While many like to dabble in several disciplines, it’s very rare that creatives actually keep up more than one practice. Stockholm-based Johanna Burai is one that does it with ease, however. A self-titled graphic designer and art director, a major part of her portfolio is taken up by satirical illustrations depicting the rich and famous, rendered in coloured pencil.
It’s a unique way of working, especially as her graphic design work is visually very different to her illustrative work. On how this developed, Johanna explains: “I would say that graphic design is my profession and illustration is my hobby, but graphic design is also my hobby so that’s not completely true. I started to draw just for fun, for myself, and now I think almost 50 per cent of the commissions I get are illustration work.”
Despite the fact that it’s what draws us to her work, Johanna adds: “My problem at the moment is that it makes my portfolio look a bit messy. But I guess it’s OK because variation is key in my work, I could never be stuck in one style or technique. They do feed into each other on an idea level but not at all in style.”
We last covered Johanna work in March of 2018 and it’s safe to say that it’s been a busy year or so for the graphic designer and illustrator. So busy, in fact, that she had to drop out of her master’s as she had so much on. On what ideas and themes have been interesting her most recently, she tells us: “I have been thinking a lot about social hierarchy and social media currency, as the mechanisms behind hype and popularity. For example Instagram’s excessive focus on popularity, how it can evolve a twisted perspective on relationships. How focusing on self-image goals instead of more compassionate goals leads people to feel competitive, depressed, and disconnected. I think the expression ‘Don’t believe the hype’ is more relevant than ever, at least for me.”
This often results in one-off illustrations of celebrities who fascinate Johanna for one reason or another, whether silly or serious. Take, for example, her piece Look Mom I Can Fly which sees rapper Travis Scott floating through a pink sunset, his daughter Stormi riding his back. “Is there a rapper with more energy than Travis Scott?” she asks. “I don’t think so. If you haven’t seen the Look Mom I Can Fly doc on Netflix do it!”
Other works are more politically charged, however, including an older work titled Can I Live? Johanna explains the context of the piece: “I made this illustration in 2016 after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I was listening to Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album and I got the idea from the hook on one of the songs called Can I live, where Jay repeatedly asks ‘Can I live?’.”
“I’ve always been a massive music fan. When I was little, I used to buy music magazines, cut out pictures of my idols and use them to make my own fanzines and collages,” Johanna explains. “In a way, I’m still doing that – I draw my idols.” In turn, most of Johanna’s ideas combine the message or lyric of a song with a current event. “Humour and politics are themes I often end up working with and the illustrations are drawn in crayon and pastel which has quite a childish look, the clash between the seriousness and softness are interesting to me.”
Johanna’s most recent illustrative work also sits in the world of music in the form of album artwork for Murkage Dave. A series of portraits of Murkage Dave and his collaborators on the album, they feature Johanna’s distinctive style – a mixture of photorealism and naivety.
“I wanted to build a dreamy world around Dave’s songs so I looked at a lot of classical surrealistic paintings for inspiration,” she outlines. “One of his first singles was You always ring me when I’m busy and I thought Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks was a good metaphor for that song. All the single artworks have quite a lot of details and stuff you can read into so when I did the album artwork I wanted to draw something more simple but yet powerful.” The result is the perfect example of how Johanna’s idiosyncratic style can work in a commercial context, bringing an entirely fresh aesthetic to the album artwork world.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.