Interview: Louis Masai Michel


“I grew up living above my parents restaurant, which meant that I didn’t get a lot of time to hang out with my dad but when he finished service I would join him in the studio to do my art homework. When he wasn’t being a chef, his other passion for painting took over, I guess it was then that my love for painting really started to flourish. I cant say that I enjoyed education too much, so when I realized that I could study art at university I pursued that and acquired a degree in Falmouth, Cornwall.

I have been living in London now since 2010 and fulfilling this idea of making an income from my creativity. I maintain a fairly balanced combination of painting in the studio and painting murals in the public domain. I get huge enjoyment from both elements and embrace the influences that both practices have upon each other.

My subject matter focuses on animals but always strives to find a human reference to juxtapose an element that might not be previously obvious. For example with my show Afro-fabrication I entwined fabric patterns to the animals in an attempt to comment on a human desire to cover up, or indeed use flamboyant colours to attract a mate. last of my kind, documents critically endangered birds with references to extinct musicians. The idea for this series of work was to question why humans often fail to recognize a disappearing species yet mourn the death of a celebrity.

My recent documentation of endangered creatures and raising of awareness of statistics has on occasions brought the notion of activism to light. I find this title a bit daunting as I only see myself as an artist but I definitely see the power of visual language upon a wider audience and I’m enjoying utilizing that power via my murals and the modern world of social networking.”

SAUS was able to get a little Q&A with Louis who is in preparation with The Bear Cub Gallery for The Ark project. A special thanks to Charlotte Pyatt for making this happen.

Louis MasaiLet’s start from the beginning: where are you from and what was your first introduction to art?
Family featured heavily in it, my parents owned a restaurant which we lived in and so things were always really busy. But in the evenings after service, my dad would take time out and paint. This was my favourite time to hang out with him, I’d be up all night painting and drawing, it was the only thing I was ever really any good at and i wasn’t too interested in the rest of my school subjects or homework. A teacher suggested I do a Scholarship and it went from there.

I have read that you attended art school how did you evolve into using the streets for your canvas?
I went to university and studied art at Falmouth college of art in Cornwall. Street Art culture and imagery has always been important to me. When I was 16, I won the arts Prize (a book of my choice), my pick was Subway Graffiti – I became obsessed with going up and down to London watching the train lines but never really actively got involved. Back then i didn’t have any friends to go for a paint with and no one else was doing it in my village so I kind of started then stopped after only doing a couple of failed pieces and tags. I played around with sprays at uni in abandoned cornish hotels but was always too worried about putting myself out there. Mean while in the studio I had learnt about Banksy, and started introducing stencils to my mixed media paintings, i liked the similar results of screen printing it had.

In my final year of studies I was painting homeless people, speaking to them about their stories and lives, I started drawing chalk lines around their forms so that even when they left, they would still in a sense remain. This developed into painting homeless people onto abandoned warehouses, a bit of romantic idea of finding a permanent home for them, if only in paint. My images have evolved and changed since then but I think there is still a sense of ‘awareness’ for a situation needing attention that we have almost accepted as ‘being the way it is’…like endangered animals. The tiger the whale the elephant the rhino ‘its just the way it is’.
Honeybees DevonAnimals feature very heavily in your work and its clearly a subject you are passionate about, do you have one overriding message that links or inspires the work you do collectively?
Animals were always something I was passionate about and I’ve been doing it 6 years now. The overriding message I guess is more about humans than it is animals. We are all creatures/beings and we the humans have made the decision that it is us who are in charge. Our self awareness is what separates us and the works make a connection with that – human affliction and awareness. Whilst we know numbers are dwindling and that it is *our* fault, the animals just know that they haven’t found a mate in a long time.

Cape Town GiraffeYou are on board with Bear Cub Gallery for ‘The Ark’ in which you have produced 2 endangered tigers could you tell us more about the work?
I created two works ‘Shem and Ham (a Shrinking World Around us)’, these are the names of Noah’s two sons. The shrinking land densities pose a imminent threat to the tiger, this is shown in the small patch of grass I’ve painted them on. The Lego trees reference the nostalgia of toys in childhood, symbols and relics of our past. Ive painted them in quite a playful way; one bounding and the other curled up like domestic cats, it is a very human attribute to want to domesticate an animal, taming the wild thing.

You are planning to do an on street piece of a tiger around the show? How do you think peoples experience of your work changes (if at all) when seen on the street compared to the gallery?
I try and keep the work the same, what you see on the streets from me, you will often find on reclaimed materials inside the gallery space. I guess the only real difference in the ‘experience ‘ comes with seeing a price on the wall next to it. Perhaps the gallery viewer could be more critical of the piece when it is assumed that the price in some way denote its ‘value’. On the streets its value comes simply from the viewing experience, being made to think about something they wouldn’t ordinarily, an appreciation of the unexpected or expected..who knows!…
Miami BirdsBear Cub’s plans are to transform the exhibition space into an installation around the art. What are your thoughts on their more immersive approach?
I love installations and I’m very excited about it, I had a similar idea for an upcoming show. I find it can be quite boring and unemotional when works are just hung in white spaces, its almost unnatural sometimes, paintings can be beautiful sure but if you can create an experience the work can become far more engaging and romantic. I love interior design and so, to physically do that is just wonderful. I think its a great idea and I’m excited to see the space.

Cape Town GorillaAre you working on any special projects for the next few months? Whats next for Louis Masai?
For me its about finalizing the Rhino Book which was inspired by a trip I took to South Africa in 2013. Following my first solo, I thought it would be cool to paint animals in the land they originated, its where the the focus on the endangered really started. Once there, I found the plight of the Rhino’s was everywhere, a massive campaign. I made some great contacts and decided that I would bring that message home. The book will hopefully be 100 pages and will predominantly focus the Rhino but will also feature endangered animals throughout the world. The proceeds of sale will go to Rhino preservation in South Africa, its a great project that id love to tie up and put out into the world, what with funding and time restraints on my part combined with the rate these animals are being slaughtered – all the rhinos might be gone by the time we get there!

ONE LOVE

Louis Masai Michel
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