by Tamara Attia
November 26, 2020
Mizuki Khoury (she/he/they) is a queer Montreal-based, Japanese and Lebanese artist and art student. Inspired by the giants of the art world like Warhol, Murakami, Kusama, Duchamp and Basquiat, her artistic style is characterized by impulsive brush strokes and a charm similar to the rawness of Neo-Expressionism. She likes Tokyo, fashion and libraries.

exit number five takes the name after an exit at the Meiji-Jingumae subway station, in Tokyo, that opens up to Harajuku, Mizuki's favourite place on earth.

Mizuki’s earliest memory was of her drawing with her mom.“For the biggest trunk of my life, it was mostly drawing and doodling, and I never took art that seriously. I always saw it as a hobby and never actually thought about pursuing art as a career.” Her brand name, exit number five, was created around July 2020, a few months after she started actively painting. The shift to actually pursue her artistic career was triggered by two main events, one being the moment she got fired from her job; something she considers to be a silver lining since it allowed her to realize she only really wanted to do art. The second one is a vivid dream she had of her as a painter exposing her art in a gallery in Tokyo around May 2019. Mizuki even recreated the painting which appeared in her dream, titled Boys Will Be Boys. She first started with painting and then decided to experiment with sculpture. “I make the figurines because it is what I know and what is most meaningful. I just started focusing on my me character once I realized how personal it felt.” The me character Mizuki is referring to is the black character we see on many of her pieces, mostly her recent ones. Considered to be a metaphorical form of self-portraiture, this character represents Mizuki as she knows herself.

Canton Tower
Canton Tower

Boys Will be Boys

With her paintings, Mizuki aims to tell a story. Without consciously focussing on any specific themes or subjects, she notes that most of her work ends up conveying a lot of identity messages, be it gender or sexual.

Mizuki: I came out fairly recently as a non-binary person and through my paintings, I was exploring my feelings toward it since I did not know how to cope with my gender dysphoria. It took me a long time to figure out that I am just not a girl and that is why I am feeling this way. Being queer too, there are numerous elements referring to what that process was like for me. In general, I feel like my art includes a lot of androgyny but also a bunch of masculinity and femininity.

Culture also holds a predominant place in Mizuki’s core values. She endears both her Japanese and Lebanese upbringing and esteems their representation in her work. Talking about her cultural background, Mizuki feels extremely connected to her asian heritage. Her first trip alone to Tokyo during the summer at the age of 16 was especially impactful since the fact that she was on her own has pushed her to figure things out for herself. “Solitude is important to me and I feel like my independence really showed through.” It is fair to say that her trip also impacted her artistic outlook because her encounters with various artists she used to look up to really inspired her to pursue art more seriously. What she mostly kept from that experience? “The memories,” she says. “I try to include as much of them in my paintings as possible. I idealize my trip a lot and I also feel like Tokyo is my home in that kind of way. My plan for next year is to move out there and start by studying the language. I really see myself living in that city. It is definitely not going to be easy and simple, but it is also definitely going to be rewarding”.

From my perception, each of your paintings feels like a journal entry. I also see a lot of recurring characters. Is that intentional?

Mizuki: It’s funny that you say that because it kind of is like a journal. My pieces are mostly stories about my life and I include a lot of people I know in them. It is only a matter of time until they realize it (laughs). There are indeed a lot of characters in my art but they do not always refer to a person. They can be ideas, places, or even periods of time. The first time I painted the yellow character with a mustache, in Hate U 2 Death, was with the intention of putting it to rest. I did not expect it to appear after that in many of my other paintings. I think closure depends over time. Sometimes, you reflect about memories, how they are associated with certain things, and you miss them, so you bring them back. Your views on different memories also change over time. Even if you have closure, you never really forget them, so they always come back. Therefore, in this instance, it perhaps was not really closure, but more like “this memory does not serve me anymore”.

Canton Tower

Hate U 2 Death

Although her art is often a reflection of her reality, Mizuki does include a lot of fiction in her work. “Some of my pieces are inspired by dreams. I do not seek meaning in them but if I find them interesting, I use them as ideas.” Despite the absence of navigation around fixed themes, Mizuki claims that everything she paints carries a specific meaning. “In terms of the narrative, I definitely have to pay attention to what I want to convey because it does not feel right to me to make a painting or a sculpture that has no meaning. That is why I don’t really do commissions anymore. It just felt so unnatural to work with something that somebody else requested when I’ve never experienced what they are asking for”.

As for her inspirations, Mizuki tends to romanticize a lot of mundane things, such as the Marunouchi metroline in Tokyo we can find in many of her paintings, represented by its logo.

Mizuki: A big part of my artistic process is romanticizing and analysing everything, and connecting to it. That is why it makes it so personal. I have a notebook that I bring everywhere. Before quarantine, I used to go to libraries and read a bunch of books on different topics, like anatomy or art history. I would stack them, take notes and even if I’d rarely go back to them, if something stuck with me, it would definitely show through. I also draw inspiration from quite a few writers and poets. I will always appropriate the meaning into what I can actually grasp. What I wish people saw in my art is that lyricalness and that kind of purity in what I am trying to say.

Mizuki defines her paintings as being melancholic, nostalgic, and very romantic even though they might not look like it at first glance. As a matter of fact, her approach to romance is definitely atypical. “Oftentimes, I like to focus on the ugly. I guess I play with irony when I put things that are supposed to be beautiful but alter them in a way to not make them as attractive as they used to be conventionally. Even if I romanticize, I will pull out the sides that are not traditionally and artistically appealing, and I think that is what makes them beautiful”.

Stefan Al

How to Disappear

Her vision also correlates with how she proceeds in the making of her pieces as she usually works with scrapped paper and wall paint. “One artist that truly inspires me is Andy Warhol and if you do know him, you know that he was obsessed with fame, celebrity, and beauty. Ironically, I feel like I have more of an opposite approach to that. I don't really like that kind of professional finish. It’s not that I don’t take my art seriously, but it’s more that if I take it too seriously, it’s just going to be paralysing. I admire the artists that are super authentic and true to themselves, like Prince, Lady Gaga, and Freddie Mercury, to name a few”. That is also why Mizuki almost never plans her paintings in advance, if only by sketching a rough draft or writing down title ideas. She prefers to jump right into her pieces, making them as raw and messy as she can.

Mizuki: There are elements that people can relate to and others that people are completely foreign to. The diversity of the things I put in my paintings gives a bigger option for people to associate with. It is always really surprising to me when people like my paintings. As the artist, I only see what I know from it. I feel like sometimes, there is not enough of that familiarity in art, but I definitely am not trying to make my paintings familiar for other people. It is just that feeling of connection in art that I think is lacking, mostly in paintings and sculptures. It is more rare to see a painting and say “That is so me,” which makes it trickier for me in a way to connect to my audience.

This train of thought led us to the subject of vulnerability and what it means to her to “put herself out there”. Mizuki sees vulnerability as a way to grow and learn more, to accept and forgive. “It is more than just being open about your feelings. I would say it is about being an easy target. If you receive a critique from somebody, positive or negative, it means that you had an impact on them. If you have an impact, you have power, and eventually with that power you can decide what you want to do with it. Any type of feedback means that I do have an impact, a voice, and I am seen”. 

Do you sometimes struggle with wanting to be seen, either feeling like you are being too open or not enough?

Mizuki: Since I have been putting up my art in public, I definitely have minimized the shock factor I am aiming for and made it more digestible, but I didn't even notice I was doing it. I do it mostly out of concern for the people that know me because my work can be quite bold and dramatic. I don’t want them to worry, but it is definitely easy to get over that. I feel like I am too open mostly when I am explaining my art, but even then, you learn how to talk about your art in that way. It is something really important to learn because it is part of how you present yourself. Most of the things I do paint about are things I am not able to express with words, so choosing my words can definitely be difficult. I know there are paintings I will never explain. For others, I have mixed feelings. It really depends on the piece because even if I do know what I am trying to put in my paintings, sometimes it is still hard for me to actually understand. I do it very intuitively, so the more I paint, the more I realize things. It’s like all of my pieces are all art of a puzzle.

Original Me Siamese Twins

Art is all and everything Mizuki has ever known and when asked about why she does what she does, Mizuki simply responds by saying there is nothing else she would rather do.

Mizuki: I know that a lot of people focus on being comfortable because of how society is built around capitalism and having security is indeed very central. Within the art community, there is still that idea that you can’t live off of your art. People I talk to are lacking that belief that you can be the next Banksy or Murakami. I feel like everyone has so much potential and talent when it comes to their own art, and I always encourage people to perfect it and be more comfortable with it. Lack of confidence and artist block are constant issues which deplete you from that kind of motivation of actually continuing because it can definitely be discouraging.

Naturally driven, MIzuki is not intimidated by those challenges. Aware that a good work ethic is essential to success, she is constantly working on making her own opportunities. “A lot of people say they were very lucky to make it but I feel like they still worked very hard to get those connections and nowadays, what is really important in pursuing an art career is networking. I usually just reach out to people myself because things are not going to come to you if you just sit back and wait for things to happen. I feel like I really sharpened that skill when I was in Tokyo.” In the future, Mizuki hopes to have the opportunity to merge her art with fashion, another subject of interest of hers. She also looks forward to collaborating with other artists and potentially incorporating her me character in every exit number five medium to come.

Pictures - From Mizuki Khoury (@exitnumberfive)
© 2020 Musée Nomade ConnectArt