1155 Observatory Drive
“Lemi Ghariokwu and Fela Kuti: The master visual artist of a musical genius”
Visual Artist, Graphic Designer, Illustrator and Songwriter
Louise Durham Professor of English and Wole Soyinka Professor of the Humanities, UW-Madison
For decades, Lemi Ghariokwu designed and illustrated dozens of album covers for Fela Kuti, the popular militant political musician and originator of “Afrobeat” sound. As Fela’s reputation spread widely from the 1970s, Ghariokwu became the graphic face of a globally unique musical sound. The cover designs in themselves greatly popularized Afrobeat, as both the cover art and the sound matched each in earthiness, pithiness, political sharpness, irresistible humor, and satiric storytelling sprawl. Across continents, musicians continue to seek out Ghariokwu for his accomplished capacity to transform sound to popular visual image.
This conversation is a wide-ranging look at Ghariokwu’s art, his working process from sound to image, his tumultuous relationship with Fela at the Afrika Shrine, and his post-Fela work and fame, all in the context of Nigerian and African popular music.
Lemi Ghariokwu is a self-taught Nigerian Visual Artist, Graphic Designer, Illustrator, and Songwriter. He is most renowned for many of his original cover art for Nigerian music legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His work involves a variety of styles, often using vibrant colours and individuated typefaces of his own design. This serves a consciously integrated meta-textual function. One would 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. 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 is also a member of Artists Rights Society, New York. He is surely one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. In June 2010 he successfully branded FELA-BUS, a marketing mural-on-wheels for the producers of the hit Broadway musical “FELA!” in New York. He also designed the poster for “FINDING FELA”, a documentary which was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014. Ghariokwu is very contemporary and constantly doing avant-garde works. He exhibits and holds workshops around the globe with the aim of leaving a lasting legacy in his own art style branded – ‘Afro Art Beat’!
Tejumola Olaniyan is Louise Durham Professor of English and Wole Soyinka Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published widely on African and African diaspora literary and cultural studies. His book on Fela Kuti, Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Music, contains a section on Lemi Ghariokwu’s work. His encyclopedia in progress on African political cartoons is here, http://africacartoons.com/, already the most comprehensive digital resource of its kind.
“I designed the Yellow Fever cover in 1976. The song is an admonition to African women who are fond of using bleaching creams to lighten their dark skin tone, and I did use a model to express visually what Fela has orally illustrated in the song. Points of emphasis include the bad effect the bleach has on the face and bum. My life model was a girl named Kokor who was a member of the household at Kalakuta Republic. I decided it was going to be a straight-in-your-face image of misinformed African beauty. Fela had already expressed disgust at the belief that skin lightening enhances African beauty. I showcased a typical ‘offending’ cream in the top-left corner of my cover art. ‘Soyoyo Cream Skin Bleacher’ was actually my own creation. The word soyoyo is a Yoruba expression for ‘bright and glow’! I painted in the price tag of 40 naira which was high end for a cream, and yet so harmful to beauty and the psyche of African women. Fela reacted very positively when I submitted this cover for his approval and in his characteristic manner said glowingly ‘Goddamn!’, wittily just to round up.”