Little is known about Belgian street artist ROA, but perhaps his secretive nature has worked to his advantage. Detached from the artist’s identity, his detailed, illustrative animal paintings have brought him enough renown to travel the globe and cover walls of enormous scale with his work. With local species of animals as his main focus, ROA inevitably starts a dialogue about human interaction with nature and the environment, whether he is painting on the walls of a museum or in an abandoned rural factory. ROA recently created an installation at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol for the exhibition “Unnatural Natural History,” which runs through September 23. Curators Chippy Coates and Richard Scarry put me in touch with the mysterious artist, and we were able to converse about post-colonial views of natural history, his work in Bristol, and his latest travels. Read our exclusive interview below and take a look at ROA’s installation at the RWA, images courtesy of Coates and Scarry. Please contact Coates and Scarry for further information on any of the artworks.
This year seems to have been a busy year for you. Can you briefly tell us about where you have travelled and perhaps share a memorable experience?
The last trips were more extreme in general; the year started in Stockholm just after New Year. The conditions to paint were almost unbearable; it was freezing cold and snowing. The pipes of my roof apartment were bursting from the cold and I had no shower, no water, in my accommodation. The apartment was very small and was an eco-house demonstration house built on a roof of a subway station with no heating; the concept was that the body heat would warm up the space. Being in a very wealthy country in those conditions gave me a kind of hibernation during painting. It was a great experience though, and I don’t want to be the complaining artist, but painting outside during snow storms — it isn’t easy!
The opposite was Mexico, Republic of The Gambia and Cambodia; the tropical heat and the sun burning on my skin. Mexico is great in every way to paint. The colors of the walls, the enthusiasm of the people, the street life in every way, the mural art history… I hope to stay there [one day] much longer and going on paint vacation. Painting in Africa is such a special and unique experience; it’s an engagement with the local communities and a very intense process. The fauna and flora of The Gambia is an amazing environment to be inspired by and to paint in. The several communities I visit, I painted last year too, and the connection we have made by being creative is very special to me.
In Cambodia it was more difficult to paint, because there is much less graffiti and mural art in general comparing with those other countries. I have been visiting near the jungle an abandoned town near Vietnam to paint. It was a very intense experience, the houses were burnt out, families lived in those burnt out houses and it has that tragic feeling by their past turbulences but something very hopeful too; there is only one way to evolve and that is moving forward. Those trips as Mexico, The Gambia and Cambodia are memorable experiences that changed my way of thinking and being. There is much more than just traveling and painting; it is visiting, exploring and engaging with people all over the globe.
What ideas did you have in mind when creating your installation at the RWA for “Unnatural Natural History?” How did you choose what species to paint?
The history of natural history and, in specific, the museums is quite dubious; imperialistic mechanisms and colonization are inherent to those places. It is a very complex and ambiguous issue. In the past, European and American explorers would kill a whole family of elephants or gorillas to exhibit them in panoramas in these very prestigious museums to “educate” the Western people. The display of panoramas, the past glory of those times, the endangered shown species, the confidence of the colonizer, the scientific purpose — many conflicting feelings fill my mind if I visit natural history museums.
My installation was built around those emotions and the several cabinets unified in a larger cabinet of the scientist-doctor/veterinarian as an overall experimental lab on animal species. The central cabinet was a depiction of a dodo. This was the first time I integrated to dodo in my art work; the dodo found his extinction because of colonization and became a fable-like symbol [because of] its appearance in Alice in Wonderland. The art work has an inner and out part; as an exploration within the animal and as a metaphor for the practice of natural history science. The other art works [in the group show] were all related to the installation; manipulatable and interactive works that enact the people’s exploring curiosity as two microscope works that refer to the research and the urge of people to knowledge, as boxes that can slide open [and] flip over, showing new sections of the animal, as a hiding mirror image… Many of the pieces have props such as little skulls, veterinary/scientists tools, and the installation refers obviously to the curiosity cabinets of those exploring times.
I see from the photos that the mural is painted on what looks like wood panels. How is the work meant to interact with the environment?
Outside the museum I made a wall sculpture with a movable panel that function as a wind/kinetic sculpture. Bristol has enough wind to make this panel turning and as in my work often shows different angles/sections of the animal; the bird’s head flips over from feathers to the inner section. This wall/sculpture was very fast and wild painted on a very uneven and improvisation wall; the putting together of the scrap material, the fast and more brutal painting was a momentum of fun and less restricted than working within the museum.
Your work often appears morbid, but also peaceful and beautiful. What do you want people to take away from seeing your pieces?
Personally, I am always very pleased if people get their own interpretation of it. If it can be engaging enough to let people look into those animals and inspire them to be creative, or to get involved with our globe, or just take a look at it, then I am very happy.
How did you develop your style and your focus on animals? Did you ever write traditional graffiti such as letters, etc?
Yes, I did but that’s already years ago. On a certain moment I was not energized anymore with what I was painting, the fun and the gusto left it a little down, although the challenge and the fun of painting on a wall is very addictive and a great experience. Since I was a kid I draw animals, so I wanted to paint like I draw but more plastic and looser. So, I gave it a try on the wall and the fun was back and I got inspired to go up to paint in left-behind factories and hidden places and experiment with lines and scales and I still enjoying it, because every wall is different; the environment, the social life around it, the extern conditions, the size, the depiction, the challenge is always there.
Do you have any projects lined up for this year that you would like to share?
I do have some nice projects coming up, but I rather take it day by day!