Anu Ambasna’s freeform creative practice mixes art and music

The DJ and artist talks to us about her wobbly style, losing and rediscovering her love of creating, and bringing together a decade of work in her new zine, I’m Not Busy but I’m Not Free

Anu Ambasna’s illustrated universe is filled with all manner of characters. There are putty-like personalities that look a bit like high functioning babies, or people who are the object of playful derision, like the slurring drunk guy who barks a track request at the DJ. And don’t be surprised if you spy some faces embedded in toilet seats or egg yolks. But there’s also room for earnestness, whether in her charming homages to friends and family, or in illustrated new year’s resolutions that feel like a sincere guide to managing life.

These wobbly, personality-filled pieces are one string to Ambasna’s bow. The London-based artist is also a DJ and NTS radio presenter, and these various outlets have come together to form a symbiotic relationship. “For me, music and art have always existed alongside each other,” she says.

Healthy event poster, 2021
Artwork for London collective Daytimers compilation

“I have a big love for the way that visual art can be used as an extension of a person’s musicality and vice versa,” she says. “Through my radio show, I’ve been able to combine my love for music and art in a way that feels very special to me. Listening to music and creating artwork around it allows me to have a different kind of appreciation for the music itself – it allows me to build my own world around songs, albums and sounds.” Alongside the unique illustrations she makes to promote her own radio shows, she’s also been commissioned for record sleeve designs, and promotions for the likes of BBC 6 Music.

As a teenager she wanted to be a fashion illustrator but grew jaded by continually “drawing the same type of bodies” as well as the lack of representation in fashion, including where it intersected with illustration. She also didn’t get on too well at art college. “My work has always been as strange as it is now, which in the past hasn’t gone down well in educational spaces, so I dropped out of art college after a tumultuous year,” she says. “That experience left me feeling pretty shit about my craft and I decided to focus on the music side of things, through my radio shows and working at a record label.

“In the past two years, I’ve really reignited my love for art and creating – I feel like I’m an excited kid who’s discovering this form of expression for the first time again,” she says. More recently she’s taught herself digital illustration, all while “retaining that wobbly style”, however the trace of drawing by hand still wins in her book.

“I like doing my own ‘realistic’ drawings that are very true to the way I observe things – which is seeing humour in mundane objects or situations,” she explains. “I’m a true introvert who spends a lot of time alone and I also have a vivid imagination – so my work really shows you what’s in the weirdest depths of my brain.” Projects with a more serious tone – an illustration to accompany an article on racism, for example – involve exercising restraint. “My default style is playful, so more serious commissions can be a bit of challenge (in a good way!) but details like colour allow me to tone down the playful aspect of my work.”

Comics have become a central part of her practice, including her recent long-form story Corporate Fatigue, which muses on the 9-5 life. It’s a format she’s loved from an early age but that she feels is an overlooked art.

Ideas for her comics and illustrations often come from “silly conversations” with friends, which she’ll jot down and refer back to. The title of her new self-published zine was also spawned from something a friend said. “We were talking about how we’re always busy, just chilling at home alone and how it’s our favourite time. She said ‘I’m not busy, but I’m not free’, I noted it down and here we are!”

Corporate Fatigue comic
Yoga comic strip from 2020

Bringing together ten years of work, the publication sees Ambasna come full circle, having made her first zine aged 15. Now, after a “transformative year” filled with personal achievements, she was eager to produce something tangible and less ephemeral for both herself and her readers, who she hopes will be able to glean “all of the intricate details” of her work, and have “something that can be kept forever”.

“There’s a lot of work in it that was created when I was in a not-so-good place, so putting it all in this zine is helping me to create a new feeling from it, which feels really positive and cathartic,” she explains. “There’s a lot of fun work in it, focusing on themes of music, club culture and just general silliness. It features dicks and drug use, so just a warning – it’s NSFW!”

I’m Not Busy but I’m Not Free is available online here;