Graphic power

On the eve of this year’s Bass festival, which celebrates the influence of Africa on the UK arts and culture scene, Design Week looks at the work of one of the artists featured, Nigerian graphic designer Ghariokwu Lemi

A graphic design staple, the album cover has always had the power to delight and shock, even though CDs and downloads have now somewhat dented its visual impact. Just a few weeks ago, several supermarkets covered up the latest Manic Street Preachers album, Journal for Plague Lovers. The portrait painting, by artist Jenny Saville, was chosen as beautiful art, but was deemed inappropriate by the retailers, because the face seemed bruised and bloodied.

Ruffling a few retail feathers is nothing compared to the impact of pioneering Nigerian artist Ghariokwu Lemi’s work over the decades.

The self-taught graphic designer and artist has created more than 2000 album covers during his 35-year career, and is best known for his work for Nigerian Afrobeat star and political activist Fela Kuti, who became a cultural icon for his music and beliefs in the 1970s.

Lemi’s distinctive covers paint a picture of Africa through political, comical and erotic references, and the message is as important as aesthetics. ‘The artistic side forms the bedrock of what I portray, but the message is the key,’ says Lemi, who describes his imagery as ‘day-to-day movements of people, activities and interactions, whether physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially or politically’.

From the commercial sex worker and the crippled dancer to Kuti’s image on the cover for Before I Jump Like Monkey, Give Me Banana, graphic images of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the youth decked in denim jeans or the market women on the cover of Kuti’s JJD, ‘all qualify as icons of society in their own right, and they form the common thread running through my work,’ says Lemi.

Graphic designer and typographer Swifty is a fan of African music and Kuti, and has worked on the promotional visuals for a new exhibition of Lemi’s work, Art’s Own Kind, which is part of the Bass Festival in London and will show many of Lemi’s cover designs. ‘Good design not only looks good and makes you feel good, but has to convey a message,’ says Swifty. ‘[Lemi’s covers] convey the energy and integrity of the music and message.’

In collaboration with Lemi, Swifty has taken the iconic imagery and ‘remixed’ it to produce the new material. ‘I didn’t need to do research – I instinctively knew what look to go for. World Music is something I’ve been actively involved with for nearly 20 years,’ he says.

Swifty chose the image of Kuti with his fist held high for the main exhibition poster, to convey the political aspect of the show. The type was remixed and redrawn from a font used on Before I Jump Like Monkey, Give Me Banana, and Swifty included some of Lemi’s old artwork stickers ‘to give the design a more personal flavour’.

The Anglo-African collaboration also includes some of Lemi’s more personal philosophies, such as one of his first sketchbook designs, which shows the connection between man, woman and power.

This year, Bass Festival explores the influence of ‘Africa and Africans’ on the arts and culture, with more then 25 events taking place in the Midlands and London, and Lemi’s work is certainly an inspiration.

Most importantly, what it shows is the enduring power of graphic design. As Swifty says, ‘Some of the greatest pieces of design have been political in nature, from Russian and Cuban posters of struggle and uprising to Shepherd Fairey’s Barack Obama poster. It’s the ultimate for a designer to be able to put his or her talents to the test and design something that really makes a difference.’

Bass Festival takes place from 4-30 June at venues across London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester and Derby

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