As part of my exploration of Neurodivergence (see recent post Neuroqueer on the Queer River site), I’ve been learning about Masking (alternatively called Shielding by some Autistic people).

Multiple Exposure Image with Badger Mask (Hawkwood College Residency)

The Autistic Advocate, Kieran Rose, describes Masking as follows:

‘It’s a psychological safety mechanism made up of complex layers of physical, emotional and social actions which an Autistic person is driven to use to self-protect and project an acceptable version of who they are… This can occur by applying, in fluctuating degrees, often un-contextualised and sometimes rehearsed learnt behaviours to appropriate situations; whilst simultaneously suppress both natural behaviours, self-identity and reaction to the sensory environment.’

Rose continues:

Autistic Masking is trauma based and is directly related to stigma… The Mask becomes a near permanent projection and uses up an enormous amount of energy to sustain itself. It causes schisms in an Autistic person’s identity and research is now showing that Autistic Masking has direct links to the poor mental health outcomes in the Autistic community.

School Workshop

In my Queer River work I’ve been inspired by working with Rachel Clive in Glasgow, a ND artist/performer researching the relationship between neuro and geo diversity, and the need for flow in rivers and people in order to be healthy. It’s caused me to look again at my own work with rivers, especially my research into the need to ‘queer’ them and provide them with means to flood/fluctuate, and to start to consider ND perspectives.

For example when a river is canalised or covered over it reminds me of masking. The shape of the river, its wild identity, is contorted and shaped to fit the perceived needs of human society. Concrete takes the place of floodplain, silt and vegetation. Sometimes the concrete mask is so complete, so impenetrable that we don’t even realise it is one. We walk over hidden streams and rivers in pretty much every town and city

Sketchbook Collage

Reading and thinking about masking causes me to reflect on my artwork and the role of masks and other wearable work in exploring the different layers of identity that we can carry around with us and choose (or not) to show to each other.

Masks have made a regular appearance in my work since my university days back in the early to mid 1990s. Constructed body spaces masked an imagined human body to reclaim it for ‘nature’.

In the early 2000s I made and exhibited wearable pieces from adapted pieces of men’s clothing to cut through the culturally constructed masculine facade, and reveal the organic, vulnerable softness underneath. At the same time as question gender stereotypes I was exploring identity in relation to disability, and the medical/social models, and wrote a related piece for Disability Arts Online.

The wearable work continued to make an apearance in my indvidual work, and that of various groups that I worked with. Body masks offered an opportunity for people to show aspects of themselves that others might not usually see.

A mask made from a map of Savernake Forest was layered with earth and other found pigments and text recording my experiences there, an image of me wearing a deer mask from around 2010 was overlayed with a camera trap image of Fallow Deer almost 10 years later to explore the perceptual distance between humans and other animals. All the time I was looking at what we show and what we hide, where we fit in and where we feel like an outsider.

I wasn’t expecting to be considering my own neurodivergence at almost 50, but here we are. Looking back, with my focus on person-centred learning/wellbeing, embodied awareness and sensory processing, perhaps it was something I was on the edge of doing all along.

I’m thankful to Rachel other ND artists with whom I’ve been in touch with recently (including Sonia Boué whose writing I’ve found both inspiring and reassuring, and fellow PaP artist Gemma Gore), with some of whom I hope to share this new journey.

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