M. Jose's Body Horror & Folklore Art Is A Hauntingly Beautiful Subversion Of Tradition

With horror as their overarching driving force, Mia Jose’s illustrations also explore gender, caste, body experiences and South Indian heritage.
With horror as their overarching driving force, Mia Jose’s illustrations also explore gender, caste, body experiences and South Indian heritage.Mia Jose

I’ve always held horror and beauty on the same pedestal like two distinct entities in equilibrium on the beam balance of art and life. A deformed monster from a Gustave Doré painting can be as visually arresting as a beautiful Raphaelite angel. Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “Without imagination, there’s no horror.” Human imagination is a limitless conduit for horror and it manifests through varied mediums like literature, painting, and cinema. While horror comes in several forms, nothing is quite more terrifying and visually appealing than the ones that resemble the human form.

These were the thoughts swirling around my head when I first viewed Kerala-born non-binary illustrator and comic artist Mia Jose’s works. In their diverse treatment of horror, it is their depictions of the human form that hit closest to home for me. More often than not, their figures transcend the earthly realm and tap into the supernatural. Their characters are created from a concoction of indigenous folk tales about the spectral and the fear of the unknown that lies in the depths of every human mind. When we read or listen to horror folk tales, especially as children, our unique imaginations create different portrayals of what those ghosts might look like. Jose’s illustrations add flesh and blood to those imaginary demons. With horror as their overarching driving force, Jose’s illustrations also explore gender, caste, body experiences and South Indian heritage.

With horror as their overarching driving force, Mia Jose’s illustrations also explore gender, caste, body experiences and South Indian heritage.
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In a quick, candid interview with Homegrown, M Jose delved deep into their creative practice.

Can you walk me through your typical workflow from conceptualization to final output when starting a new digital illustration? Specifically, I'm curious about how you generate ideas, choose color palettes, select digital tools, and refine your work to achieve your desired outcome. Additionally, are there any particular techniques or strategies you find particularly effective in maintaining creativity and overcoming challenges throughout the process?

While I don’t really follow a singular workflow for my pieces, it usually starts with a big paper notebook I keep at my deskside. I know it’s cliche to say that there's no strict source for ideas, but I gather seeds from my physical experiences throughout the day, the less physical ones while dreaming, and from conversations with people around me, including my therapist. This makes that sketchbook quite crucial for me to always have on me - though I do most of the actual work on my drawing tablet. There’s something about the friction and skin-feel offered by paper and pen that really helps get the visual composition right.

Once I have the concept sketch down on paper, it’s onto the drawing tablet. When I started out with digital drawing, I used to hate how smooth the lines looked. It was also around this time that my autoimmune condition started manifesting itself and I had to tighten my grip around my pen to make sure it moved the way I wanted it to. However, I found that the less I tried to force the lines and instead leaned into the way my hands moved — the little tremors and irregularities making their way into my work itself — the closer I felt to the characters I was portraying. That’s when I started using this technique consistently with skin details. In a way, I'm coding my own body quirks into the bodies of my characters. This was a turning point for my work, as it helped me look even deeper into the physical experiences of people, and how our turbulent insides rise up to our skins and mark us on the outside.

At this point in my process (when the sketch itself is done for the most part), I usually zero in on a couple of colours to be prominent across the work. From there, it’s always a process of throwing different companion colors at the wall to see what sticks. This is usually the most time-consuming part of my process as well, but not one that I find wasteful as I also learn the most during this stage.

An illustration titled 'Do Wings Help Hide Your Skin Better'
An illustration titled 'Do Wings Help Hide Your Skin Better'Mia Jose
An illustration titled 'Thirst'
An illustration titled 'Thirst'Mia Jose

I’ve observed that your work has distinct elements of horror and folklore. Can you please expand upon these themes in your work and what are your other sources of inspiration for creating such unique characters?

As for the themes of horror and folklore, as far back as I can remember, I found myself drawn to the supernatural, the horrific and the traditionally grotesque. Maybe it was a search for answers more interesting than what my immediate reality offered or a fascination for elements that thrived outside the norms defined by society around me, but I devoured all of it. Some of my first memories are of my grandmom narrating to me the folk stories and legends around her hometown in Kottayam, in Kerala — which I also drew from to create my 2020 series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'. Whatever the reason for my childhood fixations, I have now come to understand the genre better, especially in terms of what it says about the people writing it and who it’s written for.

Horror and folklore is very contextual and often marks what the society of a time and place deem to be outside its acceptable scope — thereby raising loud sirens at how you’re not supposed to be, while simultaneously holding up a mirror to that society. For this very reason, people on the margins have always found companionship in the ‘monsters’ created by horror.

We’re now in the era of subversion, where we’re taking back the term and leaning into the aesthetic. By using the aesthetics of horror and folktales to subvert the traditionally laid expectations, this forces the viewer to interrogate the original context in which they saw them.

In my current series of personal work, I’m using the device of body horror to force conversations — both in myself and the audience — about our demands of the ‘ideal’ from our bodies and how we react when those demands are not met by it.

From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'Mia Jose
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'Mia Jose
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'Mia Jose
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'
From the series, 'Ghosts of Kerala'Mia Jose

Check out more of Mia Jose's illustrations here.

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