A Colossal Interview
Magnhild Kennedy On the Story Behind Her Lavish and Mysterious ‘Damselfrau’ Masks
December 16, 2019
Magnhild Kennedy, a Trondheim, Norway-born artist based in London since 2007, creates spectacular masks as ‘Damselfrau.’ Her ornate creations defy cultural boundaries with found materials customized into wearable works of art. Kennedy documents each mask with a self-portrait photograph. Colossal contributor Laura Staugaitis talked shop with Kennedy, learning about her evolution as a self-taught artist.
Laura: Tell us how you initially became interested in the arts? Do you recall a specific first medium you were drawn in by, or was it more of a general interest that developed over time?
Magnhild: I was more or less raised at the Art Academy in Trondheim as both of my parents went there. Growing up in that environment, I was surrounded by people working within all disciplines so I’ve been exposed to a lot of different ways of making. I’ve always liked to work with materials that can become something fast. I used to like to draw but I never got very good at it, so I gave up on that. I liked paper when I was young. You could just cut and fold and it turns into a ‘something’. I made paper dolls all through my childhood and up to my early teens. The masks feel like an elongation of that. Take something flat and fold it on to yourself and there’s that’s other ‘something’ again. I’ve always liked lots of textiles in interiors. Drapes, throws, cushions and carpets. Soft, tactile surfaces. I think that has translated into the masks too.
Laura: You’ve explained previously that your current mode of working, in decorative mask design, was kind of an accident, or unplanned. How has your practice evolved as you’ve been doing more and more of these masks?
Magnhild: It’s all been slow and organic. I try to just leave it all to play and keep the thinking to a bare minimum. I’ve had the same approach the whole way and I still do. I’ve just gotten better at sewing with time, so more opportunities in the materials have become available to me through that. I also develop the direction of the piece much faster now than it did in the first years, and I recognise myself fast in materials now.
Laura: Can you tell us a bit about how you source the materials you use? Where do you find/purchase the fabrics, trims, and hardware that you work with?
Magnhild: I rummage second hand stores and roadside car trunk sales. I find a lot online. There are several very good textile shops and haberdasheries in Dalston, where I live. I cut up clothes. My husband runs a photo studio, so there’s often materials left over from set builds or shoots I can take apart and use bits of as well. And I always find something useful amongst the packaging left from our grocery shopping.
Laura: What makes a certain material stand out to you as a good one to work with?
Magnhild: I find out if a material works well very fast. I have very little patience, so if something proves difficult to use, I’ll abandon it in a split second. I have obsessive periods with certain materials, and have to keep making with the same stuff until I’ve had enough. I’ll never tire of pom-poms and fringe. These two materials does many jobs at once. Large volumes of colour and texture, movement and structure. Perfect stuff. If it has good texture or colour, I’ll use anything really. There is no hierarchy amongst materials for me. A plastic bit can do a better job than a piece of gold, it’s all about the right thing for the right job.
Laura: Do you re-use materials or deconstruct finished masks to repurpose them in newer works?
Magnhild: Yes, it happens all the time.
Laura: You’ve garnered quite a following for your masks. Has having increased awareness around your work influenced it in any way?
Magnhild: I’m so happy and pleased that people follow what I do! It never ceases to surprise me, really. I try to trust the work to do its own online talking with minimum influence on my part. For me it’s important to keep the work in the real. The tactile and the making itself, that’s the most important part of the work for me.
Laura: Sometimes you work with commissions or editorial projects. How do you approach a mask differently if it’s being commissioned versus something you’re creating on your own initiative?
Magnhild: When I make masks for myself, I just start with whatever I have in front of me and can give it all the time in the world and just play. There are things to consider when I make for others, like sticking to the brief, the colour palette, stay within budget, making sure that the mask is actually wearable and can do the job it needs to do. Working for myself, I don’t have to think about any of these things! A lot happens in the making and I’m very clear about needing a certain amount of freedom whilst working. So far, everyone has been very nice about it, and just lets me get on with it.
Laura: What do you currently find most exciting about the medium you’re working in? What’s next for Damselfrau?
Magnhild: Earlier this year I set up an exhibition at the Nordenfjeldske Art Industry Museum in my home town—I made a lot of masks for that show. In 2018, I made my first video installation. Now that I have all these new masks at hand from the museum show, I thought I’d have another go at it. So I’ll make the new film this spring and if it goes well, I’ll show it in London at some point in 2020.
Dive into Damselfrau’s latest masks on Instagram, and explore more projects, including video and commissioned work, on her website.