I Can’t Breathe COVID-19 Mask

One of the events from 2020 that had the most profound effect on me was the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer on May 29th and the consequent eruption of the International Back Lives Matter protests.. We get the weekend papers and I was so deeply disturbed by the coverage of yet another incident of police brutatlity.

On Monday morning, I went into my studio and designed a Covid-19 mask in Photoshop using the Brooks slave ship image superimposed with ‘I Can’t Breathe’. The direct connection between the history of slavery and police brutality in the US is so obvious to me.

‘I Can’t Breathe’ Covid-19 mask design

Diagram of the ‘Brookes or Brooks’ slave ship

The slave ship Brooks was first drawn and published in an abolitionist broadside by William Elford and the Plymouth chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in November 1788. It was published in Bristol the following year and would be redrawn and republished many times in Britain and America in the years that followed. It came to epitomize the cruelties of the trade in enslaved Africans of the 18th and 19th centuries and the struggle to abolish that trade.The Brooks itself was an actual people-carrying slave ship, one of 26 surveyed in Liverpool, under instructions received from the prime minister, William Pitt, by Captain Parrey of the Royal Navy. It is possible that Pitt himself leaked Parrey’s findings to the Plymouth and London abolitionist committees. The Brooks was chosen as an example by the abolitionists because it was the first ship on Parrey’s list, well-known in the trade and typical of this type of vessel.

This article was published in the Moorlander on 12th June, 2020:

Powerful artwork giving voice to those brutalised by racists

An American artist who has lived in the UK since 1998 and moved to Moretonhampstead 11 years ago, has created a powerful artwork in response to the riots raging across the USA.

As many will know, the riots were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man who had been handcuffed by a white policeman, who then kneeled on his neck for nine minutes. Floyd’s repeated pleas of, “I can’t breathe” were ignored by the policeman, and he died of asphyxiation.

For Melinda Schwakhofer, the phrase reminded her of how the same words were uttered in 2014 by another African-American, Eric Garner, who was also murdered by a white police officer.

“The phrase haunted me. As I was already making masks for a Facebook Group called ‘Breathe’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/856750661403515/  I wanted to use the phrase on a face mask that captured how I feel about the whole issue of how the USA has never fully accepted that many of its problems stem from white supremacy and a failure to confront the legacy of the slave trade.”

Melinda’s piece incorporates a well-known eighteenth century engraving of the slave ship Brooks. First drawn and published as part of an abolitionist publication by the Plymouth chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in November 1788, it has been reprinted thousands of times since. The drawing shows just one deck of a slave ship, with the iron-shackled human cargo crammed into claustrophobically small spaces.

“I used the drawing as the foundation of the mask and hand-painted the phrase ‘I Can’t Breathe’ over the top. This mask draws a direct line from the system of slavery that existed then to the inherent racism of US society now,” says Melinda.

Making the mask reminded Melinda of the first time that she became aware of the effects of racism: “There were eight words that changed my world view,” she says. “I grew up in suburban Los Angeles with White, Hispanic, Black and Asian people living in my neighbourhood and going to my school.

“When I was 20, in the early 1980s, I hung out with one of my fitness instructors, Mark. We ate dinner at each other’s houses and got to know something about one another’s worlds. I took him to an art house cinema, he took me out dancing to Peanuts, his favourite club in West Hollywood.

“When I invited Mark to an espresso bar in Pasadena, where I lived, Mark asked me, ‘Will there be any other Black people there?’. I had never before in my life thought, before going to a new place, whether there would be people who looked like me. Of course as a woman, I’d had to think my whole life about being safe and avoiding certain people and places. But this was something completely different.

“Those eight words, spoken by a friend, opened my eyes to the privilege I’d taken for granted the first 20 years of my life.

“Minneapolis is burning. We need to listen.”

There are people in the UK who don’t understand why anyone living here feels the need to address what is happening in the United States, however it is particularly relevant in this 400th anniversary year of the sailing of the Mayflower. The voyage it made symbolises the oppression of indigenous people in America by Europeans and the herald of many deaths, yet many British people view the anniversary as a cause of celebration. If people were truly aware of the impact the Mayflower’s landing had on innocent Native Americans, the only humane response would be shame and horror.

Melinda’s background as an American with Native American (Mvskoke) and Austrian  heritage who has made England her home, gives her a uniquely relevant view on both this and the current situation in the United States. She is all too aware of the racism that was directed at her father and ancestors.

It is only by raising awareness of racism and of white privilege that all people can be treated as human beings. There is still racism in our society; I have witnessed it. By holding witness to it anywhere, we help eradicate it everywhere.

From The Moorlander

When I posted the prototype mask on my Facebook feed I was asked by several friends (in the US and the UK) if it could be duplicated for purchase. I’ve spent much of the past several months trialing different mask patterns, designing a thermofax screen and learning to make my own printing dyes. I have now produced a design I am offering a first run to the people who first expressed an interest and will offer to make a few limited runs to those who are interested.

I Can’t Breathe Covid-19 mask, front and back

The fabric is screen-printed and each one is unique. Adjustable behind the ear elastic ensures that they will fit a range of people. They have the usual protection of a two-layer fabric mask against Covid, which is that it would deter transmission if the wearer was infected. This mask is meant to be more of a protest statement and art piece, than a medical device.

One thought on “I Can’t Breathe COVID-19 Mask

  1. Thank you for creating and sharing such  a powerful and necessary statement Melinda. I really value your insights and the way you respond creatively to these very distressing events from the present and the past.

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