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Hidden Portals Family Day Mask-making Workshop

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A screen displaying tiger mask and table with supplies, centered in a formal room with columns.
The mask workshop just before we opened for the day.

The following is a guest post by Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Jeffrey Yoo Warren. You can read more about his residency project, Seeing Lost Enclaves, in previous blog posts and on the experiment page.

This past May was a big month for the Seeing Lost Enclaves project, but one day in particular was the most meaningful to me. Throughout my project,  I’ve struggled with how to share the relational reconstructions I’ve created, virtual as they are, in ways which are tactile, multisensory, and immersive. A sense of space is fundamentally different when experienced in community, and it has been important to me to make these historic Asian American spaces accessible – not only to present-day Asian American communities, but intergenerationally.

I had an opportunity to bring these neighborhoods to life in a unique way. My virtual reconstructions of five historic Asian American communities had been hidden at sites across the US, as well as at the Library of Congress, as part of my month-long Hidden Portals event. And while it has been powerful for people to experience these spaces, especially as site-specific installations (in fact, they were not visible unless you were physically present at one of the ten portal sites), I was eager to imagine a different way of accessing these portals. And in particular, looking back to my original proposal for the Innovator in Residence program, I was interested in engaging kids and their families in developing relationships with these histories.

A young person in a tie-die sweartshirt and backpack wears a tiger mask.
A participant viewing one of the hidden portals.


Two girls sit at a table watching a demo video. Behind them a facilitator demonstrates how to fold a mask for a teenage participant and child.
Particpants folding their masks with help from workshop facilitators.

On May 11th, the Library of Congress hosted a AAPI Month Family Day, and I saw it as a great chance to connect with Asian American families through a participatory workshop. I envisioned a mask-making activity, where kids could construct their own tiger head masks, based on a cardboard design I had created for previous workshops, including Tigers & Portals in Providence last year. The mask integrated a VR headset made of cardboard, so that by wearing the mask, kids could be transported to these historic sites. Tigers are a recurring motif in my work, and in some Korean and Chinese traditions are posted as a protective symbol on doorways.

Together with collaborating artists Vuthy Lay and Aisha Jandosova, and thanks to the support of Jaime Mears, Sahar Kazmi and others at the Library of Congress, this vision came together without a hitch, and close to 70 masks were made over the course of the day.

Black line drawing of person wearing tiger mask looking at a portal to room.
The very first sketch of the tiger mask and the idea of a portal it opens. Illustration by Jeffrey Yoo Warren.


stack of cardbaord masks with tiger faces on shipping box.
A stack of the final printed masks, fresh from the print shop.


Hand holds vr cardboard headset within tiger mask flipped upside down on pennytile floor.
The inside of the tiger head with a cardboard VR headset visible inside (into which you put your phone).


Behind the scenes, this took some considerable coordinating, from site logistics (including explaining to on-site Library staff that there would be a lot of kids with cardboard tiger heads wandering around that day) to the re-design of the mask for manufacturing at a cardboard box company. For weeks, I would trace and cut prototypes, and occasionally receive photos back of a test cut at the factory in California. I was resolved to create a kit simple and intuitive enough for kids to build themselves using just velcro. I had also imagined how to “sneak” the masks unobtrusively into or out of the Library (of course, they were pre-cleared, but they’re bulky and strange to be putting through metal detectors). Each tiger mask folds up and fits into an archival folder, a reference to where I had found the photographs from which these reconstructions are created.

At the workshop, all this work paid off as even quite young kids (with some grownup help) got their masks built, and were able to travel through time, in a sense, to these moments from 1870-1914. It was a challenge to think through how to introduce these histories to kids, given the important but traumatic history of anti-Asian violence in this time period. For this, however, I relied on the incredible work of author Linda Sue Park, and especially her book Prairie Lotus, a speculative historical fiction novel for middle grade readers, which tells the story of a Chinese American girl moving to a rural town in South Dakota in the 1800s. I also recommend the educators guide for this book, which she links to from her website. I think for many of these kids, as for myself, it will be a lifelong journey of gradually understanding our relationships with these stories. The masks will continue to work for some time, and I hope we can continue to visit these long-ago spaces for years to come.

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