Meet the visual artists connecting Nigerian album arts of the past & the present

Meet the visual artists connecting Nigerian album arts of the past & the present

Albums are never just about the music. To fully experience an album is to realise that there are other components which can either improve upon or hinder quality, none more so than its visual components. A lot of the time, before an album makes its way to our ears, it makes an impression on our eyes through its cover art. Even though we’re in an era where physical copies of albums have increasingly become a novelty, there’s a reason artists often unveil cover arts as part of their rollouts: branding.

When an album is visually branded in such a way that makes the right impression, it can excite the listeners and vice versa. For example, there was a huge sigh of relief and positive expectation after Davido finally shared the colourful and joyous album art for his sophomore LP, ‘A Good Time’—the pre-order link initially came with a somewhat macabre cover. However, attaching a fitting cover art to an album is not an ideal limited to recent times.

Even though technological advancements have grossly expanded the possibilities for cover arts, they’ve played such integral role that some of the greatest albums of all time have covers which are indelible in music and pop culture history. The cover art of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ is an apex image of the disco era, zebra crossings haven’t remained the same since the Beatles paraded themselves in front of one on ‘Abbey Road’, and back home, Fela’s prolific run in the ‘70s was marked by iconic covers mostly illustrated by the great Lemi Ghariokwu.

As a way of pronouncing its importance as fixture and ever-evolving phenomenon, Nigerian visual artists Dunsin Bankole and McQueen Pius are currently running a series dedicated to album covers, tagged ‘Back to the Future, Vol. 1’.  With three instalments already released via social media, the idea behind the series is to mix and match the cover art of an older album with that of a modern one. Rather than juxtaposing, they’re using this as an avenue to connect the past and the present in a way that feels conversational and pays homage to the rich history of Nigerian music.

So far, they’ve put out artwork that combines Wizkid and King Sunny Ade, Davido and Commander Ebenezer Obey, Show Dem Camp and M.I Abaga. “What we usually do is dig for the older album cover and look for the new one, then we look for the striking elements in each one and start working up ways to combine them”, Dunsin tells me of the pair’s creative process. In addition to fusing album art, they also merge titles and curate a playlist of songs from the respective albums, as a way of paying homage to the artists featured.

With its wholesome packaging, ‘Back to the Future, Vol. 1’ is the work of two music fanatics who happen to be developing visual artists—that much was clear from Dunsin’s vigorous candour throughout our conversation. For the Akure-based duo—operating together as the Blueprint—the series is simultaneously an avenue to showcase their knack for telling compelling stories, and their belief in visual art components as a tool to heighten the experience of listening to songs and entire albums.

Our conversation with Dunsin Bankole has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dunsin Bankole (left) & McQueen Pius (right). Pictures provided by Dunsin.

NATIVE: How did you guys meet and decide to start working together?

Dunsin: We met at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. Funny enough, he was the pastor of this fellowship I used to attend then. I was in part one and he was in part three. He always used to come to my hostel where we used to do these family meetings, every Sunday, and we don’t talk about anything gospel, we just chill and discuss whatever. One day we talked about music and albums, and M.I’s ‘Talk About It’ came up in the mix, I thought, ‘this is a cool guy’. After that, we bonded, became friends and eventually started working together three years ago.

How did you get into graphic design?

For me, I’ve always liked design since I was young. Back then I used to gather the packs of cereal like Nasco cornflakes and Cabin biscuit, I was obsessed with them and how they looked. But I grew up with my mum and she was a pharmacist, so I wanted to be a doctor ‘cos I thought that’d be cool. I wrote my JAMB exams but I couldn’t get into medicine ‘cos I wasn’t smart enough apparently, so I had to choose another course so I decided to pick microbiology. Two years in, I realised microbiology wasn’t it for me, so I started to figure out things I was passionate about. I tried modelling, tried to rap, tried to be a DJ, but I eventually fell into design, and people seemed to love my designs and I stuck with it.

What’s the inspiration behind “Back to the Future, Vol. 1”?

The thing is, we listen to music a lot. We’re passionate about rap music and African music. What we do with the Blueprint is that we design for businesses, but on the side, we also make art and create art direction for artists we like. We’ve been listening to older Nigerian classics recently, then I saw the artwork to King Sunny Ade’s [1982 major label debut album] ‘Afro Juju’ and I couldn’t believe that calibre of cover art was made in the ‘80s. It became an argument ‘cos my friend thought it was probably re-designed, so we did a bit of research and found out it was original, designed by an American artist even. That’s how we became obsessed with cover arts from the past, ‘cause even though a lot of them aren’t great, some are actually really nice.

We then came up with the idea that since people tend to compare modern artists to older ones, let’s just re-imagine that dynamic by combining covers of old classics and newer ones, and also create playlists such that people can actually play these songs and become acquainted with the older music and not just the names. So far, we’ve been able to curate three and we’re looking at putting out ten, ‘cos we want to make sure we’re making the right picks and combinations.

 

How do you go about picking which artists to mix and match?

That’s basically the hard part. What we usually do is dig for the older album cover and look for the new one, then we look for the striking elements in each one and start working up ways to combine them. Like the first one we did that merged King Sunny Ade and Wizkid, the striking element on KSA’s album was that brush stroke and for Wizkid it was his image with those glasses and the stars. So we took the background from KSA’s, pulled in the Wizkid image while also replicating the effect that was on KSA. For due homage to both artists, we used KSA on the glasses instead of ‘Superstar’. Also, we combine album names, so this one is titled ‘Superstar Juju Music’.

Of the three that you have now, which of them came together the fastest?

That would be ‘Talk About These Buhari Times’, the one we combined M.I’s ‘Talk About It’ and Show Dem Camp’s ‘Clone Wars IV, These Buhari Times’. We are huge rap fans, and that one just made sense. SDC’s album art had this plastered effect, so we just took that striking element, put it on the door in M.I’s cover and zoomed it out in a way that pays homage to both albums. We feel like they are two modern Nigerian rap classics.

You guys took a break, so when do you plan on continuing, and which do you consider the most ambitious amongst the ones you have ready?

We’re continuing this weekend, we took a pause ‘cause we’ve been a bit swamped with projects. Number four is two albums by female artists. Of the ones we have, the most ambitious one would be Burna Boy and Fela. That’s kinda obvious but we’re going to put that out towards the end of the series. Thing is Fela’s album arts are iconic, and Burna Boy’s recent album arts have been crazy too, so yeah that’s all I’ll say for now.

Beyond combining elements, how does this series play into your personal styles as graphic designers?

The way we make our own, the focus is to tell a unique story that connects with people, from logos to every other thing we do. With this series, we feel like we’re telling a story of Nigerian album arts through time, and at the end of the series, we plan on writing an article on the evolution of album arts from the ‘80s. For us, this is another avenue of showing that we can tell compelling stories. If you go through the series and the playlists, the stories would actually become clearer to you—that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

Interesting angle on the evolution of album arts. How would you describe their significance, especially in the streaming era where physical copies aren’t a primary way of getting to the music?

I’d say extremely important, even now more than ever, because it’s an avenue for added interaction with the music. Like the vinyl era, you had to pull them out of big cases, so you always had to interact with the cover every time you want to play the music. I think when it got to the CD era, the importance reduced ‘cause people would usually just stack CDs and play them whenever they want. With the advent of streaming, there’s been like an upturn – every time you play the music on Apple Music, Spotify or wherever you actually see the album art. In this case, the relationship between a listener and an album or a song kinda increases because it’s a visual component you can’t escape. It’s why there are album arts with colour schemes that are tweaked to fit the mood of the music.

There’s this new thing on Spotify where you can animate album arts, like the art for Burna Boy’s ‘African Giant’ does that when you go into full-screen mode. WurlD’s new project, ‘AFRO SOUL’ also does that as well. It goes to show that there’s a lot of potential for integrating album covers to fit the mood of the music. Imagine an experimental album where each song has a different colour scheme with the same album art, so when you’re playing an album, it’s another layer of artistic experience. That’s only possible in the streaming era. I feel like we’re just realising all this potential, and our generation is going to be a part of curating all of this so that listeners can experience music on a higher level.

Is that a part of your future plans?

Yeah. We’re looking to create visual art for artists, ‘cos we like music, a lot. We love when artists also tell their stories through visual art, and we feel like not many artists are doing it in this part of the world, but there’s an ongoing change to an extent. Artists are paying better attention to branding their albums, and we want to be a part of that shift in the culture. So the future goal is to create visual arts through photography and designs for young artists who want to tell their stories, and also create amazing experiences for listeners to enjoy.

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