Obidike Okafor on the art of Lemi Ghariokwu
More than album covers
Lemi Ghariokwu’s creativity goes beyond just album covers, as it stretches to other media and has become a tool for championing his unrepentant pan-Africanist beliefs.
1. July 2013
Even though Lemi Ghariokwu has designed over 2,000 album covers locally and internationally in the last 39 years for legends like Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba that has led to an art thesis/project based on his sleeve designs at the Institute of Ethnology and African Studies in Mainz, Ghariokwu’s creativity goes beyond just album covers: It stretches to other media and has become a tool for championing his unrepentant pan-Africanist beliefs.
To celebrate Africa Day which actually marks the birth of Africa’s version of the UN (United Nations), the African Union (AU), Ghariokwu held an exhibition comprising his album covers (known and never seen before), icons from Africa and of African descent, the artists’ ideologies and of course an undying love for Fela.
The exhibition titled “Art’s Own Kind” is divided into three distinct collections. The first one titled “Vintage Lemi: Works on Paper” contains framed album covers and cartoons he has drawn, including a never before seen album cover he created for two time Grammy nominated Femi Kuti (Fela’s first son). The cover art which was for Femi Kuti’s album “Let’s Make it Happen” was rejected by the artist. Maybe the simplicity of the cover left Femi Kuti disappointed – who knows?
The second set of works were called “Axiomatic Expressions”. In these works, the artist takes the viewer through social re-engineering as he inspires them with art and words of wisdom from fellow pan-Africanists like Fela Kuti and Kwame Nkrumah. Two quotes that set my heart strings on continuous vibration in this collection include a quote by Fela who said to Ghariokwu, “According to the estimation of Africa’s riches, every black man should be a millionaire. Why are we so poor? It’s time to investigate”. The other was by Kwame Nkrumah who said, “Thought without practice is empty”.
The third collection called the Afropop art series is a corridor of portraits which includes images of heroes and perceived villains. In typical Pop art fashion made popular by artists like Andy Warhol, Ghariokwu’s Afro-Pop art splashes bright colours to create African subjects and adds distinct African patterns that breathe energy into the images of Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Chinua Achebe, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Che Guevara (who is Cuban and not black) and American President Barack Obama. I learnt that Che Guevara helped black people in the then Congo fight for independence, a story I had never heard of before I went to the exhibition, which was why Guevara was included in Ghariokwu’s list.
The total of 28 works grabs the attention of the viewer with why Africans always need to celebrate their own kind and it does this in mostly vibrant colours, wiping any worry Lemi Ghariokwu may have about not living his dream of being a monk or a philosopher. For the art and album covers of this social activist speak to the conscience in a loud, clear voice. I am a living witness, because the works spoke to me.
Obidike Okafor is a content consultant, freelance art journalist and documentary film maker based in Lagos.
“Art’s Own Kind. Lemi Ghariokwu”, Didi Museum, Victoria Island, Lagos, 25 May – 5 June 2013.