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In Conversation: Louis Masai

I’ve been following the work of Louis Masai on the streets of London for a long time now. In fact, a photo I took of one of his street art pieces was featured on the cover of a World Wildlife Foundation report titled “Beyond the Stripes“) last year! His artistic style has evolved since, but the overarching message of support for endangered animals remains as strong as ever.

Photo: Credit to Emil Walker

I was thrilled to be able to connect with him in the run up to a solo exhibition, “Missing” which will be on display from May 25-27 at the Crypt Gallery in Euston. Immersive and interactive, the show will feature a host of endangered animals, from the threatened British bumble bee to the South African penguin.

Visitors will be plunged into a forest, full of the scent and buzz of live honeycombs and see three bronze bee sculptures. They’ll watch an animatronic penguin built with a robotics specialist, take in gold-plated and resin casts, and enjoy brand-new patchwork paintings made from large scale murals that Masai has created internationally, from the Amazon rainforest to the streets of Shanghai. There’s a poignant  reminder of the cost of the ivory trade a the show too, with an AK47 lying surrounded by empty shells next to a painted elephant.

Below, he talks about why his work centres around endangered animals and the message he hopes to communicate through his work, some of the places around the world where he’s painted in the past and a few few of life’s little luxuries he’s recently enjoyed.

LITTLE OBSERVATIONIST: Your art is now well known around the world, but take us back to the beginning: When did you decide to pursue art as a career? What challenges did you overcome to become successful as a creative?
LOUIS MASAI: Well, I was working a restaurant/cafe job in Falmouth, Cornwall, about eight years ago, after having completed my Fine Art degree. I was fed up with being stuck in a rut, and so I left Cornwall and started an entirely new chapter in London. I guess that was the defining moment for me, when I decided to pursue my arts as a career. I think the challenges I’ve faced are just normal everyday challenges that anyone living in the city faces, especially self-employed people – it’s hard maintaining confidence in what you’re doing, wondering when it will start to get a bit easier. I’m still working on calling it a success just yet. I have a lot ambition for myself, and am excited at the prospects ahead.

Photo: Art of Beeing crew kneck – slab city, Credit to Emil Walker

Photo: Gunnisson Sage Grousse, male, Provo, Utah, USA

LO: Endangered animals are a central theme in your work. Why do they hold a special place in your heart?
LM: All of nature is important to me, but endangered species are especially important because we as humans should be more aware of their vulnerability and recognise that we are most likely the cause but also the potential solution to the issue. I see my work as a way of giving a voice to those who can’t shout out for help.

Photo: Big-eyed Reef Shark, Los Angeles, USA

Photo: Bee swarm, Stavanger, Norway

Photo: Common Carp, Berlin, Germany

LO: How have the style and the message you hope to communicate with your art evolved over the years?
LM: My style has evolved from a more realistic approach to that of a completely fabric patterned image. That happened via a series that was a mixture between the two – and my style will continue to evolve, I’m sure. The message, too, has evolved throughout the years and has now become that of raising awareness. This message has been the result of my time spent learning about the individual species I have painted. As I researched and understood in more detail the extent of the issues at hand, I have felt more and more empowered to raise awareness and speak up through my art.

Photo: European Mink, Europe 2018

Photo: Venice Cray Fish by @lmnotree

Photo: Yellow Legged Frog, Downtown LA, USA by @lmnotree

LO: You say you’re more of an artist than an activist, but art is powerful and yours does have an important message. Have you seen any type of change, however big or small, come about as a result of your work?
LM: I think that activism has become somewhat of a dirty word, or a problematic one at least, when in fact it should be the source of power for a new future. For this reason, I embrace the word artist more than I do the word activist. If I am to reach a wide demographic then I have to break down barriers, not make them. Perhaps I am misguided, but I believe that the idea behind activism creates a huge barrier between the message and the most important demographic – the everyday people, and that is hopefully where my work comes in. Yes, I do believe I have seen real change come from my work. This has ranged from changing public perception about certain issues to changing people’s actual habits, like recycling, consumerism or diet. My work has also directly contributed to raising funds for charities and species sanctuaries, and inspiring other people to care about the environment and utilise their skills to raise the profiles of threatened species.

Photo: Long-eared Wombat, Australasia, 2018

Photo: Jaguar, Phoenix, Arizona, USA by Emil Walker

LO: You’re having an immersive exhibition titled “Missing” at Euston’s Crypt Gallery later this month. What can we expect from a visit? What are some of the highlights?
LM: ‘Missing’ is going to be an exciting space, albeit for a short time – it’s only open for three days and a private view night. Its short run is relevant to the immediacy and urgency of the message of the show, and the importance of acting today – these species will be gone before long. The fact that it only lasts three days calls attention to the fragile state our biodiversity is in. The location, the Crypt Gallery, too, is a reminder that as an audience, you are made witness to a burial ceremony of some sort. ‘Missing’ will showcase 18 brand new paintings, a robotic African penguin sculpture, a bronze bee sculpture edition, print release and also a series of special limited edition tee shirts.

Photo: Mink, Crans-Montana, Switzerland

Photo: New York, Bog Turtle Tee, byford

LO: What do you hope your audience will take away from this show?
LM: Every guest at the opening night will be given a pack of postcards to take home with information on a specific species and an organisation supporting it. I hope that some people read and take note of what is happening, and take action themselves. I hope that the audience won’t just come to the show and see art; I hope they see a cry for help and recognise that we are all in this together, perhaps urging some to change old habits that are affecting the painted species.

Photo: Mountain Tapir, South America, 2018

Photo: Red Panda, Shanghai, China

Photo: Venice, Cray Fish tee byford

LO: What’s next for you after “Missing”?
LM: I’ll be off to France to complete a few more murals, and then back in London to do a huge project at the Zoological Society of London with my good friends at Synchronicity Earth. Later in the year, I’ll be in Berlin with Urban Nation Museum for a residency.

Photo: White Rhino, Sub Saharan Africa, 2018

Photo: Red Panda, Asia, 2018

Photo: Penguin from “Missing” exhibition

LO: Do you prefer working on outdoor murals or in your studio? Describe your ideal working environment.
LM: I can’t imagine a world in which I wasn’t doing both, because they are equally important to me and both evoke power and also influence each other. I always work with music, whether in the studio or outdoors. It would be nice to have more sun, but then I can always travel somewhere hot and paint so have it pretty good really.

Photo: New England Cottontail Rabbit by Emil Walker

Photo: New England Cottontail Rabbit by @zurbaran1

Photo: Venice, Crayfish by @lmnotree

LO: Your work can be found in London but also all over the world. Where have you painted internationally? Can you share a favourite memory of painting abroad? Where to next?
LM: I do work internationally a lot. Last year alone, for example, I painted in Cape Cod, LA, Utah, Quito, The Amazon Rainforest, Switzerland, Berlin, Shanghai. I’ve also worked in South Africa, Jamaica, Malawi, all over the United States, and a few more spots in Europe too. I don’t have a favourite though; every occasion to vibe with people, paint and listen to tunes is a true blessing.

Photo: Tapir, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

Photo: Synch Earth, London, Credit to Toby Madden

LO: Little Observationist is all about appreciating life’s little luxuries. Name three you’ve enjoyed recently.
LM:
1. Seeing whales in the wild of Cape Cod.
2. Meeting a mountain tapir in the wild in the Amazon.
3. Being 2500 meters up in the Swiss Alps.

Thanks Louis!

Feature image at top: New England Cottontail Rabbit, Credit to @Zurbaran1

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