Lemi Ghariokwu is a Nigerian artist, who is best-known for designing cover artwork for Fela Kuti and other musical acts from Africa. He has been dubbed the "King of Afro Pop Art". Ghariokwu was born in 1955 in Agege in Lagos, Nigeria. His birth name is Emmanuel Sunday, but he later changed his name. His first name, "Lemi", was based on the fictional detective 'Lemmy Caution' in Peter Cheyneys' detective novels. Ghariokwu, however, knew him from the comic book adaptations and his friends felt he shares a physical resemblance with the character, hence his new name. Ghariokwu attributes his artistic side to his mother and sister. As a child Ghariokwu enjoyed drawing cartoon characters like Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and household objects. Yet his father wanted him to become a mechanical engineer and thus sent him off to the Yaba College of Technology Secondary School. Ghariokwu returned to his earlier interests, though, and started making portraits for people in his neighborhood.

In 1973 a pub owner asked Ghariokwu to draw a huge painting of kung fu legend Bruce Lee, since the film 'Enter the Dragon' (1973) was such a success. As luck would have it, a journalist, Babatunde Harrison, saw the poster and wanted to see more of his works. During his visit he noticed a drawing depicting Fela Kuti, which Ghariokwu had drawn as an alternative album cover for Fela Kuti's record 'Roforofo Fight' (1973). Harrison was a personal friend of Kuti. He introduced the young artist to the Afrobeat musician, which kicked off a 25 year long collaboration. Ghariokwu illustrated the front and back covers of almost all of Fela Kuti's albums, including classics such as 'Alagbon Close' (1974), 'No Bread' (1976), 'Kalakuta Show' (1976), 'Yellow Fever' (1976), 'Zombie' (1977), 'Sorrow, Tears and Blood' (1977), 'No Agreement' (1978), 'Shuffering and Shmiling' (1978) and 'Beasts of No Nation' (1989). Despite Kuti's insistence Ghariokwu refused to be paid, but was given free access to all of Kuti's concerts instead. He worked mostly at Kuti's home and enjoyed total creative freedom.

Apart from Kuti Ghariokwu also designed covers for other African musicians, such as Osita Osadebe, Sunny Adé, Miriam Makeba, Lucky Dube, but also people outside the continent such as Gilles Peterson and Bob Marley. Throughout the 1970s Ghariokwu also published political cartoons in Young African Pioneers, making one colour and one black and white cartoon a week. Some of these were used as rebellious posters by the YAP Movement, until they were banned by the government in 1977.

Cartoon by Lemi Ghariokwu

Ghariokwu is a socially conscious artist, interested in the black civil rights struggle both in Africa as well as abroad. He criticizes colonialism, war and racism, but also problems within the African community itself. As a committed Pan-Africanist, Ghariokwu tries to counter stereotypical ideas about his continent and portray a more positive image. His work is a mixture of colourful painting, collage and cartoons. His album covers for Kuti are visualisations of his song lyrics and follow a narrative pattern. One of his most well known designs is the cover for 'Beasts of No Nation' (1982), which depicts Congolese dictator Mobutu, Nigerian tyrants Mohamed Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha, US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as demons. The cover gained more notoriety when published by the British satirical magazine Punch.

He has designed over 2,000 album covers in his 40 year spanning career, including for Polygram Records, Kennis Music, EMI, CBS, Sony and Ivory Music. His work has been exhibited worldwide in many museums, from Lagos, New York, Norway, Paris to London. The Museum of Modern Art in New York keeps his painting 'Anoda Sistem' in their permanent collection, while he also holds a dual membership there. In 2004 he was nicknamed "King of Covers" by the British music magazine Observer. To promote the Broadway hit musical 'FELA!' in 2010 Ghariokwu sprayed and painted a bus full with images of Fela Kuti. This 'Fela-bus' became an official marketing vehicle.

Comic from the back cover of Fela Kuti's'Zombie', a visualization of the song 'Mr. Follow Follow' which criticizes the African submission to the West


Series and books by Lemi Ghariokwu in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.