Lemi Ghariokwu :: An Afrocentric Pop Artist



Emmanuel Sunday known as Lemi Ghariokwu was born in Agege, Lagos, in December 1955. He is a self taught artist, illustrator and graphic designer mainly renowned for providing many of the original cover images for the records of Fela Kuti. He borrowed his name from a comic character called Lemi Caution.

His father wanted him to be a mechanical engineer, so he attended Yaba College of Technology Secondary School, where he studied technical and science subjects. This is where his school attendance ends. He decided not to go to school but train himself to master his style of art. Although his formal academic journey ended there, education did not. He studied, constantly practised and developed his art skill alongside.

He grew up listening to reggae music and studying metaphysics. His maturity into self and social consciousness was facilitated by Fela Kuti, Peter Tosh, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Steve Biko & others. In the post colonial Nigeria, his afrocentric illustrations was one of the keys that unlocked the door for Fela and Afrika 70 to pass into Western audiences. Lemi illustrated twenty six of the sixty four albums Fela released during his career, helping the pan-africanism revolutionary iconography of the musician. And it started like this…

In early fall of 1974, the owner of a bar near Lemi’s house asked the young artist for a portrait of Bruce Lee, taken from the character of the film Enter the Dragon. Days before that Lemi made a painting inspired by Fela’s album ‘Roforofo Fight’ just to empower his portofolio.

Babatunde Harrison, a journalist and friend of Fela’s was a patron in the bar where Lemi did the Bruce Lee character. He saw the paintings and asked him to see more of his work. So, Lemi showed him his version of the ‘Roforofo Fight’ album cover and Babatunde asked Lemi for a portrait of Fela.

Lemi did the painting the same night and when Babatunde saw it, asked to follow him to Fela’s place. A dream came true. ‘Goddamn’ Fela said, while he was holding the painting on his hands. He wrote a check for 120 naira (the basic monetary unit of Nigeria), while young Lemi used to take 30 for his paintings. Lemi refused to take the money, so Fela cut out a piece of paper and wrote him out a free entry pass for all of his concerts.

On November 23, same year, police attacked and arrested Fela in “Kalakuta Republic”, Fela’s commune (not the known attack by 1000 armed soldiers, which result the death of Fela’s mother, who was an active and respected member of Nigeria’s earliest political party, but that’s another story). He was accused for “corruption of minors and possession of cannabis”. Lemi and Babatunde went to the hospital to see the condition of the singer. Inside the hospital room they started talking about some ideas Fela had, to write a song to satirize the police. The name of the song was ‘Alagbon Close’ (a classic Fela afrobeat lesson) and was the name of the street, a dead end actually, where the police station is in Ikoyi, the most affluent neighborhood of Lagos. Alagbon is a Yoruba word meaning coconut tree.

Fela asked Lemi to do the cover art. The 19 th year old artist grabbed the opportunity and began working feverishly. He cut out the Fela image from his painting of ‘Roforofo Fight’ and pasted into the new sleeve.

He thought,”I have to make a cover that celebrates Fela’s victory over the police”. The idea came. Fela is standing in front and protecting the “Kalakuta Republic”. A police patrol boat is getting overturned as a whale (the force of nature?) coming out of the water supporting Fela’s will for freedom while the chains break between his hand and the jail of the Alagbon street…

Lemi’s work involves a variety of styles, often using vibrant colors and individuated typefaces of his own design. His art is said to be rebellious, comical, political, even erotic but most of all he is a genius in pictorial narration, realism and iconicity. 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. He is famous for his captivating and intricate record sleeves designs and he never fails to give life to lyrics through his pictorial images. He also designed covers for Osita Osadebe, James Iroha, Bob Marley, Kris Okotie, Lucky Dube, Gilles Peterson, Miriam Makeba and about a hundred other musicians across the globe. In the early 1980s, he was the consulting album cover designer for Polygram records in Nigeria for 11 years. He has designed over 2000 album covers and facilitated art workshops abroad. During his solo exhibition in the UK in 2004 he was stuck the title “King of Covers”.

Artist Page: https://lemighariokwu.wordpress.com/