We often think of masks as something simultaneously practical and theatrical — a way to conceal one’s identity or enhance it with dress up and play. But for Moscow-based artist Dimitri Shabalin a mask is not just a costume — it can stand as a character or a story in its own right.
Since he began making masks and headwear in 2011, Shabalin has incorporated various objects such as jewellery, toys, gemstones, as well as symbols, textures, and pop cultural references into his pieces. More sculptural objects than accessories, Shabalin’s creations have been exhibited in Berlin, Paris, and Moscow, and he has recently ventured into building immersive, visual and sound environments for his masks.
Below, Shabalin talks to The Calvert Journal about anonymity, modern day superheroes, and making things out of rubble.
It’s extraordinary to think that masks and mask-wearing pre-date the written language. From the neolith stone masks, which go back 9,000 years, to the gold mask of Tutankhamun in ancient Egypt, to carnival culture and theatre: the history of masks is really the history of civilisation. If we look deeply, masks can actually tell us more about the human spirit, here and now.
Superheroes were the idols of my childhood. They did good deeds but had to remain anonymous to protect their personal lives. Power Rangers, Spiderman, Batman and Charmed — all of these protagonists had a unique power they had to conceal. The idea of having a gift that must remain secret has always stayed with me.
I didn’t have an interest in making objects until 2011, when I travelled back home to Berezniki in the Perm region. I was 17 at the time and had just moved to Moscow, dreaming of one day working in fashion journalism. Life in Berezniki is far from inspiring. It is best known as the site of an environmental disaster: to this day it is literally sinking, a consequence of the salt mines it is built on and their mismanagement. Once a thriving hub, today the industrial pits house prison camps, in fact one of Pussy Riot’s founders served her sentence in a colony nearby.
My first crown was made spontaneously from industrial wire found in Berezniki — a homage to late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. At the time, I’d been obsessed with Plato’s Atlantis, his Spring 2010 runway show and the last collection he completed before he took his own life. I’ve never seen anything like this before: cosmic alien creatures, mythical kingdoms, underwater habitats and jungles all merged into one. The head piece was called Alien, as a result.
In Moscow, I had felt like an alien — and it took a while before I found “aliens” like me. Among my closest friends were experimental performance artist Andrey Bartenev and fashion designer Sasha Frolova who was crowned alternative Miss World in 2014. I started making masks specifically for them, using any materials I had at hand: seashells, broken china, second hand jewellery, coins, and even my old childhood toys. I did it for fun — not ever thinking of it as art.
In the meantime, my own career in fashion was kicking off. I was writing for magazines such as Elle and Collezioni, and had eventually become the fashion editor of Numero Russia. When independent magazines in Russia started closing in 2015, rather than pursuing a freelance career, I dedicated myself to art.
I am interested in how cultural memory is stored in objects. I often use Kinder Surprise toys from the 1990s or Lego Bionicle — items which are no longer in production but bring back memories of childhood for my generation. I like to collect Soviet chess figures, Christmas decorations, pins, and other traces of the USSR — for me, they are the debris of a former civilisation, a nation which has already become a myth. I like to use details from different eras, turning my masks into faux-artefacts.
I arrange all the components like a collage. Usually, I’ll have an image in my mind, a character of sorts. I imagine this protagonist in different locations: in the shadow of the pyramids, in futuristic cities, or traversing intergalactic distances. The process is very intuitive and experimental — I never know how the end result is going to look.