For our latest blog series, we’re putting the spotlight on some of our favourite creatives. We’ll be asking them about everything from their work, to what inspires them, to how they approach new projects.
We’re starting with the fantastic Mysterious Al, a London-born, Melbourne-based contemporary artist who has collaborated with major brands such as Levi’s, Vans, Carhartt and Adidas – to name just a few!
More locally, Unit44 brought him to Newcastle last year for a solo show exhibition in Ouseburn. His work is still shown on the outside of the venue and as our new office is based just around the corner, it seems fitting to start the series here.
So, Mysterious Al, how have things been for you over in Melbourne during these lockdown months of 2020?
Not exactly as I’d planned, that’s for sure. 2020 was supposed to be a big year for me but like everybody else I saw a year’s worth of projects disappear within a few days. It’s heart breaking but you just have to get on with what you can. I did some work on my online store and opened my books to commissions that have been keeping me busy. I’m lucky.
We’re actually based just up the road from where you held your “Lazarus Style” art show in Newcastle last year! What are your memories of that show and your time spent up in the North East?
Well, before visiting Newcastle my only impressions were from watching ‘Geordie Shore’ – but don’t get it twisted; I absolutely loved that show, especially the first four seasons. Newcastle did not disappoint. Beautiful spot. Sort of gotham-like because of all the bridges. Stunning architecture and really good people. I loved it and can’t wait to come back.
The show was great. I love doing shows in places where nobody has done them before and the guys from Unit 44 gallery found the perfect spot for me and pulled out all the stops to make it happen. The show sold out and everyone had a good time thanks to them.
What first inspired you to get into art?
I’ve always been into art, and was lucky enough to be supported from a young age by my parents and teachers.
Parents: get behind your kids with ANYTHING that they show an interest in. To have a passion for something is so important, regardless of what it is. Kids are earning millions and having serious careers playing video games because they found their passion and their parents supported them.
After beginning your career in London, what would you say are the biggest similarities and differences to the art scene over in Melbourne?
Before I left for Melbourne, everybody told me that the art scene here was 5 years behind London, and it was absolutely true.
The difference is that the scene in Melbourne is incredibly supportive and friendly. People don’t climb over each other like they do in London, they support each other. The street-art here was so good and plentiful that ‘normal people’ are into it and support artists. It’s refreshing and great to see.
Next year marks a decade of you living in Australia, how would you say your career has changed since the move down under?
The work I’m making now is a dream come true. I’m so happy and energised, and the work is being well received which means the world to me.
When I left London I was really lost. I was doing lots of different things with no real consistency or continuity. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to find your way as an artist, but it’s even more frustrating when you have a taste of something and then it falls apart and you don’t know where to turn.
I’ll always be a Londoner, my accent isn’t going anywhere, but I needed to get out. That city is f***ing hard work and it’ll kick you when you’re down. Things are easier over here. Fairer. As my quality of life improved, so did my work. I’m a lot more chilled now than when I left London.
A lot of your most recent work is based around different tribal masks, what first got you interested in this theme?
It was 2014 and I was desperate for inspiration. Completely lost creatively, painting sh**ty characters and pop-art and god knows what. By sheer chance I walked into a musuem in London called the Horniman Museum. I only went in there to find a toilet and to kill some time before meeting a friend. In there I found some West African masks called ‘Bwa’ masks. They blew my mind. They were so simple and crudely made, yet they oozed character.
As an artist I’d always tried to put as much expression into my work as I could, using the least amount of lines and marks possible. Bwa masks represented the Holy Grail of this. I started giving my own work the same blank eye expression, leaning on the rest of the piece to do the talking, as such.
My work can be interpreted in different ways depending on how you look at it. It’s like a Pixar movie with different subtexts: On the surface there’s a grinning dumbness and chaos, but look just a little deeper and you’ll see something a little more fragile and vulnerable.
With close to two decades of work, do you have a particular project or exhibition that really stands out for you and is your proudest piece?
Without a doubt my 2019 warehouse show ‘Blinking into the sunlight’. I wanted to do a museum-style walkthrough exhibition where people follow a path through multiple rooms and spaces.
Museums aren’t interested in showing me, so we had to build one. We did everything on the hustle, DIY style. I was given a condemned warehouse and we completely transformed the whole spot, inside and out.
I didn’t have the right permits so we waited until Friday night when the council workers had gone home before revealing the location. Over the weekend we had over 1300 visitors come through and it was my first sell-out show. By Monday morning everything was packed-up like it never happened.
What advice would you give for aspiring creatives and artists, and those who are graduating this year?
Finding your way as an artist is hard, but be true to yourself. If you have the passion to do what you do, regardless of the struggle then you’re on the right path. Don’t stress over grades, they’re not important. Really, they’re not. Very few of my peers went to art school. It’s a waste of money. Stay focussed, keep working. You’ll get there I promise.
All creatives have different approaches to receiving a brief or starting on a piece of artwork. Do you have a typical process when starting a new project or piece of artwork?
Everything I do starts with a collage. When I stopped making traditional characters I made a conscious effort to ditch outlines. I tear up bits of paper and move them around until they make a face. Then I paint them, stick them down and scale them up into a painting.
Working small and with torn-up paper means I’m working quickly and spontaneously. It keeps the high-energy feel I have in my work. Once that’s done I can spend days or weeks on a painting but it will still have the energy and vibe the collage did.
What are you currently working on? Any projects in the pipeline?
It’s heartbreaking because 2020 was supposed to be a huge year for me. I’m working on something that was due to happen earlier this year but Covid had other ideas. We’ve pushed it to next year now but I can’t say much other than it’s a world-first and you’ll definitely hear about it when we finally get it moving!
This series is all about putting the spotlight on different creatives, are there any creatives who you have recently come across that you would recommend?
Thanks, Mysterious Al!
Some really interesting insights there. We’ll look forward to seeing the world-first next year!
And we’ll be back soon with another creative spotlight on one of our favourite illustrators. Keep an eye out!
In the meantime, we share some of the cool and creative stuff we spot over on our Twitter. Give us a follow here.