She grew up almost a nomad, traveling with her parents to the different countries where their business was. Her schooling was an open minded one but even there she felt confined. An outlier, suspended and expelled she was too much of a child of nature even for a progressive school. Regular travel meant she had a feeling of nothing being constant, even down to household products consumed. But there was something that was always the same: her fixation with the wild. Meet Asher Jay, a creative conservationist and National Geographic Explorer, whose beautiful, poignant and breath-taking installations and art works in urban spaces like Times Square in New York and in social media, are opening our eyes to the threats of loosing wildlife species.
Tell me about your art
My campaigns are about raising public awareness about illicit trade in wildlife and they are particularly directed at markets where there is demand for such products. In China, I created four campaigns that I disseminated in collaboration with WildAid, Save the Elephants and the African Wildlife Foundation. . Blood Horn, Blood Ivory and the Pandas of Africa ran in magazines, on mass transport and bill boards. These campaigns went viral in China, especially the Pandas of Africa campaign which visualised elephants and rhinos as pandas in an Anime illustrative style. The idea came about when we were having breakfast with the African Wildlife Foundation team. They said they wished people in China would care about elephants as they care about pandas; animals that are iconic and inherent to the culture and place they are indigenous to. I realised we needed to bridge that connection. If China lost pandas they would lose a being they connect to as part of their identity. African nations face a similar identity loss if they lose elephants. So we did Pandas of Africa.
Blood Ivory, Asher Jay
In 2013 I created a campaign in partnership with March for Elephants that aired on Times Square in New York for a month, which ran 24/7. The most empowering aspect of this effort was that the project was crowd funded. It received 1.5 million views. The message of the campaign was that ivory lasts forever and so does extinction. You can see a link here.
Last year I created a Fabergé Egg for the Big Egg Hunt at the Rockefeller Center in New York. My egg was a composite image. I had created a mosaic of eyes as silent witness to climate change. The eyes were overlaid onto a satellite image of the Sandy Hurricane from NOAA.
Eyes are windows into worlds. I am obsessed with eyes because there is one on every square inch of our planet, whether human or wild, observing stories.
iStorm Egg, Asher Jay
I like doing collaborative efforts. I have come to trust the wisdom of the crowds. We as a collective aren’t as ignorant as we are made to believe. People just need to be given the right encouragement. In 2015 I worked with National Geographic Your Shot on an assignment I titled Eye Spy. In an effort to remove the storyteller from the narrative arc, I asked people to submit a sequence of three eyes: an eye open, the same eye closed, and what the eye is looking at. People submitted some truly compelling stories, including one which visualises the Aurora Borealis as the earth’s eye.
Inspired by Eye Spy’s success, I ran another online campaign, Aim For The Future against trophy hunting. The aim was to galvanise people towards photo-tourism rather than trophy-hunting.
Aim For The Future– Asher Jay
What inspirations do you bring to your art projects?
Some of my art work contains concepts and images that are very personal to me which I embed into layouts that pertain to the bigger picture. Asystole portrays a heart rate monitor’s screen, where the pulse line contains animals in its crests. The last form of the screen is human and it is detailed in red. The human has stepped away from the wild lifeline from which it has evolved, disregarding its origin story. In 2009 I witnessed my dad’s heart make it’s last electronic beeps. A simple instrument that measures something as fragile as the presence of life is emblazoned into the deepest recesses of my brain. Every time I see one, I come to value life and experience loss all at once. Life and death are inextricably and beautifully linked, they are not disconnected realities. I think we need to give ourselves the chance to be recycled, repurposed and upcycled as nutrients, into the earth, by the earth. Death should be a giving moment in a human life. The most important lesson we stand to learn from the wild is how effortlessly we can give back to life even in death.
Asystole, Asher Jay
How do people react to your work?
Protecting wildlife is about protecting humanity too. Protecting wild should never commence as an act against humanity. I always feel it is important to bring a personal dimension in my storytelling. Every time I talk about the wild I also talk about my personal journey and how I came to be me. A while back I gave a talk at a University and shared something about the loss of my dad. After my presentation people came to talk to me except one kid who was making eye contact but did not approach me. At the end I went to him and we started talking. He revealed his father had committed suicide a few weeks before and that he was still trying to work through his grief and pain. I gave him a hug and held him for a while. I listened, I told him what I had learned from loss and that I hoped for his own sake he would find a space to love and expand from again, despite the hurt and anger. Our internal landscape is reflected in the world around. We cannot help others, if we cannot resolve ourselves.
When did your love for conservation begin?
It was always part of my personality. Some people are just born that way: we just nurture. I have a high empathy quotient and tend to connect with those in need. This unfortunately also reflects in my personal life, where I end up dating causes at times!
My mum’s dad was a doctor so we had all these glass pill bottles around. We filled them up with dried insects, seeds and grains so we could be ready for any wild infant rescue in the neighbour hood. We took care of everything from chipmunks to parrots and finches. Having all these rescues at home attracted a lot of their predators too. It was a hilarious open house. If a crow or a falcon flew in my mum would simply dismiss it “Oh, she’s a curious one”.
I read a lot of David Attenborough, Gerald Durell and watched a lot of BBC documentaries. But I always came apart in tatters when I saw the destructive impact of human activities on wilderness, so my mother suggested, “perhaps you need to find a way to empower your voice through your other abilities and revisit this when you no longer feel victimised by the truths of our time”.
Tell me about your upbringing.
My mum always says, “Oh I had nothing to do with this one, this was definitely raised by wolves” because, our household was run by a pack of dogs, but also because I never fit in to any kind of system or structure. . I always got a secret rush out of not being identified as a boy or a girl, but as a genderless, non human creature.
I had a very free childhood where no identity or context was imposed on me. The greatest gift a parent can give a child is the freedom to discover their self, in their own time, on their own terms. If I wanted to be a bat and suck my juice boxes down with my fangs, then my parents let me at it: “Bats have no business in the house”, my mother would say. “Go be a bat in the back yard with the other bats. And don’t bite me or Leander (the dog)”. My mother would be watchful, never let me hurt myself but she seldom imposed definitions on me.
This has expanded my understanding of self. When I wake up, there is no limit to me, as I have no labels that separate me from anything on earth. I don’t think I am human. I don’t think I am a woman. I don’t experience labels until they are impressed upon me. The only time it happens is when I see how others perceive me. But those perceptions meld away the minute I leave their company. Mostly I am free and feral like a re-wilded Mustang. My personal freedom means nothing prevents me from feeling like a tree or a bird on any given day. I feel connected to every living being on earth.
I was also fortunate to have had parents who trusted me implicitly from the get go. When someone places that amount of trust and faith in you, you cannot help but behave with integrity and honour. Betrayal is one act I take utter issue with. Every time we poach or shoot a living being we betray the unconditional, unwavering trust they place on us as stewards of this life vessel, planet earth.
What is your approach to conservation?
I always look at the micro and then zoom out into the macro. Species exist within the contexts created by an ecosystem. When one species is lost it shifts the systems and alters the whole landscape. Losing elephants would change the presence of grasslands in Africa. They are called constant gardeners for good reason. But we stand to lose African elephants as species in 5 years, at the current rate of poaching. One every fifteen minutes.
We should not just be looking at isolated pockets of the wild, which are more susceptible to extinctions, but at connected, dynamic, wild networks. Animals thrive on networks just like humans and wild networks pre-date ones given rise to by humans, like the Internet. Imagine life without the Internet? That’s what it would be like without the wild, except we would be offline in a very real sense of the word. In preserving networks we do not end up with a handful of animals in what becomes a drive through zoo. Instead we end up with the whole system, with rebounding and thriving populations of flora and fauna.
Did you coin the term creative conservationist and what do you mean by that?
I had used it for a while but National Geographic made it my official title. They felt I needed a designation for what I do. They also gave me The Wild Creative as a hashtag, which I find pretty groovy.
I wanted to do something that brought all of my skills together, not just focus on a single ability and let other aspects of me devolve into hobbies. I wanted a broad title that gave me freedom and succinctly described everything I do. As a Creative Conservationist, I look at how to solve conservation issues creatively.
Being creative is not about being a painter or an artist though. It’s about how you approach problem solving. When my father died I had to take over his companies. I was 23, coming from fashion and marketing and overnight I had to fill in his shoes as managing director of two companies for a year and a half until I sold it. Handling the daily affairs of the business required active problem solving and lateral thinking, which is not any different from what I do today.
I have always followed my intuition and I don’t let fear and doubt hold me back. The same is true for my art. People tell me they can’t figure out my pipeline when they look at my art projects. I can’t ever tell you how and why I followed a certain sequence. I just have a dialogue with my piece and trust that it will tell me what it needs.
I like to take on projects that challenge me so that I can conquer my fears. Last year I did a lot of stand-up comedy! That’s absolutely unnerving! But I wanted to find a way of talking about serious topics like wildlife conservation with humour and wit. If you want to reach people outside of the choir, laughter is a great way to go.
How do you connect with the wild?
I balance my time between urban and wilderness areas. I recently got into skiing and free-diving to push myself into new ways of experiencing the earth.
I have a profound love for the planet. When I recently saw the Dolomites covered in snow bathed by the light of a full moon I wondered how we could ever take such magnificent, irreplaceable beauty for granted. Every ridge is meticulously manufactured by deep time, through reactions both expected and spontaneous. Nothing we create will come close to the scale and diversity of expressions produced by our planet.
When I was a child, my mum told me: , “If you want to grow up and be an artist, try not to get discouraged because nature will have done it better than you every time, every way possible. You will spend your hours merely trying to capture or emulate its brilliance and falling short of the complexity of creation found in wild.”
Think about why and how an African Grey came to look so different from a bird of paradise, and why it evolved to have the colours it does. Doesn’t it just swaddle you in magic and poetry? How can we not do everything to protect things that introduce such awe into our lives?
Nature is perfection. It is the Mona Lisa. No matter how efficiently we can sequence genomes to recreate that which we have eradicated, we will never be able to create its ability to be complex yet simple, plural yet singular. We need to protect what remains of it, because once gone, it is gone forever, and it is invaluable.
You use technology in your work. Talk to me about that.
I see technology in a positive and negative way. Yes, it enables global conversations, helps spread stories in an instant and empowers the voices of those who have been marginalized, but on the other hand we spend a lot of time in this virtual world disconnected from life happening right outside our windows. We have grown self-obsessed. It’s all about us and what we can do.
While we are welcoming sustainability and spirituality in the West, you can see African nations, India, Brazil and China now embracing development at the cost of their cultural and natural heritage.
In my art I want to create a moment of spiritual introspection, and emotional insight, that makes you as an individual connect to your whole story and context for being on this planet. You encompass everything that preceded you, why would you amputate yourself from such a rich lineage?
How do you decide on your next project and what are you working on at the moment?
I don’t choose my causes or campaigns. They choose me! My wild life leads me to wildlife!
I just finished creating a series of campaigns for National Geographic Channel’s Big Cat Week. I am now beginning work on fresh water turtles. I woke up one day with turtles on my brain, and I figured they need all the PR they can get, because the numbers in which they are being poached is as staggering as the Pangolin.
Just last week I was in Washington DC and my train was running late. I had missed the announcement, so I began chatting to this guy who had on a pair of cool glasses. It turned out he worked for the Audubon Society and wanted to enlist my skillset immediately. So come March I will be in South America with him, working on bird trafficking. That’s how my life happens.
Things are interconnected and interdependent and life needs us to be present and available. So I’m here now, and available to help. People often ask me for my 5 and 10 year plan. I barely have a 5 minute or 10 hour plan. My work is urgency driven, and I respond, address and move onto the next exigency. If you are where you are meant to be, it is the path of least resistance and you do what is asked of you without conflict.
What is happiness to you?
Unbridled freedom. It’s when there are no limits between me and the world. I experience that almost every day. I wake up with a song in my heart. But there are wild places in Africa and Wyoming where I have physically felt boundless! In wild I find myself in every form between the horizon and me.
What is the most underrated value?
Responsibility. We confuse responsibility with burden. Responsibility is a privilege. We should begin by taking responsibility for ourselves, our words and our actions. Sadly, today we swipe left on it. We treat careers, human beings and everything as disposable commodities. JayZ even did a song called “On To The Next One”.
What is the most overrated value?
Growth. Our idea of growth has been not about personal growth but about amassing wealth and physically occupying more space. Growth should not be at the expense of others. Growth needs to take into consideration collective wellbeing, because ultimately our well being is interconnected to that of others.
Do you have a life motto?
Live a life so true and whole as to be able to let go of it in a moment’s notice without regret. Embrace death and you will spark life when the next moment arrives. To live well, give unconditionally, love unabashedly, be present, breathe, help without judgment and never leave things unsaid or undone.
Asher’s picture by Dar Riser for Salon 718