Tuesday 31 January 2012

Ghariokwu Lemi, dreaming of a new Lagos: the Paradigm Shift

(First published in November 2008)
For those who are so passionate about Lagos, every effort is needed to support the ongoing redevelopment by the state government. TAJUDEEN SOWOLE meets one of the state's enthusiasts, painter, Ghariokwu Lemi, who spoke on using art to transform Lagos.
  LIKE a river which gets its source from waterfall, the satire artist and music sleeve designer, Lemi gives Lagos the credit for making him discover his art.    

  Most artists give such accolades to Lagos, anyway. So, what’s new? In Lemi's situation, the fact is that his specialised area of art, over the decades, has contributed in no little measure to the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s image. Also, his art, generally plays around the city.
From Ghariokwu Lemi's Lagos: the Paradigm Shift

  What is however new about Lemi is that he thinks Lagos has given so much to his art such that it’s time for payback.
  "I was born and bred in Lagos, and now passionate about contributing to the redevelopment of this city, using art because art represents Lagos."
  On November 22, at the Harmattan Workshop Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos, Lemi, with the support of Lagos State Government opens an art and design exhibition titled Lagos: the Paradigm Shift. The exhibition, he says, closes with a command performance at the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON) Centre, Onikan and expected to have the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola present. This show, the artist explains, is aimed at adding art contents to the on-going beautification exercise and megacity projection of the government: the overhauling of the transportation system as in the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) example as well as dream for Eko Atlantic project, among others.
  Infrastructure, Lemi argues, has deteriorated so bad in Lagos that efforts to return the city to its glorious days of the 60s and 70s should be the concern of the government alone.
   He recalls: "Lagos as I used to know it in the 70s was a city we were proud of. these included the days of New Lagos, Obele Odan in Surulere for example. There used to be decency. For example, we had Love Garden where you could take a walk anytime of the day; Lagos, when there used to be traffic-light for pedestrian crossing-you just press a switch, the light is on and vehicles stop for you. I feel sadden when I hear people say that Ghana retains some of these social values while that of Lagos have disappeared. I remember that there were some similarities between Lagos and Accra each time I traveled to Ghana with Fela in 1976."
   Having had a very strong relationship with Fela for about 20 years before the death of the maverick musician, music has always been part of Lemi's life. He has an album to show for it.
  However, Lemi’s idea of using art to sell Lagos remains within the scope of visual arts. Lagos, he stresses, has given so much to art, not just his art, but other artists’ too, performing or visual arts. He argues that artists have had enough, criticising the leaders. "It’s time for constructive contribution from the art for social re-engineering."      He recalls his recent visit to a show held about the role of art in restoring the value and development of France of the 1960s. The exhibition, Parisian Art, Lemi notes, further motivated him to use art as a tool in contributing to his environment.
  Lemi is arguably one of the most prominent Nigerian artists to have featured in major exhibitions in U.S and the U.K., in the last few years. He probably didn’t realise how strong was the link between his art and Lagos until he traveled abroad. Even though his debut show at the French Cultural Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos, in 2001, was titled Lagos State, the term, ironically has stuck to the artist’s image, courtesy of his foreign admirers. 
  That was the  stimulant that added to his love for Lagos. "Most publications abroad refer to my art as ‘Lagos art.’ This encouraged me to keep my focus on Lagos. There is something about a city, an artist, and his art. For example, you can’t separate Lagos from Fela’s music because he sang so much about Lagos. Remember the track in one of his albums, ‘Eko Ile’, when Fela sang that there is no place like Lagos, irrespective of one’s sojourn abroad. The same goes to Bob Marley whose image is closely linked with Kingston and Jamaica. You can imagine the volume of traffic – in tourism – which Marley’s image brings to Jamaica, every year.  What this means is that art is a very strong factor in attracting tourism. Two factors are crucial here: human or monuments of
iconic representation."
Design piece 'Enterprise', by Lemi

  Projecting that his art could serve as a support in re branding Lagos, one of the works meant for the exhibition is a futuristic kind that suggests a New York-look-alike concept for Lagos, within  the context of monuments as factor in tourism.
  Another one also has the potential to promote Lagos colour of red, blue, yellow and green.
  Although a self-appointed crusader for the proposed art-for-Lagos project, it is not surprising that a project of this nature is coming from Lemi, given the fact that he is a slippery artist – quite a number of styles and techniques rolled in one artist.
  "This show offers me an opportunity to show different types of my art as a free stylist."
  The involvement of Lagos State in this show, he discloses, does not go beyond the fact he needs a platform to contribute to the development of the state.
  "I am apolitical, but recognise good intention of any government. I don’t care who the governor is or which party he belongs to, so long there is prospect in the air, I give my support. More importantly at my age, I need to contribute my quota as fast as possible because time is short. Gradually I am losing all my friends;  shortly after Sunny Okosuns died, I lost Oliver de Coque. I was waiting here in the studio for Oliver, but he didn’t come on that day. The next day, I got the information that he died on the day I was waiting for him."
  Quietly, Lemi has been using his art to promote the nation abroad, subconsciously.
  The world's leading publisher of books on visual arts, Phaidon Press, based in the U.K with branches in five cities in Europe, New York and Tokyo, listed Lemi in its last edition of a publication, Area 2. The book is a compendium of the world’s 100 graphic designers, 10 curators and 10 design classics. 
   The selection of artist, according to the publishers, was done through a process that had 10 of the world’s foremost designers and critics, each, selected 10 most influential contemporary designers. In the book, four pages is given to each artist.
  Text in the preface states the mission of the document: "It pays a  little attention to politics and genre, traditional Dutch design runs shoulder with emerging movement from Japan and Nigeria."
 Also one of the world’s leading T-shirt designers, Stussy, recently commissioned Lemi to design a visual for the brand’s 25th Anniversary.
  Shortly after the much-talked about post-Fela art exhibition titled Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, held at The New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York, another top brand, Puma had the artist to design a piece for an event.
  Lemi was recently awarded the prestigious honour of the membership of Museum of Modern Art (MOA), New York. "I have just been given a dual membership of MOA Life." Perhaps the only Nigerian to have been so honoured, he enthuses that his work which is part of the collection of the museum also has a Nigerian identity.    As part of his conscious effort of Africanism, he deliberately titled the work, Anoda Sisitem. I could  have called it Another System, but I preferred the Yoruba flavour. The work, he adds, was earlier in the private collection of a U.S.-based art collector, Judith Roschild Foundation, who donated it to the MOA.
  On icons as crucial factor in tourism, the artist believes that Fela is one icon whose potential is yet to be utilised.

'Vision', Lemi's painting impression of a working Gov of Lagos State Babatunde Raji Fashola

   Lemi’s thoughts on the legendary Fela: "Fela remains alive in emerging non-racial Afrobeat band in the U.S. called Antibalas; Fela, Off Broadway, which showed for over two months in New York was a major event; he is a subject of research in music in Europe and the U.S. All these show that this is one brand that is yet be recognised at home.
   "Fela as a brand name could help the tourism industry in in Nigeria; imagine people coming to Lagos from different parts of the world to see Fela’s tomb at his residence in Ikeja and visit his home town in Abeokuta, Ogun State. It’s possible, all it takes is packaging, promotion."
  No doubt, Lemi is a  very eclectic artist, but his art is so synonymous with Fela’s image that one wonders if there would be anything left in his art without a Fela-related subject. Can we have Lemi’s art without Fela, in the future?
  He responds spontaneously: "Impossible. I am a Pan Africanist, and Fela as my mentor plays an important role in my choice of ideology. Also, Fela is people’s icon, a great man, an institution. There is so much yet to be done on Fela. We are yet to fully make the best use of the potential he left behind in his legacy. For example, Bob Marley has a public holiday in his name observed in Jamaica, well recognised by the government. This is so because Marley left behind a Jamaica made popular all over the world through his music. There is no way I would have my art devoid of Fela subjects in the future. I want Fela’s legacy to
be sustained, not through the revolutionary mindset, but another approach, which I call 'evolutionary'. I always believe in evolution, I am not a revolutionary person."
  With Lagos: A Paradigm Shift, Lemi may just be the artist that would change the face of Lagos as artists do in other parts of the world.

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