If the work of Wilfred Limonious seems familiar, you are either a paid-up dancehall fan – or you’ve seen Ferry Gouw’s homage to his style across the visuals for Major Lazer, which has morphed from mixing dancehall with harder styles to a full-blown pop project that headlined the Lovebox festival here in London last month.
Limonious’ art and design reflects true dancehall's humour and boastfulness with brash use of colour and characters with exaggerated personalities and actions – often packed with detail and speech bubbles containing agitated patois.
Much of Limonious’ artwork would have been lost or hidden in private collections if it wasn’t for Christopher Bateman and Al 'Fingers' Newman, who have scoured the globe to bring together the artist’s work for a new book, In Fine Style – written by Christopher and edited by Al. It’s a comprehensive collection of Limonious’ work from early illustrations for the JAMAL educational organisation to mainstream newspaper cartoons like Chicken – which preceded his work for dancehall acts that first emerged in the late 1970s as a reaction to increasing politicisation of reggae.
I caught up with Al and Christopher to learn more about Limonious – and their own attachment to the project.
Neil Bennett: "What do you love most about Wilfred Limonious' art?"
Christopher Bateman: "His seemingly boundless sense of fun, his bright and bold colours and his ability to build a scene."
Al Newman: "Also the way he drew characters, and his hand-drawn typography was a cut above the rest. And the energy of his art. His work was often very quickly executed, and in that sense it lent itself perfectly to dancehall music which was a super-fast-moving genre of music."
NB: "Why did you want to do a retrospective now?"
CB: "I don't quite think it was a matter of us waiting for the right time to do the retrospective. I think it just happened that both Al and I were excited about doing something like this around the same time."
NB: "Most people in the UK – outside of dancehall fans – will likely know Limonious style of art from its influence on the album cover art of Major Lazer. How well known was Limonious and his art in Jamaica during the 1970s and 80s?"
CB: "I would say that if you were paying attention to reggae and dancehall record releases in the 1980s, then you would be very familiar with his album covers. I spoke to many people in Jamaica who remembered him for his newspaper cartoons, some even being surprised to hear that he did album covers. I would not go as far to say that his was a household name across the island though."
AN: "Yeah, Jamaican people of a certain age might associate his name more with the newspaper cartoons, as he was active for a long time as a newspaper cartoonist – from the 70s up into the 90s – and some of his strips became quite popular. But I don't think he was generally well known as an album cover designer on the island.
"Many Jamaicans may also have been familiar with his book covers and illustrations for JAMAL, which was a national literary program and quite a big deal, but I don't think they would have known who did the artwork necessarily."
NB: "What has Limonious’ influence been on the art and design of dancehall-records-not-produced-by-mainstream-dance-artists after his death?"
CB: "For anyone making music in the spirit of early dancehall, using Limonious-style artwork makes total sense. The artwork for the EP Douster produced for Mixpak is absolutely inspired by Limonious' jacket for Papa San's Animal Party LP.
AN: "There's also the cover for Kranium's single Nobody Has To Know, which is a take on Limonious' cover for Super Cat's Si Boops Deh LP. Plus there's Ellen G from Israel, who's illustrated covers for labels like Jahtari and Mungo's HiFi, and I would say has been influenced by Limonious, and Henrik Hellberg from Sweden who's illustrated covers in a Limonious style. A lot of graffiti writers have also been very influenced by Limonious' work.
NB: "To an outsider, Chicken is very reminiscent of popular British newspaper strip comics like Andy Capp. Is it reasonable to link Chicken to Limonious’ time in the UK [where he spent time in the 1970s], or were comic strips like this a staple of newspapers in Jamaica too?"
AN: "It's possible that Limonious was influenced by Andy Capp and maybe other UK comic strips as he created Chicken shortly after returning from the UK, as far as we can tell. I have also wondered whether he might have been exposed to The Beano while he was in the UK.
"I think it's quite likely he would have known about British comics, but it's difficult to say which ones. Also, I think that kind of comic already existed in Jamaica, it wasn't necessarily something new that came with Chicken, would you say Chris?"
CB: "The Jamaican newspapers ran syndicated strips before Limonious went to the UK, so I feel like if he had been influenced by Andy Capp, that he wouldn't have had to go to the UK for it. But I can't say for sure."
NB: "As in Andy Capp etc, the portrayal of women in Chicken – often objectified or portrayed as ‘harpies' – can be uncomfortable to a reader in 2016. Should we just look at this as a product of its time?"
CB: "I think we should definitely see much of Limonious' work as a product of it's time and place. As non-Jamaicans, I feel like it would be inappropriate to try and draw conclusions along any sort of moral line with this one."