Lemi Ghariokwu,self taught Nigerian born artist is the famous illustrator of late Afrocentric king Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s record labels. He also illustrates so many other artists and his creative album designs tell beautiful stories about music and carries along strong message from the artists across through visual capturing of metaphoric thoughts of the artists. Designing about twenty six of Fela’s album covers, and over two thousand other album covers in the last thirty eight years, Ghariokwu has no doubt carved a niche for himself.
In this interview, the famous illustrator talks about his how his path crossed that of the late Afro-beat legend Fela, Fela’s influence on his career and life generally. Excerpt:
Was art something you set out to do initially?
For me, I have been very fortunate to have discovered my purpose in life in the sense, that I have always drawn made sketches. I didn’t study art formally in higher institution, but the little experience I had in primary and secondary school helped me a great deal. After I finished Secondary School I continued with my art drawing, I went to Nigerian Television Service (NTS) now Nigeria Television Authority where I did live drawing on the shows like Youth Scene, Youth forum, and Image makers.
So how did your path cross with that of the late Afro-beat legend Fela?
It was predestined, in 1974. Two significant event happened, one was the release of Bruce Lee film titled “Enter the Dragon” which was very popular then. A man in my neighborhood who ran a beer parlor asked me to make a portrait of the film which had Bruce lee and two other actors which I did and he paid for the portrait and hung it in his beer parlor.
Secondly bought Fela’s album titled Roforofo fight which literally means mud fight and then I decided to do an album cover to illustrate title of the album, so I drew Fela dancing on mud. That particular incident became very significant because the first attempt on my own, I translated it. I didn’t illustrate literally, I didn’t draw Fela fighting on mud, or people fighting on mud. I drew Fela dancing on mud, because to me the music was a danceable jolly good music.
As destiny would have it, a journalist with the then Sunday Punch Newspaper Babatunde Harrison a regular at the bar where I had done the Bruce lee portrait saw the portrait and requested to see me and he was directed to my house which was less than a stone throw.
When they brought him to my house he asked me to show him my art works which I immediately brought out from under the bed, that was when he saw the Fela’s album cover that I had done. And he asked if I did album covers? I answered in the affirmative even though I was not too sure of myself because. The next day he brought a picture of fela and asked me to do a portrait of Fela which I did within 24hrs.
The next day when Mr. Harrison came around and saw the portrait, he immediately chartered a taxi that took us straight to Kalakuta republic. Then Fela had just started and it was like a shock to the society for someone to break out from the society to lead his own life.
When we got there, we were told that Fela was asleep but latter he came out, wearing just pants and my hands began to shake he took a look at me and asked, “are you the artist” and I said yes, he then took a look at the portrait and said a few words that remained in my memory several years after, because it was the first time someone said that to me.
He said “Wow! God damn! And then he ushered me in and offered me a drink brought out his cheque book and wrote a cheque of one hundred and twenty Nair, which is equivalent to a hundred thousand. I returned the cheque to him and told him that I didn’t want the money. Fela was so surprised at that gesture, he tore the cheque and asked for an exercise book which he wrote please admit bearer to any show free of charge. I collected that and that became my ticket to Kalakuta Republic.
Your art works seem very complex. How would you describe your works?
My art can be described as eclectic because I am self taught, I learnt from seeing things, checking out things, reading books, and attending art exhibitions. My style varies but by the role I played vis-à-vis Fela’s music, message, ideology and politics, I would describe my art as social conscious.
It is very illustrative to a large extent, I love to translate, reflect and give in depth explanation with my art. Most people see my art work as rebellion, in England they call my art the art of rebellion. While some see it as erotic because by virtue of meeting Fela when I was eighteen years I was exposed to total freedom of expression with my art and I never looked back.
I was 21years and still living with my parents when I did the album cover of Yellow Fever one of Fela albums. I actually paid a model thirty Nair to model nude for me when I did that artwork. Some say my work is comical. I express myself the way I feel like. It is left for the viewer to interpret.
How many album covers have you designed?
In my career so far I have designed over two thousand album cover in the last thirty eight years. And apart from doing album covers for Fela’s album, I have done album covers for more than a hundred other music artiste like Bob Marley, Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Maryanne Makeba, Mariah Carey, I was able to do this because I worked as an in house designer for PolyGram records for eleven years after Fela. I also designed album covers for Sony records. Locally I have done album covers for Adewale Ayuba, Shinna Peters, Raskimono, Ortize Wiliki, Majek Fashek, Tu face, Idris Abdulkareem.
So what inspires you?
My inspiration comes from the concept of what ever I am working on. If I am designing a book cover for instance, I just don’t start drawing, I first of all read the book, do research and then translate what ever the artiste is trying to pass on to the people. So I love my art to act as a mega phone and an added value to the music or the story in the book.
My basic inspiration comes from the movement of people in my environment, my interaction with people in my environment and the world scene at large. I am also inspired by nature.
For one who is self taught how come you are not limited by environments?
By virtue of the fact that I met Fela at a very young age, I was exposed to open mindedness. I am very open minded, I try to check out things, I started as a portrait artist, and latter designed album covers, do cartoons and caricatures. I learn t the use of graphics art with the aid of a computer. Which is why I have been able to adapt with changes in the environment.
The first eleven years of Kennis music I designed about 95% of the album covers and printed hundred percent of the covers. I just stopped printing a few years back because my art has come to full bloom and I have paid my dues over the years. When you work hard you would be lucky, and you will be at the right place at the right time.
What challenges have you faced in the course of your career?
The only serious challenge I had was the society when I started, because at that time most parents wanted their children to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, but my mum supported me from the very beginning of my art career.
I consciously didn’t go to any University, it wasn’t as if my parents could not afford it or because I was a dullard, but I choose not to.
At a point my friends threw a challenge at me, they said “we know you can draw but go write GCE and see if you will pass”. And then I enroll for GCE and wrote the exams and I had A1 distinction and my friends were amazed and they said I should go and study arts in the University. But instead I sort Fela’s advice because we were very close he said to me “people like you are born genius”, since you can read and right go and buy books on art and study on your own.
If I go to school to study art they would teach me Italian art and it will be a brain wash, and that I will lose my originality. “I went to the best Music school in England when I came back I was struggling with my high life jazz people didn’t understand me until I rediscovered myself again because I had a strong will power”.