me. But when I was a kid my favourite thing to do was to make paper dolls. And those are flat things that you fold onto things. And my mask format is a flat thing that you form and just put onto your face. So I kind of feel like it might be like an arm that comes from the past, from this childhood experience of making a two-dimensional thing into a three-dimensional thing or trying to give a two-dimensional thing more body. But I didn't feel like there was much of an environment available to me with the masks because of my culture.

I come from such a fashion kind of culture where masks are very Eyes Wide Shut, I mean at the time they were anyway. Now they're everywhere, which is great. But at the time, it was kind of limited to what idea you had about a mask in contemporary Western society. So I felt kind of blind there for a while. In my head, I couldn't find anywhere to actually take the work and it was quite frustrating.

I'm also sort of a magpie-ish type, I collect a lot of stuff and so I always have a lot of like bits that I don't really have plans for. I think that also coincided with this idea that there's actually this place, where I could put all these bits. So I think I had kind of collected materials for a very long time for this project, I just needed somewhere to put it. All of this came together with this one piece that told me exactly who I was in the work and things became very clear. Now, I see that I can move a lot within that environment, but the DNA is still right there. So I can do stuff that looks quite different but I recognise myself, thank God, and other people also recognise me in the work. And I love that.

JEB: You say that you don’t come from a culture of masking. However, I think personally, I think that club culture, rave culture, and festival culture have a tradition of masking and costuming. And that makes me think about things like Mardi Gras and Carnival, and the energy of those events where people express their alter egos or desires through their costumes. And I wonder if you connect with that or think about that in your process? Or if you do think about that at all?

MK: No, I think very little. When I make stuff, it’s 100% play, I mean, it's brainless. It's just a play scenario for me. I try to keep it super light, and very crisp because I get bored super fast. If something's too hard. If something demands too much thinking of me, if there's too much problem solving, if I have to consider too much then I will put that thing aside and start two new ones. Because it's not, that's not the space where I feel delighted making and it's it for me, it's a place of sanity and health than where I kind of feel like I have sort of therapy within myself now.

JEB: I'm curious about how you think of this work? I think it's really easy to be like, “that's something that somebody is wearing on their face, so that must be a mask.” But do you feel like that limits the work or your idea of what the work can be?

MK: I think the idea of a mask is accurate, I don't know, I'm still figuring out this stuff, and I probably won't figure it out before I die. Part of keeping it light and keeping it playful is not to demand too much from the work and not telling the work where it has to go. I always kind of wait for stuff to come to me. I don't hunt for things. I try to put myself in the way of things. So they might happen to me. As in, like, where does the work go? Is there a gallery? Is there a magazine? Is there an artist? Because then the language of the work is clear. It's doing its own talking, and I'm not murking it up. Because if I demand certain things from it, I will limit it from other things. So I've never tried to tell it what it needs to be. Is it a mask? Sure. But it could also be a picture. I mean, the object itself could be a picture. It could be many things. I honestly have no strong opinions about that. I kind of have to trust the work to do its own job, or it kind of doesn't deserve living. So the easier and more open for everyone is better for me.

Damselfrau, 'Siode'.

JEB: When you're working do you start out with a set idea for what you are going to make? Or are you working more with the material like: “I’ll put this shiny thing with that shiny thing,” until the character emerges?

MK: It starts with the shiny thing. When I make my own stuff, It always comes from the material. I’ve always collected a lot, it doesn't matter what it is. There's no hierarchy in materials for me, like gold and plastic will do the same job, or they will do the right job for the right thing. So yeah, it always starts with that. It's never really been hard to get the juices going. But if I'm a little bit uninspired, I'll just put my hands in boxes and just taste, just hand tasting, for like, what's the flavour? Like, what's the right flavour for today? There's always places to go in me to find the right connection with the material like, maybe you're wooly, you know, or maybe you need some clarity, and then from there, it's just organising materials. It becomes, pretty much, just putting stuff and sometimes they put themselves easily.

Sometimes you have to wait a while to find the last object that finishes it off. But that's for me when I work for myself. If I work for a client, they often come to it with pictures of something that inspires them, or a colour palette they like, and then I start from there. That's not a very hard place to start either, it’s just not how I work for myself. I’m not a mood wall type of person.

Damselfrau, silver silk scarf.

When I start making, I tend to find the right movie. I watch a lot of television and movies when I'm working because I found that music demands too much for me. So when I put on a movie it always has to do with the speed, I like fast, I like moving fast. I watch a lot of action movies and sci-fi and things that have a lot of pulse in them. And I will watch that movie kind of back to back to sort of keep the right pulse in the work. And one way is to sort of get myself pushed forward by that general pulse. But the other thing is, often these films have a lot of information in them. So they keep my eye awake, so I don't kind of fall asleep into the piece because that can happen. So it's nice to sort of keep the eye going, going, going, going. And that's the best space when you get good speedup and you have a lot of action going. And you feel the action in your work. It's the best thing.

JEB: What are you watching? Or what are you really excited to watch when you get in the studio?

MK: All kinds of stuff. I watch a lot of action movies, but I’ll get into long periods of reality TV because the editing is fast. So you get a lot of energy and you can get into like 10 seasons of something and obviously, it demands nothing of you. So you're just watching a lot of that fast editing. But I keep coming back to this movie, Mad Max Fury Road. I love that movie so, so much because It's literally just a road movie that goes super fast with a lot of colour in it and a lot of humour. It is one of those films that I can handle watching over and over again. But of course any Matrix any or Villeneuve movie will do, he's not so speedy, but he's very cinematic. He has a huge scope and that's also very helpful, a lot of information and the music is always great in his films too. So that's kind of the environment that I work in. I like a lot of action.

I think that could also be why London has worked so well for me. In this place you grow older fast, because time is going faster here than I've experienced anywhere else. Because there's so much energy going. Also, I live at a very busy crossroads. And the building is not very soundproof. So I hear the police cars all the time. There's a lot of that kind of sound and I feel like that's feeding a lot as well, as far as the energy. And when COVID hit the energy changed a lot outside. And I felt that in the work that things got slower.

JEB: I'm curious about that slowdown when COVID hit and the world took a pause. How did that affect your practice?

Mk: The first lockdown was bewitching like it was amazing. I know it's a bad thing to say, but the change of energy was good in every sense in my body. The thing is, I haven't changed so much how I worked because I work from home anyway. I'm kind of a hermit and my husband is the kind of person that goes out and checks the world and it comes back and tells me about it. So at that time, he would go out with a mask and gloves and do the shopping and things and I would just be here and I would walk 10,000 steps inside the house just to get my gymnastics in and then I would get to work.

I still had a lot of clients because most of my work with clients is remote anyway, so it didn’t affect my work as far as demand. So I was lucky there. Looking back it seems like I’ve made a lot of masks but the time felt slower. And I think the look of the masks are slightly slower as well. There's more sort of bigger grips or like bigger clearer thoughts in them. But once it started picking up again, I definitely felt better. Once the sirens started going more, I felt better.

Damselfari, 'Leysu'.

JEB: I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the fact that we are now in a world where most people are wearing face coverings and masks?

MK: No, this is life. My friend was like, “you should print your work on some masks.” And I'm like, “Nah,” because that's not what I'm doing. I know that I make masks, but I don't really necessarily feel that I make masks. I've kind of come at it from a sculpture place. I was never particularly interested in masks as a form or as a topic. It just kind of happened naturally.

I've been saying this now for 10 years and it's not getting any clearer to me. So maybe there's something that I'm not noticing. I think also, like we talked about earlier, it’s important to keep it really light and easy and not demanding certain things from the work so the work can make its own demands. That takes a lot off my shoulders because it means that I don't necessarily have to be responsible for what happens on the other side of it.

I mean, obviously, I made it so I'm responsible, but how a piece is perceived is going to vary from each and every person. So I can never really take on the experience of other people because they have their own life of information to put into that. And I love it when 10 different people see 10 different things in the same piece. But yeah, it's still kind of baffling to me. I still don't know how I ended up here. This is just sort of what it is now. And I mean, I'm grown up now. So this is probably what it is. I'm gonna have to live with this until I die.


Further reading

Magnhild Kennedy is an artist based in Hackney, London. You can buy her art prints and silk scarves on her website at Damselfrau

Follow Damselfrau on instagram

Damselfrau exhibition at the National Museum of Decorative Arts, Norway.

Jonah Emerson-Bell is an artist, tarologist and astrologer. He lives and works in Santa Fe, NM. You can find Jonah's work at @Blind_Stallion_Space_Wizard.

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