Graphic designer O’Plérou made world headlines with 365 emojis that change the way people see Africa. Now he has turned his creative spotlight onto refugees.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has partnered with Twitter and young Ivorian artist O’Plérou Grebet – known professionally as ‘O’Plérou’ – for the launch of the 2020 World Refugee Day emoji. The emoji, two hands linked together in the shape of a heart, symbolizes solidarity and diversity. O’Plérou, who is on Forbes Africa’s list of young talents under 30, spoke with UNHCR’s Pauline Eluère.
You became known for creating 365 emojis representing elements of West African culture – one for every day of the year. Your work was featured on the BBC and on Al-Ajazeera. Were you surprised?
Yes, I was very surprised by all the attention. I designed these emojis to describe my everyday life in Côte d’Ivoire. I first created them for myself and my friends, but it ended up reaching way more people. My favorite emoji is Zaouli, which is both a traditional dance and a mask of the Guro people in Côte d’Ivoire.
Can you tell me about your childhood?
I was born and raised in Abidjan. I live with my dad and my brothers and sisters. My mum passed on a little while ago. I have three sisters and six brothers and I am the youngest of the family – and the only one to like graphic design! It can sound nice being the youngest, but I have always had to make an extra effort to be noticed.
What have you been doing during the lockdown?
Because of COVID, I have been studying at home for two months. I am going to obtain my Master’s degree in graphic design this year. In my free time I have been learning 3D graphic design with Blender. I am creating traditional African clothing, jewellery and hairstyles for the characters of the SIMS, a life simulation video game published by Electronic Arts.
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou displays some of the emojis he has designed. © UNHCR/Roberto Valussi
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou develops his emojis as sketches on paper before he designs them on the computer. © UNHCR/Roberto Valussi
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou sketches the design of the World Refugee Day 2020 emoji on paper before he moves to the computer. © UNHCR/Roberto Valussi
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou works on the World Refugee Day 2020 emoji on his computer. © UNHCR/Roberto Valussi
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou puts the final touches on his emoji for World Refugee Day 2020. © UNHCR/Roberto Valussi
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou enjoys a traditional meal with a friend at a popular food joint in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. © UNHCR/Roberto Valussi
The World Refugee Day Twitter emoji as designed by Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou. © Picture courtesy of O’Plérou
World Refugee Day is marked each year on 20 June. What does it mean to you to create this year’s emoji?
Refugees are people like everyone else. Just because you find yourself in another country, it does not mean you are worth less. Friends of my parents are refugees. In 2010, there was a crisis in Côte d’Ivoire after the elections. Those who were close to the previous ruling party had to flee for their lives. So, this impacted people I know.
Can you describe the emoji that you have created?
It is two hands linked together in the shape of a heart. I wanted to create an emoji with different people that form an object. And I wanted to show diversity and solidarity.
Do you know that your emoji is going to be associated for 10 days on Twitter with the #WorldRefugeeDay hashtags in several languages?
Yes, I am really happy because it is the first time that I have created an emoji that will be linked to a hashtag. When I created the African symbols, I had in mind that they would be used as emojis. But in fact they are used as images and digital stickers. So this is my first “real” emoji.
What’s next for you?
Apart from what I am doing with the SIMS, I would like to recreate my Ivorian emojis in 3D. If all goes well and the coronavirus goes away, I would like to travel to discover other cultures and create emojis for them. I would like to go to Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa…!
Originally published on UNHCR on 11 June 2020