Masks have consistently inspired the work of the avant-garde Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck: from the ghoulish gas masks, embellished gauze balaclavas, and facial coverings created from swathes of red hair in his S/S 1998 collection, to the gnashing, monster-like face paint designs of his A/W 2011 offering.

‘They’re something I’ve been fascinated by since my first collections,’ says the renowned Antwerp Six member, who takes inspiration from the ritualistic, performative, fetishistic and identity-thwarting power of masks. ‘All humans have a connection with them, from children dressing up, to their recent connection with terrorism. Masks are everywhere, which is why they are so fascinating.’ 

Now, as guest curator of ‘Powermask – the Power of Masks’, opening today at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, Van Beirendonck has come face to face with the source of his inspiration. The exhibition, co-curated by the museum’s Alexandra Van Dongen, features a selection of masks (with 125 sourced from the Wereldmuseum’s own collection), artworks, photographs and fashion garments dedicated to their symbolism, beauty and power.

Coco Fronsac has overlaid photo prints of Dr Elie van Rijckevorsel, a founding member of the Wereldmuseum, with colourful images of masks found in the exhibition

‘The curation forms a dialogue across lots of disciplines,’ the designer explains of the diverse offering. It features ritualistic artefacts from Papua New Guinea (a consistent reference in Van Beirendonck’s own mask designs), the Ivory Coast and the Dominican Republic of the Congo, and artworks by Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring and Inez & Vinoodh. Masks by fashion designers including Van Beirendonck’s former intern Craig Green, fellow Belgian and Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp graduate Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf, and Thom Browne also feature.

Van Beirendonck was also responsible for the sceneography of the exhibition. Pieces are housed inside glass ethnographic showcases, based on examples found in photographs capturing the Wereldmuseum in around 1900. ‘But I’ve painted them in very bright colours,’ he says, a curatorial nod to the designer’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic.

A bench is placed at the entrance to the first room of the exhibition, inviting visitors to sit and absorb its diversity. A rose-print ensemble styled on a floral mannequin by emerging London-based designer Richard Quinn shares the seat, appearing to stare at both a tribal mask and Paul McCarthy’s rabbit-head sculpture, Spaghetti Man (1993).

Save Deleted, (2013), by Brian Kenny

Throughout the exhibition, masks created by fashion designer’s gaze at the displays around them. A mannequin sporting a spooky gold skull-like mask from Maison Margiela’s S/S 2015 Artisanal collection by John Galliano, is seated staring at a 20m wide and 6m high black-and-white figurative mural adorned with masks, created by the artist Brian Kenny. Another stands wearing a phallic headpiece designed by Stephen Jones for Van Beirendonck’s own S/S 2008 collection. ‘They’ve been presented like visitors in the exhibition,’ he says. 

Two other large-scale collaborations also sit alongside Kenny’s tableau. Coco Fronsac transforms the faces in flea market-found black and white photographs with colourful painted masks. For ‘Powermask – the Power of Masks’, she has overlaid photo prints of the physicist Dr Elie van Rijckevorsel, a founding member of the Wereldmuseum, with colourful artefacts located in the exhibition. ‘I was so impressed by her work, which I came across on Instagram,’ Van Beirendonck says. 'It acts as an introduction to the exhibition.’

Charles Fréger, whose ‘Wilder Mann’ series (2010-2011) features men dressed in garb from folkoric season-welcoming European festivals, has also submitted images from his series to the exhibition. These include models dressed in badger, bear and reindeer and straw-men masks.

‘For me, the exhibition isn’t about explaining new figures or ethnographic facts,’ Van Beirendonck explains. ‘You’re meant to look around and enjoy all of its beauty.’ Now that’s a mantra we can take at face value.