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Ghariokwu in ‘dance floor’ steps for Fela’s Afrobeat and unique album covers

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A guest viewing a collage of Fela’s album sleeves by Ghariokwu

As long as Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, remains a recurring subject on global creative space, designer, Lemi Ghariokwu, would not stop being a human encyclopaedia on the controversial musician. For the 20th year anniversary of Fela’s death, it would have been an incomplete landmark not to hear from Ghariokwu, who was the musician’s album cover designer for almost two decades (1974-1992).

Arguably, Ghariokwu’s illustrations of Fela’s thoughts in album covers are among the oldest forms of visual representations on the musical works of the controversial legend. More importantly, the painting and drawing media employed make the illustrations more resilient against any drop in resolution of imagery reproduction compared to photographs of Fela taken during his lifetime. As music becomes more digital in distribution to the audience, album covers, particularly of pre-internet/digital eras such as Fela’s, have become less visible. In fact, the theatric and graphic renditions and interpretations of Fela’s thoughts by Ghariokwu could be lost to new generation of music fans.

For such reasons, art exhibitions of Fela-focused subjects by Ghariokwu – shown home and abroad in the past decade – have created fresh energy in documenting the musician. But, such visual trajectory of Fela, particularly in the year of his posthumous 20th anniversary was more important. This evening, the ambience is typically Fela: his music softly playing in the background, as Ghariokwu takes guests through the art exhibition titled From Dance Floor to Shop Floor, at African Artists Foundation (AAF), Victoria Island, Lagos.

The possibility of an unsung artist behind Fela’s album covers makes the exhibition such as this more important. Organised by Temple Management Company (TMC), it features designs from some of Fela’s popular albums such as Big Blind Country, Monkey Banana, Equalization of Trousers & Pant among others are framed in plexiglass. And from the original album covers come such graphic illustrations as Johnny Just Drop, Ikoyi Blindness and Sorrow Tears and Blood.

Complimenting the art appreciation aspect of Fela’s music are a set of miniatures, both in print forms and mixed media of old discs from the original album cover paintings. The works on display – in bold paintings or miniaturised prints – resonate with the radical thoughts of Fela in the period he lived.

“My meeting with Fela in 1974 was spiritual,” Ghariokwu tells guests during the opening of the exhibition. “My first illustration for Fela was on the album titled Roforofo Fight; at the time he was already a popular and radical musician.”

Again, Ghariokwu reiterates the freedom of artistic licence he enjoyed working with Fela. “Over 99 per cent of the album design concepts were mine.”

Ghariokwu had repeated this statement many times in the past. Yes, it’s important that he does that regularly: it gives credit to Fela’s liberalism and democratic relationship with people who worked with him. More importantly, the statement seals the possibility of future counter-claims of copyright from whoever or wherever against the designer.

For those who have been tracking Ghariokwu for several decades, so much ground seems to have been covered in his post-Fela career. For example, one recalls that during the period Ghariokwu was working with Fela, his personality, as an artist behind the album covers was hardly known to the general public. However, as Fela’s popularity increased after his death, Ghariokwu, coincidentally, found wider windows to express his unsung Afrobeat visual colours and strokes. The first of such happened, when he had his first ever solo art exhibition – about 25 years into his career. The debut show titled Welkom 2 Lay-ghus, and curated by Paschal Lettelier, was held at Mason de France, Ikoyi, Lagos in November 2001. And 16 years after, the Fela as subject of Ghariokwu’s identity in visual culture, keeps blossoming.

AWAY from the shadow of album covers, From Dance Floor to Shop Floor presents Ghariokwu another window to show some of his non-Fela works. The large pieces include paintings and mixed media in collage of cut outs over pieces of patterns on board as well as an optical illusion in sea of balls.

“The glass work is one of my new technique to create optical effect,” Ghariokwu explains to a guest during the show.
Unavoidably, his over 40-year career as an artist has undoubtedly been in celebration of the Afrobeat legend. But his non-Fela works in the genre of portraits generate another period of his art worth the attention of art historians? A few years ago, the artist started what he called African Iconic Series under a thematic identity of ‘Afro Art Beat.’ Among the first set of icons painted were Malcom X, Mandela, Chinua Achebe, Bob Marley, Fela, Barack Obama, late Biafran warlord, Odumegwu Ojukwu and Nina Simone.

Ghariokwu had argued then that African art needed to be more relevant in promoting heroes, saying, “Our art needs to promote African heroes” during a chat inside his studio at Palmgrove, Lagos. He just completed a piece on former South African President, Mandela. The work, a collage portrait, with newspaper cuttings of Mandela-related texts and images, generated three-dimensional illusion on canvas.

For the Fela 20th anniversary exhibition, the space was meant to be broader. For example, works on display include miniatures. Among several aims of the artist, according to curator, Winifred Okpapi, is that “he wanted to have something for all categories of Fela lovers, hence the miniature pieces for affordability.”

The curator is right: some of the miniature pieces were already red tagged during the opening.

“It is remarkable that the global recognition and respect commanded by Fela has not waned two decades after,” TMC quotes Ghariokwu.

Between 2003 and now, the two most prominent of Ghariokwu’s exhibitions include Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at Museum of Contemporary Art, New York in 2003, and DEMOCRAZY, 3 Solo Exhibitions and a Publication at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos.

The relationship between Fela and Ghariokwu crossed the line of musician-album cover designer. Ghariokwu once disclosed that he had access to Fela’s bedroom. Apparently, they were friends, beyond the scale of professional relationship. With what ended up being counted as 26 album sleeves designed by Ghariokwu for a musician as big as Fela, it wasn’t surprising that he got attention of other big names in the industry, even outside Nigeria. He designed sleeves for Bob Marley, Lucky Dube, Miriam Makeba, Gilles Peterson and Osita Osadebe, among others.

Also, Ghariokwu was said to have been a ‘consulting album cover designer for Polygram Records Nigeria for over 10 years.’ In fact, he has to his credit about 2000 album covers, including that of Kris Okotie, Lagbaja, TuFace, among others. Other record companies he has designed album sleeves for include EMI, CBS, Kennis Music and Ivory Music.

And whenever Fela as a subject comes into focus, home and abroad, Ghariokwu always has a spot. He designed the cover of Cassava Republic’s republication of an authorised biography, Fela: This Bitch of a Life. Also in June 2010, Ghariokwu was commissioned to brand a Flea Bus in mural painting-on-wheels, for the hit Broadway musical, Fela!

Born as Lemi Abiodun Ghariokwu Emmanuel on 26, December 1955, in Agege, Lagos, he hails from Agbor, Delta State. Ghariokwu attended Yaba College of Technology Secondary School, where he studied technical and science subjects. As a self-taught artist, he would later meet Fela in 1974 through a Sunday Punch journalist, Mr. Babatunde Harrison, for a lifelong relationship to be forged.


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