Afro Pop-Art: politics, Life and Lyrics

A short text on the artist acclaimed for designing album covers for Fela Anikulapo Kuti

'I am just a mystic man from the past, living in the present and stepping into the future. That is the direction I am always moving towards consciously and purposefully.' Ghariokwu Lemi, 2009

Ghariokwu Lemi is an artist who takes his inspiration from the movement of everyday people and life, attuned to the failings and successes of the human condition, he has the ability to generate thought and debate of some of societies most prominent, but often least discussed issues.

Afro Pop-Art: politics, Life and Lyrics, works by legendary Nigerian artist Ghariokwu Lemi presents a selection of some his most famous graphic images, as a nod to the past, whilst confidently striding forward with an exiting collection of new and never before seen works, from the Funky Lagos of the 1970s to the very contemporary  concerns of biometrics and immigration. Through this body of work Lemi’s poignant social commentary records and illuminates issues of abuse of power, identity, inequality in works that are often political and just as often comical. With a light heart and a steady hand Lemi is able to make accessible complex social debates with his gritty, vibrant style drawing the viewer in and forcing a search for answers.

Political Satire and jest are major themes throughout this body of work and this can be seen prominently in the work ‘Biometrics II’ 2009, a multi-layered graphic image capturing the struggle and exclusion faced certain groups or sub groups of society in attempting to gain a visa or “permission” to enter the west, in this case the United Kingdom. Lemi uses vibrant, starkly contrasting colours: pinks and greens; a figure and printed fingertips in blood red, perhaps alluding to the blood spilt over contrasting worlds. It is a feast that when returned to, is still able to offer something new to the palate. Doves fly over barbed wire, a symbol of peace and freedom triumphant over aggression and restriction, and a second glance is confronted with an eye, the pupil a reflection of the globe, Afro-centred it displays an African gaze over the world. This work engages the viewer with signals of reference common across cultures, and is at once alarming and awakening.

Lemi is an artist always looking for ways in which to (re)examine the notions that we take as given in our daily environment and as an artist who’s career began intertwined with the lyrical era of Afro-beat movement he is clearly in tuned to the power of words, and manipulates them frequently in his art. In ‘E-Mind-Cipation’, 2009 is able to combine the historical references to emancipation from the slave trade with the present, the title also holding echoes of the Bob Marley lyrics calling for emancipation from mental slavery. In Lemi’s own interpretation he alters the spelling to also include reference to the contemporary, the ‘E’ of the internet generation; the title perhaps suggesting the need for Africans to embrace the technologies of the future and gain freedom through knowledge. This image delivers as much in the message it transfers as it does in the spectacle it creates.

Afro Pop-Art: politics, Life and Lyrics presents an evolution of over three decades of a skilled, self-taught artist practicing his trade and the new works in the shoe take on a number of different stylistic guises. The politics of the continent are represented in the series of images Union, 2009 Unity, 2009 and Unite, 2009, displaying a message of solidarity in a style that borrows from the popular political poster. Lemi continues his social commentary in the images of some of the most iconic figures of the last three decades, Feli Anikulapo Kuti, Michael Jackson and Barak Obama. The artist captures these icons of music and political culture in his distinctly insightful, Pop-Art style, again vibrant colours are prominent and in ‘Red, Blue and Black’, 2009 are significant symbols of a historical achievement: celebrating the inauguration of the first African-American president of the Untied States.  This collection of works offers a perspective that is as potent as derived from an individual mind and as intuitive as if whispered from a thousand lips.

Originally published in the exhibition brochure accompanying Afro-Pop Art: Politics, Life and Lyrics 16 October to 15 December 2009 at arc Gallery, London.