The meaning of masks in the COVID-19 pandemic: a comparative study of depictions of mask-wearing in public visual arts in sub-Saharan Africa and the UK

Grant number: COV19\201112

Grant search

Key facts

  • Disease

  • Known Financial Commitments (USD)

  • Funder

    British Academy
  • Principle Investigator

  • Research Location

    United Kingdom, Europe
  • Lead Research Institution

    Durham University, Geography
  • Research Category

    Policies for public health, disease control & community resilience

  • Research Subcategory

    Approaches to public health interventions

  • Special Interest Tags


  • Study Subject


  • Clinical Trial Details


  • Broad Policy Alignment


  • Age Group

    Not Applicable

  • Vulnerable Population

    Not applicable

  • Occupations of Interest

    Not applicable


In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, many countries have made wearing face masks mandatory in public spaces. This research explores the role of visual arts in understanding the characteristics of masks as socially imbued objects, the multiple meanings they convey, and the influences shaping how these meanings change over time. This understanding is of critical importance in informing better comprehension of the challenges related to uptake and promoting humane innovations in response to the pandemic. Drawing on a comparative study of sub-Saharan Africa and the UK, the research focuses on street and digital public art as important spaces for scrutinising public policy, discourse and debate in emergency responses to COVID-19. It employs digital ethnography, netnography, online interviews and citizen social science to document and examine depictions of mask-wearing, the cultural meanings of masks, and the significance of visual arts in public debate, community building, resilience and recovery.