Lemi Ghariokwu

Power, Timeless

Fela Kuti is a revolutionary and permanent voice, locally representing Nigeria and West Africa in the middle of the 20th century, but globally too he has become a figure of rebellion and power. His music has continued to be reproduced, covered, and loved throughout the years, influencing the music world still. However, as with any legendary musician, there was a necessity for an accompanying visual culture, and for someone who wanted to be as in control of their work as Fela, that couldn't just be anyone. Enter Lemi Ghariokwu.

Nigerian-born and raised, Lemi was a young artist who had not followed his father's aspirations for him to become a mechanical engineer and instead pursued the love of drawing that got him scolded in math classes. For Lemi, 1974 was a monumental year that helped him find who he would eventually become. Though he disavowed the effectiveness of new-years’ resolutions, Lemi committed himself to drawing one complete drawing a day for each day of 1974. Drawing anything from nature scenes and commissioned portraits to striking renditions of Kung Fu heroes such as Bruce Lee, whose movies were popular in the 70s in Nigeria, Lemi caught his break when a piece he had done of Lee caught the eye of Babatunde Harrison, a journalist who worked with Fela Kuti. Harrison commissioned Lemi to do a portrait album cover for Fela's "Roforofo Fight'' as a test, and when Fela saw it, their relationship began in earnest.

Lemi describes the ease of working for Fela. Becoming a kind of acolyte in the schools of thinking that Kuti was at the time a proponent of, Lemi very quickly became attuned to the ways that Fela thought and composed. Fela, seeing this connection and unspoken communication, gives Lemi full freedom in design of his album covers, usually accepting whatever concept Lemi put out as a perfect accompaniment to his music. But to his credit, Lemi made it easy to love his work. Drawing on the environment, influence of other artists such as London-based band Osibisa, and a commitment to making sociopolitically active art, Lemi created some of the most memorable covers of West African music. Looking to the Pan-African movement, the Black Panthers, and the lives and work of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba for inspiration, Lemi cultivated a handful of unique and interesting styles.

Over his oeuvre, Lemi changes from pop art, to pulp style, to colorful fauvist and dramatic art. If it can be done, Lemi does it well.

His work was not meant to be a literal interpretation of the music but rather came from a deeper understanding of the artistic underpinnings that Fela was aiming for. In this way, the art pushes the music further but also lives separate from it, permanently ingrained in the mind of anyone who picked up one of those records. 

Statement by Omar El-Sabrout

A conversation with:

Lemi Ghariowku

See more at
lemighariokwu.com ↗︎