Posters of missing or lost pets, wherever they are posted, almost always grab the attention of passers-by. It’s for that reason why artist and environmentalist, Louis Masai, has used the concept of missing pets posters to highlight some of the many species of the animal kingdom that are “missing” or facing extinction.
Designed to get people’s attention and take note in much the same way, viewers at Louis Masai’s recent solo exhibition, Missing, in London’s Euston were handed out a pack of postcards of missing species as a call to action. The front of each postcard features a clip section of an animal from one of the artist’s paintings, while the back of the postcard includes information about the species with links to the environmental agencies or charities working with that particular species.
“We are all familiar with missing and lost pet posters,” the London-based artist explained. “We see them on the streets and on lamp posts and so on all around the world and so I kind of started to wonder if people are aware of the fact that just how many wild species are lost, and so I wanted to juxtapose that as an idea and so I called the show Missing.”
Missing, held over three days last month, showcased a selection of brand new paintings, sculptures and installations, each focusing on endangered animals in specific regions across the globe – from the South African penguin to the humble bumble bee threatened in the UK.
The solo exhibition follows from the success of Louis Masai’s 2016 tour of the United States, The Art Of Beeing, where he painted over 20 murals of species under threat in 12 cities across nine states in just two months. In his latest works, bees appear as agents for survival, stitching up patchwork plush toy versions of those animals soon to be missing from our biodiversity.
With Missing taking place on home turf, the choice of venue itself had particular resonance for the artist in his awareness raising of the decline in animal species. Held at The Crypt Gallery in Euston, the stone chamber beneath St Pancras Parish Church was originally designed and used for coffin burials from 1822, when the Church was opened, to 1854, when the crypts of all London churches were closed to burials.
Louis Masai said: “It’s an interesting space in its own right within the context of my work because the crypt was obviously, in the Victorian times ,where people would have been buried, and so all of my work is about endangered species. There’s the idea that species are being buried – and with Missing, it’s like raising the point that if we’re not careful we’re putting more [species] to sleep.”
A fully immersive experience, The Crypt Gallery was transformed into the natural habitat of some species in the form of a forest of trees, full of the scent and buzz of live honeycombs. In addition to paintings of endangered species, the artist used the unique setting of the gallery space to also display a series of 3D artworks – including a specially created animatronic penguin built with a robotics specialist and three distinct bee sculptures, in bronze, large resin casts and gold-plated editions.
For this particular exhibition, Louis Masai was determined to capture animals from as many continents as possible in his paintings. The artist notes that he never paints the same animal twice, which is also an indication of the number of animal species that are currently in decline, and he says there are many more endangered species he has yet to paint.
The artist was also conscious to include as many different sub-categories within the animal kingdom and their association with the elements in Missing – therefore sea creatures, birds and land animals all featured. The purpose of this, Louis Masai explains is to convey the bigger picture – a truth that goes far beyond the extinction of a number species. “I want people to realise that it’s not as simple as saying ‘people need to stop killing elephants, people need to stop polluting the ocean’,” he said. “It’s everything. It’s a biodiversity that’s being wiped out, it’s not a species – and once we recognise that it’s a biodiversity that’s being wiped out, you realise that its thousands and hundreds of species that we are talking about – not just a couple – so that’s what the show is about.”
As a prolific artist drawn to the animal kingdom and the environment, it is only natural that Louis Masai spends a great deal of his time painting in the outdoors. He has painted murals in cities around the world including London, New York, Paris and Cape Town. But it’s not just street walls that his paintings have graced, rainforests too – one of the environments in which the very species he paints should be surviving and thriving in. With his art in the public domain, Louis Masai is able to bring the conversation about endangered species to a wider audience, making the information accessible to many people around the world.
“Everybody needs to be included in the conversation,” the artist said. “A lot of people will call me an activist and I shy away from that purely based on the fact that when you talk about activism or environmentalism, these kinds of high level words, the general public will shy away from them because they feel that they are excluded from the understanding. It’s kind of almost irrelevant to them. So when I paint outdoors, then that also has a knock-on effect on the social media debate which is also in the public domain. It has the ability to interact with thousands more people than perhaps in a gallery.”
It’s for this reason that painting outdoors is so paramount to Louis Masai. “It is very important for me, not just for people getting to know who I am but for people to get to know who the species are,” he added. “Working in the public domain is very impacting and it includes everybody – it does not matter what colour, creed or age you are. If you are going to walk passed something whether you want to like it or not, you are going to see it and whether you understand the concept behind why I painted it or not, it’s there and you can either wake up or you can ignore it.”
Louis Masai’s own connection to nature and animals stem from growing up as a kid in the 1980s – a poignant time when organisations including Greenpeace and WWF were in the public eye speaking out about climate change, conservation and the plight of endangered species. “I was a kid at that point when I was hearing these things and so it had diverse affects on me,” he said. “I don’t know why but I guess all kids love lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants and dolphins. I loved them. So when I realised that these animals were endangered that upset me –it wasn’t even a question with identifying with it, it really upset me – so I think that that’s always stayed with me.”
For Louis Masai, worldwide change has been slow on the upkeep since his first awareness of the issues of climate change and endangered species as a child. “It’s now in such serious state of affairs right now,” he added. “It’s a lot worse than when they first started speaking out. Now you’ve got people like David Attenborough who’s making documentaries and he’s not able to talk about the wildlife anymore because there’s so much plastic in the way. So he’s forced to talk about the issues. And now people are waking up and listening.”
While the artist has focused his art on serving the greater good for the environment and its indigenous animal lifeforms, it has naturally attracted criticism from those who have misunderstood his mission or intention even. “I’ve been criticised by people who say: ‘What are you doing. Ok, great so you painted a mural, you didn’t save the rhinos’,” he said. “But I’ve not set out on a mission to save the rhinos with a painting. What I’ve done is to set out on a mission to try and raise awareness of the fact that there is a crisis.”
“The more avenues there are for someone discussing this conversation, the better it will be – on the TV, on the radio, on a wall, on a t-shirt or in a gallery,” he adds. “Whatever it is, it is still discussing something that needs to be discussed.”
Getting the message out there by any means necessary has led Louis Masai to recently combine forces with friend, Hylu, to create a new podcast, All Fruits Ripe, exploring environmental issues. Since it launched last year, the podcast has attracted a diverse range of guests including a documentary filmmaker, a visual artist, an animal lover and an activist.
With a mutual love of music, the artist and Hylu, himself a DJ and producer, have centred the All Fruits Ripe podcast around music. Each podcast features four records played in stereo format on a record player, powered by Hylu’s Unit 137 sound system. Three of the tracks are selected by the two presenters, and a fourth record is selected by their guest. With music as a focal means that the podcast has crossover appeal. “Music is like art – it’s the fruit of life – music is very important and it’s a good point of reference like having a good chat,” Louis Masai explained.
All Fruits Ripe has once again provided the artist an opportunity in which to raise awareness of environmental issues, or essentially spread knowledge and wisdom to a diverse audience, something which he so effortlessly and seamlessly does be it through the power of spoken word or the power of art. “For me, life’s about having conversations,” he continued. “The idea is supposed to be that it is a casual affair. All Fruits Ripes encourages people who wouldn’t normally listen or talk about environmental issues to realise they actually do have something to say and bring to the table and so we keep it real laid back – that’s how we want to keep it. Life is supposed to be enjoyable and we are talking about serious issues, so the more we can make the listener feel comfortable and feel that they have a place there, then hopefully the more they will learn and take from it.”
Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea