LOUIS MASAI MICHEL grew up with Afrocentric artefacts, voodoo dolls and living what many other children read about in storybooks. His father was born in a mud hut in Cameroon, in northwest Africa, and was the only white child in the village.
Louis’ grandfather, a Dutch geologist, travelled across the world with his work and his family followed him. This meant, for Louis’ father, being raised in the African and American continents. This heritage has forged within Louis a strong connection to Africa and its many animals.
Louis’ parents met at art school and eventually became restaurateurs. Louis picked up both art and cooking skills from his parents and they are serving him well. But unlike his parents, Louis has decided to make a go at being an artist full time.
Louis remembers that as a young kid, the only way he could really hang out with his dad was to stay up and paint with him until “stupid o’clock”. His father, returning from a long shift at the restaurant, would paint to unwind. “It was literally the only way I could hang out with my dad. It was either work in the kitchen with him, which I did as well, or paint with him.”
His father tended to paint stories. This style, has in turn, rubbed off on Louis. The stories his father paints are almost biblical. “He’s not particularly religious, it’s just what he paints.”
Familial influence is now a two-way street. After Louis moved to London two years ago, having spent the previous 10 years in Cornwall where he completed his fine art degree, his father saw the possibility of selling his work rather than simply painting for pleasure. With a little help and encouragement from his son, it became a reality.
It took a while for Louis to realise he could also make a career out of his art. The university he attended encouraged its students to create work for themselves, as opposed to pursuing a career.
“I wish I had been taught differently because then I wouldn’t have wasted a lot of time in Cornwall. You should be told that if you want to do something enough, you can make anything happen. You shouldn’t be told that it’s next to impossible.”
Louis learnt to promote his work online through seeing street artists’ work flood the web. It was unlike anything he had seen with traditional fine art; an art form he believes is still failing to embrace the Internet as a channel to promote work.
Louis first started street art when he lived in Cornwall. Then, when travelling through South America he saw what he described as “incredible stuff”, “mind blowing” street art and he was encouraged to try his hand at it.
“At the end of the day, I paint for people to see it. That’s why I go and paint on the street. I want people to see it.”
Louis is constantly looking for different methods to reach out to the art community for his personal progression and the progression of his local art community. He has combined his interests with art, communication and sharing, with another passion – DJing. He has started talking to schools about the connection between street art, art and music. He considers this progression as a somewhat surreal career move because when he was studying his GCSEs the genre was largely frowned upon.
Louis observes, “You’ve got bands who are really inspired by creativity, who are seeking out artists to work with, and it’s becoming something a little bit different. An example is getting live painting at events and festivals.”
It is also increasingly more common for live music to feature at gallery openings. “I think that has got so much to do with the people that are being presented in galleries now. Street art, urban art, lowbrow art and illustrative fine art, they’re really helping to push a new culture. It’s cool. I like it.”
Louis said it’s an exciting time to be an artist; but not an easy time. “It’s not easy. It’s fucking hard to find people to promote you, to represent you, to buy your work and you’ve got to be constantly self motivated. But at the same time I think that because I fit into a few different cultures of where art is at the moment, and I’m open as well, it is a breath of fresh air. I feel like it is achievable.”
How do you survive? Do you sell enough work?
“Yeah, I sell my work a lot. Every month something goes.”
Louis’ upcoming solo exhibition at Nancy Victor is called Afro Fabrication. He tells Slanted Mansion, “It’s the exploration of fabric patterns with animals. I like to give the animals a human attribute; at the moment this human attribute is fabric patterns.
“People have become obsessed with wearing clothes, haven’t they? I like clothes. Animals don’t do that, but they have their own patterns and colours, which us as humans don’t have. So I think in some ways it’s the obsession that humans have with dressing themselves. It’s not just out of necessity and warmth and so on, it is to attract a partner and it is to show off ourselves as flamboyant – like showing our feathers, I guess.”
“I do quite like to play with humour as well. I’m always kind of trying to look for something to make someone laugh a bit, I guess. I think it’s part of my personality. I think that my work represents me and I’m a bit tongue in cheek sometimes, so I think it’s quite good that that’s in there.”
Louis’ work also comments on humans removing themselves from the animal kingdom. “I think humans have become so intent on not being recognised as part of the animal kingdom. Nature’s the most important thing and I think that it’s really, really sad that we are
killing off a huge part of our cycle and the things that are really important. Without all the insects and the animals running the system, basically, we’re killing ourselves and we’re destroying our own habitat.”
Louis hasn’t yet ventured to Africa. His first stop abroad was South America. Not for the landmarks, but the animals. While there, Louis sited a rare Quetzal bird, but was also taken by simple pleasures, like watching ants and the way they interact socially.
Louis’ shift to London, made in 2010, has been extremely beneficial to his development as an artist and output. “It’s unearthed my inner self for sure. It’s made me completely hell-bent on succeeding with my art.”
Networking is hugely important to Louis. So is researching online and learning about other artists. He stays positive, despite the knockbacks. “It’s just believing that every, or one in every three emails, or one in every 10 emails, is going to get a response and just believing that and not giving up after only 20 emails.”
And the knockbacks?
“Just control-alt-delete. It’s gone. When you’re painting it’s an addiction. It’s a different thing. And you’re just constantly working on it and you kind of don’t even care what happens next because you just want that next fix.”
There are still a lot of people who don’t care to have their walls adorned with street art, rather then the deteriorating, bare slabs that currently exist. But Louis believes this will change – in good time. “That’s just the nature of this game.”
Check out some of Louis’ work here: louismasaimichel.com