Album Cover Bank traces over 70 years of Nigeria’s album design and visual culture
We speak to Opemipo Aikomo of the Lagos-based collective wuruwuru about its industrious and culturally groundbreaking feat.
It’ll be a sad day when we stop revelling in the album covers that contribute to our visual cultures. And that day is lurking in the near future, with most of these artworks nestled in our phones, on music streaming apps, where our algorithms do the majority of the talking. Time spent sitting in a loved one’s front room, going through their collection and being enticed to give a record a listen because of its offbeat artwork, is increasingly scarce. Or entering a shop and being able to tell the genre of a record quite instantly because of its design and art direction. Nude and erotic, with a primal edge? Ohio funk, namely the bands Sun, Ohio Players or Slave. Leaning slash laying with a tender yet authoritative look? It’s probably one of the Black baritones of the 80s, ushering in contemporary R&B’s disco, funk and pop-infused flair. These visual cues aren’t just the obsessions of a nostalgia merchant though, and they go far beyond music – they are the reflection of a culture, its history, sensibilities and collective desires.
Adamant on preserving and platforming Nigeria’s visual culture, maker collective wuruwuru set to explore graphic trends in Nigerian pop culture and its impact on the nation’s music through the decades. After a mighty period of research, essays and collation, the team decided that the concept was too broad, and opted to create a database of Nigeria’s album covers instead. Hosted on their site, Album Cover Bank amasses over 5300 covers, from 1950 to present. But it isn’t only the number and breadth of time that’s groundbreaking, it’s the celebration of Nigeria’s graphic design history that provides a context for the present-day albums that are considered international classics.
Tomi Thomas: Hopeless Romantic (Copyright © Tomi Thomas, 2020)
Robert Stace: Danger (Copyright © Robert Stace, 1976)
“We want to establish the history of Nigerian graphic design and celebrate album cover artists as important cultural producers.”Opemipo Aikomo
The majority of the wuruwuru team are born and raised in Lagos and can trace their design tastes to roots planted during their upbringings. “In Nigeria, your state of origin is where your dad’s born, and that can be different from your state of birth, so I’m from Osun state,” Opemipo Aikomo, founder of wuruwuru and producer on the project, tells us. “Lagos is a city of migrants, so many of us have this sort of dual identity.” Growing up, he was into cartoons, and games, but still honours books as making the greatest impression on him. As well as being fond of magazines, such as Reader’s Digest, “this probably explains my love for graphic design,” and his architect father and “genius mum,” he adds.
When it comes to Album Cover Bank, Opemipo was structurally inspired by film archives such as Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive and the image research site, Film. And when it came to cultural inspirations, his sights were close to home, with West African archives, such as Auto Typographics, a collection of inscriptions on cars throughout Ghana, and Nigerian graphic design archives Sakiru Somolu and Hello Lagos. So, there’s no wonder why Album Cover Bank feels like it is a part of a lineage, a contribution that transcends design or design for music, but a feat that honours the unique social and artistic expression of the time. “The main goal of the archive is to establish the history of Nigerian graphic design,” Opemipo adds, “but we also want to celebrate the album cover artists as important cultural producers”. When entering the site, the search filter is probably one of the most practical expressions of this; viewers can enter a year, musician, select a genre or (importantly to the team’s mission) a designer.
No matter which avenue the audience takes to trace Nigeria’s album covers, there’s no way to evade the fact that there has been a seismic shift over time. On the Album Cover Bank homepage, newer releases such as Tems’ not an angel, boasting a purely photographic cover with no lettering and, similarly minimally-designed covers such as Fireboy DML’s outside sit surrounded by older covers like the Lijadu Sister’s classic Horizon Unlimited that has a black-and-white photographic cut-out of the twin artists, a scenic background and playful lettering, all of which is synonymous with the highlife genre during the 1970s. In short, everything’s gone super digital.
As vinyl covers were previously more critical to a project’s commercial success, Opemipo notes that many of them were made in printing houses like Ibunkunola Printers, Record Manufacturers Nigeria and Poaston Graphics Art Trade. “And only few individuals like Lemi Ghariokwu really stood out,” he tells us. But as the dynamics have shifted, labels now consult freelance artists “like Funto Coker, Niyi Okeowo and Duks to make the covers and showcase their unique style”. He adds, “today most covers are simple art contracts versus full-on branding projects. I think they have lost some of their reverence as more engaging forms of media like music and videos become so popular.”
“I think album covers have lost some of their reverence as more engaging forms of media like music and videos become so popular.”Opemipo Aikomo
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In light of all the shifts, Opemipo has no idea of what the future holds for Nigerian album design. “I just don’t know. Maybe visual artists will be paid more? Or maybe cover production will start to happen in-house again? Maybe artists will continue to use the growing suite of AI tools to make their own covers?” But one thing the producer and wider team are sure of is the direction they wish to take Album Cover Bank in. They hope the archive will become a hub for researchers, artists and educators interested in the nation’s music and visual culture, while also cultivating audiences they aren’t yet aware of. And while it’s difficult to sum up their impact, its probably best found in the name wuruwuru taken from the Nigerian expression ‘wuru wuru to the answer’, defined as a problem that isn’t straightforward to solve and doing it without institutional support. The team know that we no longer peruse through vinyl collections like before, so they continue to provide us with a service that fills in the gaps of history, culture and artistic expression.
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Funto Coker: Rockstar Parole (Copyright © Funto Coker, 2020)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.