Name: O’Plérou Grebet
Hometown: Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Now lives: With his family in a single-story house in Abidjan.
Claim to fame: Using text messages as his medium, Mr. Grebet is an Ivorian digital artist who has created more than 365 free emojis that portray contemporary African life, including a zebra-striped plastic teakettle sold in Senegalese markets, hair braids and a shekere, a West African percussion instrument made with a dried gourd. The emojis, which he calls Zouzoukwa (which translates roughly as “image” in the regional Bété language), have been downloaded on more than 120,000 Android phones and iPhones since their release last year.
Latest project: The African Talents Awards, which recognize young Africans in creative fields, recently named Zouzoukwa the best app of 2019. Mr. Grebet also uploaded new emojis based on Paquinou, an Easter festival celebrated in the Ivory Coast. “People reach out to tell me what they think I should design, or what they think is missing,” he said. “Those interactions are some of the aspects I like best about what I do.”
Next thing: After mastering two-dimensional avatars, he wants to start “sharing African culture” using augmented reality. He also hopes to start an e-commerce site, he said, “so people could buy clothes, phone cases and other objects made from my work.”
Truth in Pixels: His oeuvre may be cartoonish, but he aims for verisimilitude. “I have to travel and discover other African countries,” he said. “I have to immerse myself in their cultures in order to create emojis that truly represent them, instead of looking for pictures on the internet about meals I never tasted or places I never went to.”