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Smoke Outside Please

Mustashrik is one of the featured artists in this year’s free Comics Festival exhibition which I curated entitled That’s Novel: Lifting Comics From The Page which wraps up next Saturday December 18 at the London Print Studio, 425 Harrow Road, London W10. There’s a last late-night opening and free event this Thursday 16 December, 6.30-8.30pm, spotlighting Girls’ Comics and featuring renowned comics scriptwriters Pat Mills & Jenny McDade plus Fay Dalton, winner of the Pickled Ink contest to find a young illustrator for Jenny’s new graphic novel project Party Girls. Here’s a profile of Mustashrik which I wrote for Art Review magazine, followed by a web-exclusive interview.

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1985 and based for now in London, Mustashrik is like the comics, films, art and design he makes, a true fusion comfortably bestriding multiple media and cross-cultural influences. From South Asian cinema comes a fascination for choreography, whether staged or improvised, and for that sudden removal from reality into a lavishly ornate escapist sequence of song and dance. From Japan comes a passion for the sensory overload of their masters of manga and anime, fired through exposure at age six or seven to Katsuhiro Otomo’s decadent dystopia Akira, as well as a later appreciation of the ambiguity and suggestion of authors Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro. And from much traveling and living all across Britain comes an early empathy with the plight of others from all stretches of life.

Julius Caesar

His first sustained graphic novel was an atypical tour-de-force modernisation of Julius Caesar in 2008 for SelfMadeHero’s Manga Shakespeare line. Let loose, his inky brushmarks dance across the pages, the coalescing figures acting in grand desert-like expanses, the imagery evoking recent memories of the Iraq war and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Next up in development, in honour of his favourite hero, the Japanese science fiction character Ultraman, is Big Man, an open-ended, cross-platform project. “It’s an unconventional love story in which a girl shows a giant creature how to dance to Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival.”

Big Man

His current personal focus is on Smoke Outside Please, a combination of documentary, music, photography and illustration, inspired by a brief period of debauchery and experiences of ‘smirting’ (smoking and flirting mashed together), a new sexual phenomenon sparked by the ban on indoor public smoking. Mustashrik explains, “It’s literally, picking someone out of a crowd, realising they smoke, waiting for the opportune moment, and then asking them for a light, even if you have your own lighter in your pocket. It’s opened up a whole new level of exploitation in the social scene and an even more evident divide between groups on nights out. You see hundreds of people outside bars smirting, and those who don’t, inside.” Non-smokers have been known to carry fag packets and lighters to get it on the act.

Now a casual smoker, Mustashrik’s own successes with smirting techniques and the people he encountered have inspired him to draw them and evolve them into characters in a stylised storyworld. Some have already been caught on camera in teaser trailers at, others are appearing in graphic form, for example in this issue’s strip, hazy with fumes and ashes, the women’s tresses, clothes, smoke and words sensuously billowing, forming an ephemeral sense of communal connection. His smirters’ latest incarnation fills a large digital composition as part of the exhibition That’s Novel: Lifting Comics Off The Page. Of all his chosen media, comics appeal to him for “the unbridled expression you can create. Anything your mind conjures up can appear on a page within minutes. With comics you are only the limit of your own constraints, and in that lies the beauty of it all.”

Mustashrik gave me some additional answers while I was preparing this article, which appear below:

Paul Gravett:
What, if any, are the influences of South Asian culture - classical and/or popular - on you and your work?

I think in my work in terms of South Asian influences, like the nature of its cinema, I’m fascinated by dance and choreography, be it highly staged or improvisational. In Asian cinema, song and dance play a strong and vital part of narrative transitions and expression, accentuated more so by a sudden removal from a reality, and into a lavishly staged sequence where there is no end to the level of decadence. I guess due to the level of poverty in that part of the world, escapism as fantastical as such a moment is exactly that kind of escapism people are looking for when watching a film. In my comics, films and art, although not necessarily apparent, I carry this with me when creating worlds and stories; where are we, who’s going to see this and then naturally where do I want to take them, be it an all-too-real reality, or one amazing journey. In consideration of all this, on a serious note, is an observational reaction to certain cultural constraints I’m aware of. Without causing offence, I’m very adamant about highlighting the importance and strength of women. Having grown up and lived in the West, but being of South East Asian birth, I’m very aware of the differences in both societies in how women are viewed and treated, especially when it comes to certain extremes. This is something I feel very strongly about. Always present in my works, as a result of subconscious thoughts, are independent female protagonists or supporting characters that are often the main spiritual driving force, because independence and freedom of choice is something worthy of everybody.

Julius Caesar

Where have you lived and travelled and how has this influenced your life and work?

I’ve lived up and down the stretch of the UK, which I guess has helped me mature very early on in my life and understand the plight of people from all stretches of life. Having spent the first stint of my early childhood in Sheffield and then a pivotal stint in Scotland, to moving back down to South East England, I can probably confidently say, with my recent move to London last year, I’ve lived in twenty plus homes. This essentially has now given me the urge to travel, and makes the experience for me easy. Having met many people along the way so far, and having made and lost friends, due to most of this happening before the online social networking revolution, means every moment for me now I see as precious. Even the simplest of moments such as helping someone with his or her shopping bags to me can be significant depending on where you reside emotionally and spiritually at that precise time. How it’s influenced my work is evident in the moments I convey with the characters that live in the different worlds of my artworks. Everyone is a character, everyone has a story, and many of my protagonists are an amalgamation or artistic representation of someone that is, or has been at some point, what I view as an important figure to me.

How is Japanese pop culture in all its types a formative inspiration to you? Any particular works or creators?

One word, Imagination. Imagination has no limits in Japanese culture, from pushing the boundaries of existential storytelling, to sensory overload and controversial lack of censorship, it seems there is no boundary for self-expression, no matter how bizarre. The first anime I was aware of watching was Akira, and I must have been about six or seven. It came on Channel Four television over here I think, my parents assuming it was a regular ‘cartoon’, let me watch it, but I didn’t just watch it, I experienced it, and that’s when the interest began. Everything Katushiro Otomo does has blown me away, from his book and anime Memories to Domu. In my eyes he is one of Japan’s greatest auteurs alongside Osamu Tezuka with his profound books Phoenix, Astro Boy and mystical Dororo, Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, to the wonders of Hayao Miyazaki’s works. Japanese artists just seem to be able to express something on a level of intelligence which is not patronising to a child watching it, and that I admire. A story is a story, art is art, and an individual takes from it what he may. They don’t always tell you much about a character to begin with, but you just accept this, because they are how they are. In other creative arenas the books of Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro, and artistically I’m a big fan of the historical woodcut print illustrations of Hokusai, and more contemporary the creations of Takeshi Murakami, with his evolutionary spin on Pop Art, Super Flat. The understanding of narrative ambiguity and suggestion is something I’ve learnt can be vital in storytelling, and that’s something I’ve learnt from Japan and nowhere else (not to say it doesn’t exist elsewhere).

Julius Caesar

Do you see your work as more global and hybrid than culture-specific?

Definitely, it’s a fusion melting pot of cross-cultural influences. It’s for sure not one thing, and equally as difficult to pin down which thing.

What decided your distinctive approach to adapting and illustrating Julius Caesar for SelfMadeHero? I see relations to the Iraq War for example.

Honestly, I just did what came to mind from immediately reading the scene, and having studied Julius Caesar in English I was already very familiar with Shakespeare’s play. Such a series of events needs a grand stage, so somewhere desert-like, with vast plains to enhance the ambient drama and deliberately isolate the action to being between the people. The crux about Julius Caesar as a play is it’s driven by the communication between the major players, not the action or battle around them, so in order to adapt it, you have to still make it interesting enough for people to hook onto and join the ride. Thus I knew the setting had to be grand, and there is no grander or more threatening a stage than that of the pains of war. Something which has ruined, and never bettered man, which I’m sure Shakespeare would agree too. As a play, Caesar could take place at any time, transposed to any war situation, with the overthrowing of any warlord/dictator/leader, it just so happens that the fallout of the events of Iraq was still so fresh at the time of discussion. From Iraq to the banking crisis, backstabbing, conspiracy, mutiny, love, loss, redemption, and solace, it’s all around us at any given point in time. I’d love to make my version of the story into a film or theatre performance someday.

In your broad array of media practices, what do you see as the pros and cons of comics as a business, a medium, and a vehicle of expression?

I think the real factor in regards to business in comics is what region of the world you are in and how original your voice as creator, storyteller, is. In my experience, especially in regards to the UK, the market is so small that I don’t really regard it as a successful business venture currently, and as a medium it can be hard to get your own idea published as everything is dictated by commerce. Whereas in France from what I can see/read/hear for example, the comics culture flourishes to the equal level of art, because it is art, and they understand that there. The difference between books and comic books is slight, so French comics can be regarded as literature classics, and many French bande dessinée artists/writers have been able and allowed to evolve from comics, a recent example being Joann Sfar, director of the recent bio-pic Gainsbourg. But despite this, comics have an ultimate saving grace, and that’s as a medium its unbridled expression that you can create. Anything your mind conjures up can appear on a page within a few minutes. With comics you are only the limit of your own constraints, and in that lays the beauty of it all.

Working also in advertising, how much of it is selling a product or selling your soul?

I’ve learnt a lot from advertising, and owe a lot to it these last three years. From my angle, it’s always been about convincingly selling a product with a sense of style, which comes from your own. My soul tries not to factor into it at all. I wouldn’t advise making advertising that personal. It’s a ruthless, cut-throat world, and honestly if your not tough enough, stay out, most of the time we don’t sleep. If you want to get personal, make a film or a piece of art. This is a different game.

Your other project in development, Big Man, taps into retro-manga/anime/TV robots and SF. What are you inspirations and aspirations for this?

Big Man is my love letter and homage to all things related to Japanese science fiction and so much more. Anchored by a giant hero called Big Man, who himself I’ve created in direct honour of one of my favourite hero characters, Ultraman. I’m of course, as with everything I try to create, putting my own personal spin on the genre by bringing a lot of myself into it, and to say again as little as possible for now, Big Man is essentially an unconventional love story, in which a girl shows him how to dance to Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I’ve got various cross-platform plans for Big Man that will hopefully expand and unravel over time over the years, as this is an ongoing project for me with no definite end.

Please explain the genesis and evolution of your Smoke Outside Please project and the Art Review strip itself.

The genesis of Smoke Outside Please came from the awareness of casual smoking, and social smokers, largely in the city, something I myself can confess too. It’s based around the new term ‘Smirting’ (flirting and smoking mashed together) which is in reference to the flirtatious act of asking someone for a light or cigarette, and not necessarily being a smoker. It’s literally, picking someone out of a crowd, realizing they smoke, waiting for the opportune moment, and then asking them for a light, even if you have your own lighter in your pocket. It’s opened up a whole new level of exploitation in the social scene. As a result there’s now an even more evident divide between social groups on nights out now, you see hundreds of people outside of bars ‘smirting’, and those who don’t inside. The flipside being that with the places my generation haunt, there’s less people inside. That’s how initially the art and characters of personal works came from, just by going out and having fun, and being inspired enough to draw them. Then Smoke Outside Please was born, evolved from the characters on a page inspired by a brief period of debauchery and hedonism to an independent film. Whether the strip in Art Review directly correlates to the finished film is something I’d like to keep vague for now, but essentially it’s the same stylised world. I don’t want to say too much about the film at this point in time.

Finally, tell me about the new Smoke Outside Please print you’ve just created for the That’s Novel exhibition at the London Print Studio.

The cigarette is used as a metaphor for breaking down the passage of events in a night that can ensue from the act of casual smirting, from beginning to end. I’ve used this format to break down the conventional comic book grid panels that read from left to right, into a single sequence of ‘boxes’, reading from bottom to top. It’s symbolic of a journey. So as you can see from the text, a simple question is asked and a response is given, thus the smirt begins, and then all kinds of debauchery and hedonism can ensue, leading to possibly you and one rather nonchalant looking girl, in a hat of course, disappearing the night away. Leaving you with one little zeitgeist nod to the social scene with an xoxo - a phrase common among my digital generation. It’s interesting on a social networking level, smirting is like a new kind of Facebook in that it has opened up a totally different form of socialising and information gathering. It’s the office water-cooler effect with added sex.

Smoke Outside Please print
created exclusively for the That’s Novel exhibition

Posted: December 12, 2010

This article was published in the December 2010 issue of Art Review magazine.


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That’s Novel
London Print Studio
until 18 December 2010

Making Julius Caesar

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Julius Caesar
adapted by
Richard Appignanesi
& Mustashrik