Sana Nasir: The Karachi Graphic Designer Creating Visual Landscapes For Music Festivals

Image credit: Tonje Thilesen

“My inspiration for this year took me back to my Sony Walkman days. When you had shelves lined with cassettes; when listening to a song on repeat meant rewinding back in time to just before the pause; when mix tapes were a thing and you’d scrawl playlists on their covers; when you’d tighten loose tape with pencils; when you’d discover and memorise bonus lyrics in the fold out album covers. There was a lot of DIY intent and construction involved to all of that, much like this festival.”

That’s the thing about Sana Nasir’s work; it’s not just art, it’s a story. It’s the liner notes to a track you may not remember, it’s a place you’ve been to but have kind of forgotten. To say it’s nostalgic means you’ve been there, but then one look at her work says you probably haven’t and maybe never will. But it still feels familiar, like something you’ve known.

A graphic designer by trade, the Karachi native is a bit of a cause célèbre in the industry. Having won international awards for her typography, visualised the many sonic excursions of Karachi’s indie scene, been featured in everything from Vice to a host of local publications and on top of all of that, is the creative director of not one but two music festivals: Lahore Music Meet (LMM) and Sine Valley.

First, for Sine Valley, an experimental music festival in Nepal and now for LMM; two years running, Sana has created a new niche for herself – giving festivals their ‘look’. Whilst not new to Pakistan, music festivals in the country are most definitely in single digits and looking for someone to revamp yours in its sophomore year isn’t something you just find in your rolodex.

For the founders of LMM, a curated and bespoke indie festival, preserving the uniqueness of their event was key, as co-founder Natasha Noorani explained, “There’s a lot of research that goes into the design for LMM because while we are a music festival, we also want to use this space to project a uniquely Pakistani visual identity.”

For Noorani and her team, finding someone who could do just that turned out to be a lot easier than expected as their answer was just a city away. Thanks to her extensive work with Karachi musicians like Alien Panda Jury, Sana’s work was widely known; putting her on their radar and inviting the artist to participate in the festival’s first gallery in 2015 sealed the deal.

Sana’s brief for LMM was simple: whatever the design, it had to have a “’Made in Pakistan” feel which she readily took on: “I thought this was my chance to experiment and see if I could really structure a narrative based design for something that works on multiple planes. I hadn’t seen any examples of this locally so I had to make it up as I went along, hoping that it would work out!”

Having become “obsessed” with storytelling through design, Sana’s earlier work for Sine Valley, for which she created a whole mythos, helped hone this ‘style’ for LMM. But for Sana, the process didn’t begin on canvas, instead, she took to writing, the way most stories do. “The first thing I do is write – a LOT! Things that make sense, incomplete ideas, themes, abstract feelings, anything that comes to my mind when I think of the festival”.

This, along with doodles slowly formed the groundwork for what will become the festival’s ‘look’ or as Noorani puts it, the “visual landscape”.

Elaborating on her process, Sana stresses the need to be “incredibly interested” in what she’s doing, adding that “if I feel something’s not right or missing and won’t translate into the festival’s ideology well, I trash it. I have created an entire body of artwork only to scrap it and start from scratch again.”

Image courtesy of Sana Nasir

But for the artist, it’s not just about being ‘ideologically’ true to her work, she’s also quite exacting, being very particular to avoid that graphic designer short cut of copy/paste. This is perhaps why LMM settled on anointing her creative director emeritus, Noorani zeroing in: “As opposed to just copy pasting elements from festivals abroad or general design trends, Sana masterfully creates these visual landscapes that complement the festival while keeping it local.”

For LMM 2017, it was all about matchboxes (with commemorative matchboxes to boot), while 2018 celebrated the erstwhile and humble cassette (also with commemorative cassettes as invites). Though firmly residing in its obsolescence, the cassette as nostalgic gold struck a particular chord for Sana for whom it is a “timeless” symbol: “the first artwork for LMM18 shows an abandoned cassette that has been reclaimed by nature. I found it poetic and a reflection of our times; music as part of nature, technology as part of something organic, the audio cassette as an evolving object in our lives, still hanging around unable to be deleted as easily as a digital playlist.”

An exemplar of this year’s designs and a personal favourite is a throwback vision: a Glaser-esque sky gently buffets cassettes as kites as spectators look to an intrepid PIA jet taking flight, all quietly blanketed in Ben-Day dots. At first blush, the image is bitter sweet, harkening back to a time when Basant (a local kite festival) was actually allowed in the city and the national carrier wasn’t on its last legs. But the image doesn’t just evoke a sense of something lost, again, it’s a reverie, a summer in 89 perhaps. And it’s this evocative mix wedded to music, the community and people that typifies LMM’s look, with Sana concluding:

“All the imagery revolves around relatable icons and people who love music. There are few things more humble and lovingly crafted than the homemade mixtape and that is the basis for what I believe Lahore Music Meet stands for.”

written by Rahim Khan

NEWS - 05. September 2018   CITY - Karachi

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