We kick off 2016 with the first in a series of articles featuring individuals who are making a difference in the world – where they are, with the talents they have – through Service. Our first interview features the UK artist Louis Masai, who uses his skills as a contemporary fine artist and muralist to give a voice to the voiceless and promote environmental conservation.
The global climate summit COP 21 concluded last month and Louis Masai traveled to Paris to add to his works with the environmental NGO, Synchronicity Earth, on endangered species. In advance of the climate talks, he painted a coral mural outside Paris which is part of a series of murals he is painting in several countries.
In September, Louis Masai began the series by creating the largest mural he has painted to date, in London. The painting depicted a coral reef with various reef dependent species to highlight the biodiversity of marine ecosystems and corals under threat. The work was the artist’s first interactive piece, with members of the public suggesting species to include in his design as he painted, and the work received tremendous media attention. The artist has gone on to paint smaller coral follow-up pieces in Ireland, South London and Paris.
Marine ecosystems are vitally important to life on the planet. Oceans cover more than 2/3 of the surface, and plankton in marine ecosystems provide 50% of the world’s oxygen as well as food and livelihoods for vast numbers of the global population, particularly for the world’s poor. As part of the marine ecosystem, coral reefs are home to a multitude of marine life but with climate change, coastal runoff, overfishing and marine pollution, 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently under threat with some environmentalists projecting that 90% of the worlds reefs will be under threat by 2030. The worlds largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, barely remained off the UNESCO endangered list in 2015 and remains under a severe threat watch for the next several years.
These threats have serious implications for mankind. Seagrasses and mangroves have been lost with the worsening health of marine ecosystems. When coupled with coral losses and degradation, this has promoted the growth of disease spreading algal blooms in coastal waters which threaten to change disease vectors for masses of populations of humans and terrestrial wildlife. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) scientists responsible for projections about the likelihood of climate change and the risks and impacts of that climate change confirm in their 5th Assessment report the vulnerability of coral reefs. The existing and projected degradation of coral reefs exacerbates the threat of sea level rise to coastal systems and low-lying areas and this will persist, even if the world manages to stabilise temperatures.
The environmental threat from degradation of the world’s reefs and marine ecosystems is extreme and it will take the concerted effort of the world’s population to improve our combined destiny. Digesting this grave information is not easy but Louis Masai has teamed up with Synchronicity Earth to help raise awareness by making all the frightening statistics more accessible and personal.
Whilst the COP 21 Climate Change summit was underway in Paris, we had the opportunity to connect with the artist via email for an interview.
TTDOG: You have shied away from the term activist in the past, but I know that you care deeply about the rapid wave of extinctions of species and of biodiversity loss. You have expanded beyond individual species and animals now to a much wider crisis – that of the vanishing coral reefs and, therefore, of entire marine ecosystems. You have painted in Paris at the start of COP21 where all the world’s leaders gathered to set the agenda that will affect the world’s climate which is arguably at a tipping point. What does this wider vision and forum mean to you and how do you hope your work will impact on leaders, environmentalists and individuals?
LM: Well, to be honest, I doubt very much that politicians that aren’t already engaged in the thoughts of environmental issues will become altered by stumbling upon my coral hearts in Paris or by the other paintings that I have done. In fact, they are probably blissfully unaware that I am doing it. There are other art projects happening in Paris that might reach them, but even still, I don’t personally believe that visual language can reach an unethical mind. However, I do believe that the people that vote governments in to power will be affected by visual language and I also believe that these images can inform the general public and, hopefully, unite the people to encourage the right politicians to lead countries and represent us at environmental summits.
Environmentalists love my work for the simple reason that it addresses issues that they are concerned with; It depicts them in an attractive way, and it helps to reach the wider audience. And, as individuals, I think 1 in 10 people will take note and allow for the message to override the actual image itself. I hope so, anyway.
TTDOG: You have said before that you inject a human element in your work. Have you done this in your recent series of coral paintings with synchronicity earth? In what way?
LM: Well the big coral mural I did in London doesn’t depict human juxtaposition in the way that my other work does, but if you look into the centre of the shape, there is a heart shaped hole which I have coined “the keyhole” which means the biodiversity that I have created is a padlock. Every keyhole has a key.
The coral hearts that I painted in South London, Paris and before in Ireland are the keys. This idea of keys and lock symbolises that to unlock a sustainable ecosystem, like the coral reef, we must all have a key to invest into its survival. The keys become metaphors for the human itself, and thus, the juxtaposition of human and animal becomes a little bit more obvious. Essentially all my coral paintings are connected together in some way because of the heart, which by the way is not shaped like I have painted them, this shape is a human interpretation.
TTDOG: Your work seems to focus on environmental crisis. What drives you to give a voice to those who do not have one within your paintings and then to engage and include so called marginalised people who are not otherwise part of the environmental discussion through interaction with your art?
LM: I haven’t ever stopped to figure that out, it’s just something that happened naturally, over time. I guess I’m just creating large real life jigsaw puzzles.
TTDOG: Your name is “Masai” and it is a word that seems both sacred and integral to your painting. Would you be willing to share how you gained the name and how it’s meaning infuses your work? What does it mean to you to call your followers “Masai Tribe?”
LM: I have fond memories of wild tales from my Opa about my dad in the Cameroons (now part of Nigeria and the Country of Cameroon) and it is those stories twinned with the Archeological treasures we had at home that steered me in the direction of tribal cultures. I soon discovered an amazing book called Africa Adorned (By Angela Fisher). I became fixated with a tall tribe bearing spears and shields, dressed in beautiful red tartans.
I later understood them to be the Masai warrior tribe.
I have a particular interest in the idea of one’s creation and the way that a person can shape and define who and what they are perceived to be by the general public. Being that I am an artist and one that engages in the public domain on a daily basis, I realised that my love of graffiti and the ideology of fame through a moniker or alter ego was, in many ways, no different from the inventions of the band names and frontmen that I was listening to, on my records. It’s also not uncommon for fine artists to invent their own names. Man Ray, for example, even took it a step further and his name became the art itself. Again, I found this very interesting and something that I wanted to incorporate with my own work.
With these factors all combined and running around my busy head some 8 or 9 years ago, I decided that I wanted a powerful name that I hoped could one day become as important as the work i was creating. I feel it’s starting to approach that place now, especially as my work is about raising awareness for endangered species and threatened ecosystems. The Masai are shepherds which is a nice link to the idea of an artist collecting consciousness amongst the peoples for animal welfare.
The reason for using Masai tribe in my social media is as a way to remind my followers that we are all unified in the success of one mans objectives. If mine is to spread awareness then it’s the tribe’s to move it from my page to theirs and further. I feel the word tribe removes any superiority amongst us.
TTDOG: I admire the way you have worked so incredibly hard and collaborated with activists to both make a living as an artist and to make a difference in the world. Both the art world and the world of socio/environmental/political change are really challenging. People often fear that they alone can’t make a difference. What would you say to them?
LM: Well, to start with, it depends what that one man standing solo is trying to achieve. You can’t play football on your own, but you can play a game with that ball on your own. So I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to make a difference and you feel isolated and alone then change the way you address it or go and knock and some doors and get a full team of football fans to play with you.
For me words like “original”, “unique” and “individual” are misused words because someone else has done it before, thought it before, and there will be many to follow. What i mean is that there are many more “you”’s out there and they care just as much, so find them. Your mission is to create the links, make a tribe and spread the message further.
Throughout his career, Louis has been evolving, creating connections and spreading his message. Although not always connecting his painting with specific conservation projects, he has long had a special ability to paint character-filled animals. Painting for several group and solo contemporary art gallery exhibitions, he also honed his skills with public murals in London and in several other countries. Louis’ evolving relationship with visual communication between animals as subjects and the public as viewer matured through several series of works, and began to focus on raising awareness of endangered species. His earlier work with Synchronicity Earth marked the passing of the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List for endangered species.
Shortly after this project, TTDOG had the pleasure to meet the artist at his solo exhibition “Batteries Not Included”, in London. There, Louis spoke about his work with Synchronicity Earth and of the importance for the public to understand and act now on the IUCN Red List for endangered species. His deeply moving connection with his subjects and his conviction to try to make a change was palpable to all in attendance.
A film by Synchronicity Earth was launched at the opening of the exhibition and provides a glimpse into the passion and purpose of Louis Masai and the Synchronicity Earth Team.
The project has been featured in social media by environmentalists such as Greenpeace, and Ecowatch, activist sites like Films for Action and the trend setting site Bored Panda as well as mainstream media. As the debate around banning neonics continues in countries like USA and Canada, and as Europe and the global South works to revive the pollinator population, the project provides a perfect example of how communities are both impacted by and can impact upon bee colony health.
Although the global climate meeting of the Conference of Parties 21 concluded late last year with a landmark climate agreement to end fossil fuels use and limit carbon emissions, implementing this agreement and limiting the other greenhouse gasses which threaten the climate will be a complicated process involving unpopular political policy and major lifestyle adjustments for the world’s population. We know this work cannot be done by governments alone.
As the world struggles to back away from climate disaster, Louis Masai’s paintings, as real life jigsaw puzzles, help remind even a fraction of his audience that we each hold the key to unlock the preservation of biodiversity.
We asked Louis Masai one final question:
TTDOG: For what are you most grateful, and where do you find your greatest joy?
LM: I just give thanks for the life I live. For me, joy is in nature, so I hope to find ways to preserve it.