Feb 2, 2011
Ghariokwu Lemi: The artist of Fela's covers
Lemi, also called the inventor of ‘Lagos Afro Pop Art’, was born in Lagos in 1955 and has always had a keen interest in art. He had no formal training, but his mother was artistic, as she used to weave and trace drawings, and his sister also used to draw, but never took it seriously.
Lemi says he used to paint Mickey and other cartoons when he was a kid and this shows in his style: a cross between illustration and cartoon, his album jackets displaying a diverse narrative pattern which actually tells the story about the social issues the lyrics of the songs approach. Lemi designed 26 album sleeves for Fela over 19 years. But how did he get to meet the king of Afrobeat?
In 1974, he became friends with Fela through an acquaintanceship with the journalist Babatunde Harrison, who has seen a drawing of Lemi’s in a bar they both used to go to. He asked Lemi to do a portrait of Fela and then gave it to him. The musician was impressed and tried to give Lemi money for it, but he refused it and instead got a pass for all of Fela’s shows.
This was the year of the naming of Kalakuta Republic, so Lemi started frequenting the place and assimilating the ideology, already having a Pan-Africanist mindframe: ‘I spent my life at the Shrine. I worked alone. I did my drawings there’, said Lemi. He was the YAP (Young African Pioneers) news editor, designing 2 cartoons a week (one colour, one black & white) depicting and criticizing what happened over the week, as the organization also used to make ‘subversive’ posters which were banned in 1977.
Ghariokwu Lemi, is a self taught Nigerian fine artist, graphic designer, Illustrator and songwriter, well known for his captivating and intricate record sleeves. He is best known for creating the cover art work for many of Fela Kuti's records. He has also designed the cover of Cassava Republic's republication of Fela: this Bitch of a Life - the authorised biography of Fela Kuti.
His work involves a variety of styles, often using vibrant colours and unique typefaces of his own design. Lemi has designed more than 2,000 album covers in the last 36 years, including covers for Bob Marley, E. T. Mensah, Osita Osadebe, Mandators, Orits Williki, Gilles Peterson, Sony Okosuns, Oliver De Coque, Miriam Makeba, Lucky Dube, Antibalas, Akoya Afrobeat, Dele Sosimi, Tony Tetuila, Eedris Abdulkareem, 2face Idibia...etc.
You might say his art is rebellion, comical, political, even erotic but most of all he is a genius in pictorial narration. Observer Music Magazine (Guardian, UK) called him “King of Covers” in 2004.
Many of Ghariokwu's cover images echo and sometimes comment on the work and politics of the recordings that they accompany, serving a consciously integrated meta-textual function. Ghariokwu's approach to his work with Kuti involved listening to and digesting the music and then expressing his reaction in his paintings, design and comments which provide a high level of detail on the many album covers he delivered.
Lemi's relationship with Fela Kuti was very cordial. Fela gave Lemi total freedom with his work and thoughts to the level that he just did as he pleased, albeit responsibly, with how and what he wanted to express. Lemi had the rare privilege of putting his photograph and comments on some of the covers and was treated like a son, friend, adviser and comrade by the Afrobeat legend.
Ghariokwu's work has attracted much attention in the West and is the subject of various retrospective exhibitions. He is on Phaidon Press’ list of 100 emerging and influential graphic designers in the world. His painting Anoda Sistem, created in 2002, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA). He holds a dual lifetime membership of the museum.
Lemi Ghariokwu is surely one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. Art lovers who wanted to meet this amazing character travelled far and wide to meet him. Professor Wolfgang Bender from Mainz University, Germany was so intrigued with Ghariokwu’s style of art he created a Art Project/Thesis at the Institute for Ethnology and African Studies for his students.
In July 2003, he participated in "BLACK PRESIDENT: THE ART AND THE LEGACY OF FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI" in New York, contributing 13 pieces of work all originals. On this trip, the President of MTV, commissioned Ghariokwu to paint his first painting on American soil, “EVERYBODY’S GOTTA BE SOMEBODY” which then inspired film maker Aaron Koenigsberg to follow Ghariokwu around New York and document the trip.
Ghariokwu is constantly exhibiting and holding workshops around the globe: he sees the world as his oyster and aims to leave a lasting legacy in his own style of art.
Wow! Goddammit!" Fela Anikulapo Kuti was reported to have shouted when he first saw his work.This online interview was with the Nigerian artist and illustrator Lemi Ghariokwu most renowned for the album covers and sleeves designs especially for the music legend Fela Kuti.
That was awesome! I remember having a chat with you sometime in 2005 at the London Barbican during a Fela exhibition programme. You were quite peeved at that time that such a show could be organized without you being invited. Do you still feel that way ? And I am curious to learn how the organisers reacted.
Wow, the Barbican thing is gone into antiquity by now! Yes true, I was peeved then and my manager advised I withdraw my works from the Black President tour. The organizers didn‘t find it funny after I did and I had to face the backlash of my action for a while, you know. I learnt some lessons from that, surely.
Who and what would you consider the greatest influence to your life and art?
Everyday movement of people, contributions and impact of the works of great leaders of thoughts garnished with my own rationale greatly influence my life and Art. I was born with my Pan-African consciousness and it was fortuitous to get to learn about Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and to meet Fela Kuti and work with him and get to meet and admire Peter Tosh. I have influences from all those mentioned and maybe Fela has inspired me more directly having had the great opportunity to have interacted with him one on one. As for influence, it doesn’t run too deep with me because I’m a resolute and always have my own way of life and strong views. People a lot of times tend to miscontrue what influence means. Been particular sometimes misleads. For example long before I started my art career, I loved and greatly admired the cover art of Roger Dean, a British artist who designed the logo and covers for YES, a rock group and OSIBISA, an African pop group. But to this day, I have never been influenced by my love and respect for Roger Dean’s cover art! Then listen to this. I remember seeing the cover of Parliament’s Funkadelia album in the early seventies and loving it and never got to know the artist’s name until about 30 years later. And interestingly some reviewers say my style seem similar. Is that what you call influence? I have actually answered your question first time, but it seem you want some juice!!! [laughs]
How separate are you from your art?
Separate just enough to keep my sanity, remain focused and not become bohemian! My art is my life and my life is my art. Yes my art expresses my life, dreams, hopes and aspirations or the very lack of it all.
How much have you learned from other artists?
I have learned a thing or two from other artists as much as to the degree of how I love their works. As you may know my style is eclectic. This is because I learnt from observations and never underwent formal training. I learnt my bits from here and there and added all that to my own originality.
What would you consider the biggest mistake you have ever made?
I don’t believe in biggest mistake or regret or any of that sort of thing. Life is a continuum and every mistake is a lesson learnt in life and I take all with an equal pinch of salt. I don’t acknowledge any regrets whatsoever.
What message are you trying to pass to people through your art?
My message is for everyone to discover their inherent qualities and harness whatever gifts and talents they have been endowed with. As for Africans, we need to rediscover our lost heritage and emancipate our selves from mental slavery, This is what I mean about self discovery and mental liberation.
Ghariokwu Lemi in Ghana
Album sleeve illustrator, Ghariokwu Lemi made a return to Ghana after 33yrs of his last visit with late Afro beat King Fela Anikulakpo Kuti in 1976. With his deft fingers, he singularly designed 26 cover sleeves out of Fela’s discography of about 70 records that were produced. To him that feat was his call to fame comfortably strapped to Fela’s progress, starting with the “alagbon close” album that was released in December 1974. At the time, he was only 18yrs and the love story between him and the man, whose name “Anikulakpo” means death in my pocket, begun.
"Those works specifically helped to brand Fela as a rebel, a rebel leader, a revolutionary, political activist, a humanitarian and otherwise,” Lemi said in his introductory remarks at the Alliance Francais Arts Exhibition Gallery in Accra to showcase his artworks as part of his world tour programme, the last place before making it to Accra was the in UK where he also exhibited at the Bass Festival 09 in June.
The exhibition in Accra was a prelude to an afrobeat musical concert dubbed “AFROBITTEN” organized under the auspices of the French Embassy in Ghana, which featured Wunmi(a former backup vocalist for Fela), Ayetoro Band (put together by Nigerian composer and also former pianist for Fela, Funsho Ogundipe) and Atongo Zimba(a Ghanaian musician who also spent 4yrs studying music in Fela’s shrine).
At the Arts exhibition gallery, Lemi was poised to share his experiences and interact with Ghanaians and expatriates who had come to admire his works and also to hear stories about Fela; a lecture he said he was ready to give for 5hrs running non-stop for anyone interested.
He also recollected how he became an instant star in Nigeria, “for the first time in Nigeria, after the press reviewed Fela’s music, they also reviewed the album cover and I became an instant star.”
Ghariokwu Lemi has a variegated style of painting; laying out a selection of his portfolio of designs in Accra, one would have easily suggested that those pieces of art works on display were done by different illustrators. Interestingly the 53yr old man started his profession as an album sleeve illustrator in 1973 by self-tuition, researching, asking questions, trying out new techniques and blueprints he encountered. He has been able to develop this eclectic style without attending any arts institution. Since then the humble and self-made man has gone on to design over 2000 album covers both in Nigeria and internationally till date.
Upon invitation by pidgin music rapper, Wanlov the Kobolor, Ghariokwu Lemi reappeared in Ghana with fond memories and feeling at home. Then living in New Jersey, Kobolor sought after Lemi’s services via email on completion of his afro-beat inspired debut album, Green Card, which tells the thoughts of an immigrant in the United States.
Indeed in 2007, after meeting up with Kobolor in New York at “Fela-bration”, the green card album sleeve illustration became the latest addition to his works for a Ghanaian musician after designing for the late King of Highlife E.T Mensah, Bunzu Soundz, and Hedzelo Sounds (in 1976 for the acclaimed Ghanaian music producer, Faisal Helwani, who passed away in 2008). Ghariokwu Lemi told the AficanCourier that he’s currently working on the album cover sleeve for Yabba Funk, another Ghanaian group based in the UK.
Before leaving Accra for lagos, Lemi did not hide his admiration and respect for Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah, whose Centenary celebration is currently underway.
“Kwame Nkrumah laid a strong foundation for Ghana and it can never be completely scattered, I hope all African leaders learn from this great man”, he said giving the assurance to return more often to interact with young people as an effort to exchange knowledge.
In praising the country, he began with an advise and a wish, “Ghana, keep on doing what you’re doing, you’re a beacon light in West Africa”, he said,” you’re a good example to follow, I wish my country Nigeria will follow, because positivity, genuine awareness, integrity and consciousness towards whatever we do is a very vital fibre for human production and development.
Visit as well: ghariokwulemiart.com