There’s an emoji for pretty much everything these days. There’s one for the yummy mummies and their favourite brunch spots (half an avocado), there’s one for the rock climbers, brides, wizards and mermaids. Amidst the variety of foods (both fresh and cooked) and basically every kind of emotion a human can experience, the emoji aims to cover the complexity of human experience in a single, cute, pictorial form. But amidst the myriad of emojis immediately available to anyone with a smart phone (including a levitating man, unicorn and a drop of period blood), until recently, there were very few emojis encompassing West African identity.
For O’Plérou Grebet, a 21 year-old student from Ivory Coast, there was something to be done about this lack of emoji representation. Based in the economic capital of Abidjan, the Ivorian graphic design student recalls his love of making and drawing from a young age. Going on to study graphic design and web development at university, and now continuing his studies in the form of a Master’s degree, O’Plérou began the emoji project back in 2017, at a time when he was “starting to inform [him]self on African culture.”
At first, he started making portraits, exploring West African identity through a series of experimental digital artworks. “But my drawing style is quite weird and dark,” he tells It’s Nice That of his first foray into the personal subject. “I understood that if I wanted to promote my culture, it would not be efficient in this way.” Upon thinking of more “attractive ways” to celebrate the unique culture birthed by the former French colony, the idea to create emojis spontaneously came to O’Plérou one day while flicking through WhatsApp.
“I thought I could create emojis as a way to share African masks in a modern and colourful way,” O’Plérou continues. Challenging himself to produce one a day to represent African culture, the artist-designer created a staggering amount of over 200 emojis. In turn, he named the project Zouzoukwa, meaning “picture” in his mother tongue Bété. He talks us through his three favourite designs from the project, the first being the Zaouli, a mask and dance from the Gouro people of Côte d’Ivoire. “I love it because it represents a mix of many art forms: painting, music, dance, sculpture and storytelling,” O’Plérou adds on the matter.
The second is the bissap emoji, otherwise known as sorrel juice, a highly nostalgic memory for the Ivorian. “I like it because it makes me think of my childhood and memories from school,” says O’Plérou. “Women sell it in little plastic bags near schools and I used to buy it after class from the time I was in kindergarten to when I was in high school.” Simple yet wholly recognisable to the people who know it, the emoji sets off alarm bells of nostalgia for those familiar with the juice.
Finally, O’Plérou’s third emoji highlight is the You Saw That? emoji, the first facial expression made. “I love it because it’s exactly why my project is useful to an African, it fills a hole in digital communication.” He continues: “When we talk to our friends using instant messaging, there are local expressions we want to use but can’t because they are not there. It’s often frustrating because the effect of writing does not accurately represent the expression.” You Saw That? embodies a popular gesture in Côte d’Ivoire, a way of saying “I told you so” but through a dialectic idiosyncrasy. He later learnt that a similar expression is also used in Cameroon but as a warning sign to others, “kind of like ‘if you do that, you will see what I will do’,” explains O’Plérou.
Now available to download at the Play and App Store, thanks to O’Plérou, we can all enjoy these colourful emojis whether we understand the references or not. Even though he created the emojis as a way for Africans to “communicate more accurately using instant messaging,” he also designed them for non-Africans who can discover the culture in a modern way. “With all the negative images of Africa in the media, it’s easy to reduce [the continent] to its bad sides only,” he goes on to say. “But we have to tell another story and this is my contribution.”
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.