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'There was a ton of staring.’ Artist Momoko Schafer confronts racism with a face mask

From Momoko Schafer's "Prejudice is a Disease" project.© 2020 Mel Taing Photography

When the coronavirus shut everything down, Boston glass artist Momoko Schafer couldn’t blow glass. She put plans to move to San Francisco on hold. So Schafer, who is Japanese-American, took another tack: exposing anti-Asian bias spurred by the virus. For “Prejudice is a Disease,” a performance project with photos and video, she went to South Station wearing a translucent lace mask over her nose and mouth. She has been posting and riffing about face masks via Instagram and her personal website (www.momokoschafer.com) ever since.

Q. What was the inspiration for “Prejudice is a Disease”?

A. Prejudice has been on the rise for the past few years. It’s been on my mind, how to be part of that conversation. Now, with coronavirus, hateful words and jokes have been coming out. I thought, OK, the time is now.


Q. Why the mask?

A. The mask is controversial, a tool of the media. You see Asians wearing masks in articles, as if we’re the poster child for this virus.

Q. Explain what you did.

A. I’m unpacking the anonymous factor. When any part of a person’s head is concealed, Americans have a gut reaction, they become fearful. I thought making it translucent would be provocative. People think, “is it transparent? I can still see her face.”

Q. Why South Station?

A. South Station is the perfect place to showcase what the mask is really for. People in East Asia use masks on commuter trains because it’s the polite and courteous thing to do. They think, why not take these precautions? It’s not the custom here.

Q. Did people respond?

A. There was a ton of staring. I’d meet their eyes and they’d look away. Then I tried sunglasses on, and everyone felt comfortable staring because they couldn’t see my eyes.


Q. Could you make a glass mask?

A. I wish I could have made it out of glass. It would have been a months-long project. … No one is creating large-scale glass sculpture now. But right now, using these face mask images is what I’m really interested in.

Q. What are you doing on Instagram?

A. I say, this is what my experience is with the mask. People say, “Oh, I thought Asians wore it because of pollution.” I ask, why do you draw these conclusions?

Interview was edited and condensed.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.