Lemi Ghariokwu is an artist with a difference. Not only did he design 26 of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s, album covers in a career that spanned more than three decades, his art is rebellious, comical, political and even erotic. An internationally-renowned artist, he is best known own for using a variety of styles and vibrant colours. During his solo exhibition in the UK in 2004, the Observer Music Magazine named him “King of Covers”. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH he speaks about how his art began, how he met Fela and what working with the Afrobeat legend was like. Excerpts.
How did your art begin?
My art began when my life began really, because I was born into art. I had it in me. My first conscious moment was around when I was like five, six. I used to draw on the sand in Agege. I was born in Agege. I would take broom and be drawing cars. And we used to call them pleasure cars. In those days we call those Chevrolet cars pleasure cars.
So that was how I started. Then I went to school – primary, secondary. I stopped in secondary school. I just diverted away from formal education. So I started practicing. I am- self-taught. I would ask questions. When I see someone who is doing something, I would ask, “Ah brother how did you do it?” At a point everybody in my neighbourhood knew me as an artist. Opportunity came for me to do portraits.
I started doing portraits. I was charging 30 naira. And that was a lot of money. No it is not funny. Nigeria is funny. Naira was equivalent to a dollar then. You can rent a room for one month. Four naira per month. That was how I started. So fortunately for me, at a point Babatunde Harrison, a journalist with Punch, saw my work and took me to Fela.
Could you tell me how your first meeting with Fela was like?
The journalist gave me an assignment to do – a portrait of Fela as test. So I did the portrait. He took me to Fela. Fela saw the portraits. And for the first in my life I heard two words. He said: “Wow Gaddem!!!” He was so moved. And that was the beginning of the relationship.
How was working with Fela like?
Very interesting. Interesting and complex. Fela was a very complex person He didn’t suffer fools gladly at all. But he had this gift. He could identify talented people. And he would bring them around. So he saw my talent and appreciated it. And he treated me very well while it lasted. You know, human relationship … It got to a point we had a clash. So I broke away. It took eight years before we connected again. But today my work is standing to shine that light on Fela, on his music. It was a divine collaboration we had because I believe in destiny. So it was preordained that I met Fela at that point in time. I ended up designing most of his album covers. I did 26 covers for his career, between 1974 and 1992 (three decades}. In his own entire career he released about 50 or 54 but I did 26. And that is a movement. Everywhere in the world, if they are talking about his music, they bring the art, that the art helped him in playing his music.