According to the lyrics of the late, great pioneering Afrobeat musician and cultural icon, Fela Kuti, ‘Music is the weapon of the future’. If that’s the case, then this month’s profile designer’s work is a laser cannon. There are very few artists and designers, whose work transcends merely being the superficial packaging of the music, and becomes the visual embodiment of it. And Lemi Ghariokwu, or Lemi G as he is often known is such an artist. As a pioneering sleeve designer in his homeland of Nigeria, he has created an enduring legacy of highly potent, and political visual statements that gave Fela’s music added power and impact. So let’s hear it from the man himself in his own words. Shoot Lemi G.
Lemi Ghariokwu, artist and record sleeve designer
What’s your background?
I’m a self-taught fine artist, graphic designer and illustrator. I did not receive formal training from an art school so I’m coming straight from my heart and soul through the streets into the arts. No degrees but I got pedigree! That’s my background.
Peter Okoh Patience Rhythm Band, front cover, 1973
How did you get started in your field of expertise?
Destiny is the key to my life and pre-destination unlocked when in 1974 I did my own version of a Fela Kuti cover as practice. A journalist saw my cover, was impressed and took me to meet Fela. Soon after I had the opportunity to do my first Fela cover, which received rave reviews and gave me instant recognition. I was then a teenager seeking my path in life and Fela pointed me in the right direction to become a professional record sleeve designer. In the early days, I used to be commissioned do live drawings at TV studios. My first ever cover design was for my uncle, Peter Okoh and his band, Patience Rhythm Dance Band for Decca Records in Africa, but unfortunately it was never published. So officially, my first published record cover was for an album called World Affairs by an artist called Tessy Allan. I’ve worked with many musicians all my life. I would have been a musician if it wasn’t for the Art.
Tessy Allen World Affairs, cover, 1974
What challenges did you face/overcome in getting into the industry and achieving your ambitions?
The first challenge was to school myself to acquire the skill to be very professional in my work. I checked out any arts and designs I came across, asked questions from experienced artists and designers, did short stints in three advertising agencies in a bid to overcome the challenges. As soon as I was ready, my association and eventual collaboration with Fela Kuti put me on a pedestal and a very good footing to achieve one of my ambitions as the pioneer of professional record sleeve designer in Nigeria. I’ve made a career spanning 40 years of this.
Who and/or What are your greatest inspirations and influences?
I’ve always been inspired by things around me; everyday movements of people, state of the nation and the world at large. My greatest inspirations and influences come from individuals who are advocates for equality and justice, contributors to the advancement of society and human progress and most especially facilitators and catalysts for positive change. Also, I fell in love with album sleeve design while at secondary school. The album ‘Woyaya’ by Osibisa was the first to catch my attention. Designed by the renowned British sleeve designer Roger Dean, I was inspired by his other works such as the logo and album artwork for groups like Yes. Back then, only in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine I could become a record sleeve designer too. I also loved the album cover artwork of the acclaimed p-funk, Parliament-Funkadelic cover artist, Pedro Bell. Many people have suggested to me that there is a strong similarity in our work.
What is your best piece of work or the project you are most proud of?
Well, I have many ‘best’ pieces of works! My mostly proud of project is the body of works of 26 album cover designs I did for Fela Kuti’s musical career. I’m very proud of the Fela Bus, a mural on wheels I did for the Fela On Broadway show. Being a part of the Kalakuta Museum project as the curator is also a shine!
Fela Kuti, Beasts of No Nation
What would be your dream job or project?
My dream project would be to have a platform on a TV reality show dedicated to discovering and nurturing talents in visual arts and design. This I believe will help to promote visual art and design as a laudable profession and encourage individuals born with artistic talents in my society.
Please name some people in your field that you believe deserve credit or recognition, and why.
Honestly I’m not sure I know anyone and that is sad, but let me explain. Things are different in Nigeria. When I started, I think I was the only one doing what I do. There were other artists, who worked for the likes of advertising agencies etc… as illustrators, but the few there were seem to have all disappeared. Nowadays, you have people who are not necessarily artists, but are technically-minded and computer literate, creating album cover designs. They tend to work from their own photography in cyber cafes, manipulating the images and creating the designs for many of the new breed of Afrobeat performers and recording artists. Frustratingly, they never seem to credit their own work on the sleeves so you never know who they are.
What’s your best piece of advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
My best advice to anyone is not to follow in someone else’s footsteps but to learn from their story. First and foremost, you need to find out who you are. Self-discovery and mastery is the key to life. Check out what you are really good at or what your strongest flair is. Work vigorously on developing that talent by honing your skills. Be consistent, principled and ambitious. May time and chance meet you at the point of your need for opportunity to shine. Good luck!
What’s next for you?
I keep working to remain relevant and very contemporary doing avant-garde works in a bid to consolidate my legacy. For 2015 I’m planning to publish my memoir and have a retrospective exhibition to mark my diamond jubilee.
For more information visit: http://lemighariokwu.wordpress.com
DISOBEDIENT OBJECTS. From Suffragette teapots to protest robots, this exhibition is the first to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change. It demonstrates how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design. V&A Museum, London. Exhibition runs until 1 February 2015.
For more info visit www.vam.ac.uk
AFRO-POLIS will be hosting alongside the Frieze Art fair, a 5 days experiential exhibition (15 – 19 Oct 2014) entitled – the African Renaissance. Held in and around Hoxton Square at various locations including the iconic former White Cube Gallery once the home of YBA Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. In addition to being able to see and buy art and design by some of the leading African artists and designers, The African Renaissance features an innovative and interactive set of activities, which include workshops, debates, panel discussions, keynote lectures, live performance, and themed dinner.
Click here for more information on purchasing tickets.
IMAGINARY POSSESSIONS: The first substantial presentation of his recent work at a U.S. museum by pioneering filmmaker, director, and theorist, John Akomfrah. ‘Imaginary Possessions’ presents three distinct films and a new commission that deftly excavate the fragmented identities of colonial subjects while challenging the received codes of cinematic representation. Runs until February 1st 2015 at the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum, East Lansing, Michigan 48823.
For more information visit http://broadmuseum.msu.edu
DESIGNING AFRICA: Exploring Provenance and Materiality interrogates two particular areas of design – visual communication and material exploration. Designing Africa showcases the work of visual artists Momodou Ceesay, Clari Green, Pwavidon Mathias and Brian Omolo with origin as the underpinning theme. How do we define where we come from? By communicating their origins, present, future and imagined states they redefine the identity of Africa through printmaking, graphic design and illustration.
For more information visit the African Artists’ Foundation website
THE TRINIDAD & TOBAGO FILM FESTIVAL (TTFF) 2014: Founded in 2006, the trinidad+tobago film festival (ttff) is an annual celebration of films from and about Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean and its diaspora. The Festival also screens films curated from contemporary world cinema. In addition, the ttff seeks to facilitate the growth of the Caribbean film industry by hosting workshops, panel discussions, seminars, conferences and networking opportunities. Festival runs 16 – 30 September.
For more information visit http://www.ttfilmfestival.com
If you have any forthcoming events that you would like to be considered for inclusion in this column, please do not hesitate to contact me by email at info at jon-daniel dot com.