Exhibition: Three Questions With Miya Turnbull

Miya Turnbull has exhibited her masks, photos and videos in galleries in Canada as well as internationally. “Inward, Outwards” at Acadia University, is her largest solo exhibition to date. Miya’s artwork has been on the cover of 3 magazines” Visual Arts News (Atlantic Canada), Art Reveal (Germany) and Masks Literary Magazine (Columbia College Chicago Library), as well as featured on digital platforms such as Vogue (Thailand), Planted Journal (Italy), Gata Magazine (Japan), Oficina Palimpsestus (Brazil), and The Perfect Magazine (UK).

Miya’s artwork was researched and presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute in Bristol, UK (2021) by Dr. Nataliya Tchermalykh (University of Geneva), and her masks were used in a short film in France called “Nô Feminist“, directed by Aïssa Maïga, which prenuered at the 75th Cannes Film Festival (2022). Miya has been very fortunate to recieve the support of Arts N.S. and the Canada Council for the Arts, which has allowed her art work to flourish. See more of her artwork at www.miyaturnbull.com and on Instagram @miyamask.

Who or what inspired you to create self-portraits that are 3-dimensional? 

When I first began developing this Photo-Mask technique, I was taking a 3D open studio class at the University of Lethbridge where I was completing my fine arts degree. I had just recently taken a mask-making class through the drama department and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to experiment since the only criteria was to make 3D art of our choosing in this independent studio. I began making masks of myself and all my background in photography and sculpture came together and seemed to align as I discovered portraiture in this way. As soon as I collaged my photo of my face on the mask and saw how realistic it looked, I knew I was onto something really special! There was a fascination of ‘stretching’ out my ‘skin’ from a 2D photo into a 3D representation of myself. Thankfully printing and cutting up extra copies of my photo made that seem less morbid than it actually sounds!

I especially loved playing with changing the shape of the face underneath. Some of my first masks were made by mixing people’s faces- by this I mean that the photo on the top surface of the mask was of a different person whose face shape I had constructed underneath. This would present differently compared to the same photo on their own face shape. I saw a lot of room for exploration with this technique and to this day, I find it really exciting that there are so many possibilities still to explore. There’s something really engaging about seeing a 3D portrait as opposed to a 2 dimensional one. It’s more realistic and I love the uncanny, creepy quality to them. It’s also a bonus that it can also be worn on either myself or someone else. This adds volumes of meaning regarding identity and layers of ‘self’ and opens up a whole new realm of performance ideas with the masks. 

When looking at your 100 masks it is noticeable that often those that feature your Japanese heritage are painted white compared to the flesh tone of the others. Is this done purposefully? If so, why?

Yes, the intention is to show a reference to something recognizable in Japanese culture such as a Noh mask, a geisha (or robot geisha– references to “Ghost in the Shell’‘ anime/movie) and Kabuki stage make-up, known as Kumadori. The white is almost always in association with traditional face paint, or the supernatural such as Yōkai (supernatural spirits) or Yurei (ghosts). Sometimes, however, I am using rice paper as a substrate in my papier-mâché and I keep the bright white appearance of the washi as the final layer of the mask to highlight the beauty of it.

I am inspired by Japanese materials and artistic techniques so in conjunction with the rice paper, there are also references to kanji and calligraphy, shibori (resist dyeing with indigo), and sashiko stitching (embroidery). There are additional references to other imagery in Japanese pop culture, such as Hello Kitty, daruma and kokeshi dolls, and Kaonashi (No Face from “Spirited Away“) but in these cases, I use my skin tone as a way to blend my self-portrait with these iconic faces. I feel so fortunate, that as I connect with my heritage, there is such a wealth of artistry and imagery to draw on, learn about, and to reference in my artwork.

As an artist what do you hope that people take away from your artwork?

I hope that people also see themselves in this work. Even though I am making self-portraits, it’s not about me at all. I just happen to use my image repeatedly since it’s the most available and of course, personal to me. Every time I express a new idea with the masks, for example: layering masks, cutting up masks into strips or showing the insides of the masks, it’s about identity in a larger sense rather than just about what my face happens to look like, although that is a part of it too. 

I want people to see this wall of 100 masks and see a fuller picture of me. Essentially it’s an ongoing investigation and a work in progress, just as we are always changing and growing through life. I’m not just represented by one individual mask. I want you to see me in ALL of the masks, the photos, the sculptures, the origami and the video performances. And even then, all of these together only offer a little glimpse of myself and who I am, or what makes up a person.

I hope that people question the masks that they might wear in their daily lives. It’s about authenticity, about what we hide and reveal, and why that might change when we are around different people and in different roles that we play in life. What happens when we suppress our true selves or never show how we really feel about something? I use distortions in the masks as a way to represent that tension between the inner and outer persona. 

I also want people to question why different masks might evoke different responses within the viewer. Why does one mask perhaps look more ‘pretty’ and is easier to look at versus another which might make someone cringe or feel unsettled, especially when they all stem from the same image of myself? I want the viewers to face those uncomfortable feelings head-on and question why they shy away from them. I truly believe that something that once appears ‘grotesque’ can also become quite beautiful and interesting if people shift their perspective a little. The more we see something and normalize it, the less ‘strange’ it becomes. 

Thanks for reading! As always, if you have any questions, comments, or additional information regarding this post, share them below!

Kelsey MacGowan, Collections and Research Assistant


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