In a disused toilet block in the city of Bristol, London based artist Louis Masai will soon be holding his next solo show, ‘Last of My Kind’. With a theme of endangered birds, the setting is an interesting one and adds an extra bit of uniqueness to the exhibition. Louis’ aim is to create awareness of the plight of endangered species, some of the birds he has drawn will soon die out if nothing is done to conserve their natural habitat. It is all too likely that within the near future, many will become extinct.
And the term extinct is important even down to the choice of setting, a disused toilet block on Woodland Road. Now known as ‘The Edwardian Cloakroom’ it’s original purpose is extinct, long gone, albeit gaining a new life as a temporary gallery and exhibition space. As I speak to Louis at his home and studio in Seven Sisters the theme comes up time and time again.
Louis has chosen to link the theme of critically endangered birds with that of extinct musicians and he explains why, “I choose the word extinct rather than dead because extinct is something we associate with animals. Obviously we know these musicians are dead but by saying their extinct it hones in on the fact that the animals will be gone soon.” Each piece features a critically endangered bird with the title being linked to a deceased musician or a piece of their work. Many of the pieces have subtle nods to music. A piano key incorporated into the piece perhaps or a used speaker taking the place of a flower. By linking the two the viewer associates the genius and beauty of the musician with the beauty and grace of the bird and reflects that in the same way music will no longer be produced, the bird will soon no longer live and will eventually die out.
Louis’ home is packed full of art. It’s an active space and as I arrive he is working on a canvas for his next piece. It’s a canvas made from reclaimed wood that he’s found laying around, abandoned and forgotten he will put it together and paint onto it. He tries to reuse as much as possible “it’s all about reclaiming something, using something’s that’s broken” he tells me “it’s kind of an addiction” he admits as he is constantly on the look out for new pieces to use. Even the illustrations from his show will be created onto reclaimed paper, he does not believe in un-necessary waste and the texture of the reclaimed material he uses gives the work a whole new life. Even his studio is an atmospheric wasteland of used spray cans, sketches, paint pots and salvaged materials. It’s a creative space, an exciting space! A space where lots is going on!
For many Louis Masai will be known for his work on the street. Recently he has sought to raise awareness of the plight of the African Rhino and the Bee by painting some huge and spectacular murals around London. He speaks with passion about their plight and hopes that in some small way he is able to use his artistic skills to get people thinking about the issues. Having visited South Africa earlier in the year he learnt more about the plight of the Rhino in particular and tells me, “their level of endangerment has quantrified so rapidly that if we don’t become aware of it right now, today or even yesterday. Tomorrow they’ll be gone, and it’s not a joke any more, they will be gone.”
Using the world of social media he is already seeing the awareness build, “people take pictures of my work and tag #savetherhino or #savethebee and it gets people thinking” says Louis. An example of street art being used in a way which draws attention towards a wider public of instagrammers and bloggers and beyond onto a wider audience.
Louis describes himself as an introvert and I can see why. When he paints he goes into the zone “I’m in my own world, I’ve got my headphones on and I don’t really care what’s going on around me”.. I saw it for myself when I visited his studio, totally focused on banging nails into his wooden canvas his mind would only be free when that task was complete. As we speak his introversion becomes clearer. Not in any stereotypical way that one might think an introvert would react but in a passionate, articulate series of explanations about what is inside and what it is that he is trying to do. It is clear that there is a lot of fire inside, which combined with a strong set of values, is what drives him.
We speak about activism and I ask him if that’s how he thinks of himself “absolutely not” he reples. It’s an interesting discussion, he prefers to use the term Rasta to describe himself “it’s something deep inside me” he explains, “that pays attention to everything that’s going on around me and when somethings not right I say something.” He relates activism to more direct action “an activist is someone who marches on the street and does that sort of thing. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do that I’m just saying that it’s not my core.”
Rastafarianism is something which clearly anchors him although he is still learning “I’m still understanding what Rasta is to myself” he tells me. “For me there are certain elements of a Rasta way of life that have been ingrained from the beginning and I’m growing more and more and everyday I’m learning about myself.” It’s a simple life, “for me it’s about acknowledging the core and for me that core is mother nature and working with the environment she gives you.” He explains further by quoting Bob Marley “people said to him are you a politician and he’s like, I ain’t no politician, I’m just a singer. I just do what I am, I’m a Rasta man… I’ll spread my point of view and I will make sure I am heard but I don’t feel a need to bash down someones door in order to make them listen.”
Last of my Kind promises to be an intriguing show. With the aim of raising awareness of some of the World’s most endangered birds Masai is producing some intriguing pieces, which come opening night the World will see. As I leave I sense that he’ll be getting straight back to one of his canvases, made from reclaimed wood and about to be given a new lease of life. I’ve seen a lot of art today and learnt a lot about birds I would otherwise not have heard of but then that’s the idea of the show. He may not think himself an activist in the more direct sense but this is still activism in action, albeit on a more subtle, Rasta level.
Last of My Kind will take place at the Edwardian Cloakroom on Woodland Road in Bristol from November 22nd to December 6th 2013. He was interviewed at his home and studio in Seven Sisters on Sunday 10th November 2013.