The Sacred Art Of Laolu Senbanjo
Laolu Senbanjo’s rise to fame was not fortuitous. From his house in Nigeria’s north-central state of Kwara, where he taught himself how to paint on marble floors, his art has appeared on bodies of celebrities like Beyoncé and Alicia Keys to products of global brands such as Nike and Bulgari.
Laolu has come a long way since he quit his job as Senior Legal Officer at the Human Rights Commission in Abuja and moved to the United States in 2013, where his art called Afromysterics, which is the representation of the African thought pattern through his chosen medium – the Sacred art of Ori, blossomed.
His decision to leave the country was pivotal to his success. The main reason for this for him was the pressure from family and friends to get a job. He says, “I just feel like I needed to change the environment to be myself and just explore; that’s why I went to New York and the rest is history.” Almost like a need to clear up the air, he says, “I didn’t learn anything in New York; everything that I did there is the same thing that I did here.”
The representation of Ori according to him is a concept he developed that draws inspiration from Yoruba mythology. As Ori, loosely translated to a personal god, is individualistic, so is its representation in Laolu’s work.
“What I do is I listen to your vibes and take elements from your Ori; your Ori could simply mean your vibe, it could mean your light, your intuition, it could mean a lot of things. If you give me a vibe of one of the Orishas, for example maybe Osun, Oya, Obatala or Sango, I take elements, existing patterns from these deities, and put those patterns on your skin. What I’m doing is transporting you from who you are now back in the past and putting you back in that person.”
Linking these African thoughts and patterns with lines, he has been able to create a roadmap of different subjects’ journeys as well as used his art to start a conversation and interpret his views of the world through his patterns.
But, in spite of the impacts his art has created, Laolu admits that his mastery of the mystery of Ori is not total at this point. It is expected his art will evolve as his understanding of the sacred art develops further. He says,
“There’s so much existing under Yoruba mythology in Nigeria, West Africa. Nigeria alone has over 500 languages; that’s a lot of ethnicities and culture in one spot. What I’m doing is just one, which is Yoruba.”
The journey to becoming the artist he is known for today wasn’t an easy one. When asked how he was able to hone his craft while practising law, he says, “I didn’t stop, I just practised a lot more.” Quitting his job as a lawyer did not signify the end of being an activist for social change.
As a lawyer with Nigeria’s rights commission, he was tasked with the education of parents in the Northern region of the country on the Child’s Right Act. He says, “This opened my eyes to my own privilege and understanding that I didn’t have to go through that and I know a lot of people didn’t have to go through that. It opened my eyes to poverty and classism in the Nigerian society. This is why some people will never attain a certain level of work in their life just because of their background, because their parents don’t see the reason for their education.” Moreover, he became aware of the vulnerability and many troubles of the girl child in the region.
The effect of this on Laolu’s work is pretty obvious as he reveals it’s why he does a lot of his work on women as a thing of elevation, saying, “A lot of my work centres around women as a cornerstone of the African society.” Leaving that job to concentrate on his art has not deterred Laolu from speaking against the harsh treatment of the girl child in Nigeria.
Through one of his works called Dreamscape, an intricately patterned painting, he highlights how the future of the girl child is determined by where she’s born.
“Children have no control over where they are born, so why should your life depend on that environment? And that in itself is something that disturbs me.” He adds, “[They] become sexualised depending on the environment they are and some girls at the age of 15, 20 are already adults because they’ve seen so much. I talk to some of them and when you look at them you can tell and it just breaks my heart because this is just a child but this child is already a woman.”
Global recognition came for Laolu when Beyoncé worked with him on a video for a track off her visual album Lemonade. His art was featured on the bodies of Beyoncé and some of the dancers in the track Sorry. His feature in the four-minute video catapulted his art to the world. It also initiated his parent’s acceptance of his art, as he recalls his dad calling him to ask, “Laolu, who is Beyoncé?”
Hitherto, his father was not disposed to him dumping his law career for art. Speaking on the acceptance, he says, “At the end of the day, every Nigerian parent just wants to be proud of their child and, if that thing is outside their reality, it’s hard for them to connect with it.” He is also quick to add that, “But they see it now because everything is changing; the whole concept of being successful and the method of being successful is changing.”
As the global acclaim blooms, Laolu finds himself becoming an international face of the Nigerian culture, a role he is happy to embrace. “I just want to be able to let other people around the world know that Nigeria is blessed with a lot of people like me,” he says.
“I’ve just been fortunate to have the chance to take advantage of opportunities that have been presented to me. I just want people to know that Nigeria is not just about 419 scams and bad governance; we have people who can work really hard, we have talent and culture; we have things we can actually sell to the rest of the world, things that can make other countries jealous.”
Even with the fame that he has, Laolu is still being stereotyped because of his county of birth. He is visibly miffed every Nigerian in the diaspora is deemed a scammer. “You just don’t use one broad stroke to brush everybody up,” he says. “Everyone isn’t a scammer because you’ve had one bad encounter with one person. I try to educate them as much as possible. When they know who I am and what I’m doing in the world, they begin to think differently; it paints a good picture. I’m trying my possible best [not to] let my people down because, at the end of the day, I’ve never felt more Nigerian than I feel right now, being outside Nigeria.”
When he is not painting, Laolu is making music. His genre is subsumed under the broader umbrella of Afromysterics and complements his visual art. “A lot of my art is interpreted into music; a lot of my music is interpreted as art,” he says, adding, “I like to play music, not because I want to be able to perform, but because it’s how I live.”
He is working on a visual album and would like to work with genius producer Cobhams.
To Nigerian artists with similar backgrounds as himself, he says, “Everybody’s journey is different. Try as much as possible to understand you and listen to yourself because I also did not listen to anybody. I was very stubborn. Sometimes you just have to trust yourself because your body knows you more than anybody else; pay attention to those things.”
To artists he mentors, he says, “Take advantage of what you have, go to school, learn all that you can, but at the same time don’t lose your own creativity because that alone is what is going to set you apart.”
How does Laolu manage the expectations of being an artist with global acclaim? He doesn’t let it get to him. He says, “I don’t see it like I’ve accomplished a lot. I just feel like I’m still scratching the surface because there’s a lot to do. I just see my work as work and whatever needs to be done, I get it done.”