It’s not uncommon to wonder what brings an artist from obscurity to attention. How do some names burst forth and leave an imprint of their work—and name—on the brains of people across the world? A little more than half-a-decade ago Laolu Senbanjo was a lawyer (like his father and brother) in Nigeria. Acknowledging that it wasn’t the future he wanted, Senbanjo moved to the States, began making art and now his extraordinary, narrative paintings—on canvas, clothing and flesh—have appeared everywhere from Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album to his own “The Sacred Art of the Ori” talk for the TED Conference. Now known as simply Laolu or Laolu NYC, the artist has brought Yoruba patterns and Nigerian symbols to the forefront of cultural consciousness. In the process, he coined the term Afromysterics to define it all. But in meeting Laolu one begins to understand what makes an artist beloved: the work matches the person, their passion is the same and their chemistry is undeniable.
“A lot of the art is a language. It’s a type of coding,” he explains to us. “It’s from the Yoruba style of art. The Yoruba are people from the southwestern part of Nigeria. A lot of their work has to do with lines and patterns, eyes and faces.” Laolu has immersed himself into the style, which influenced him from early childhood onward. “My grandmother would paint herself and her clothes, and she’d tell me stories of the mythology,” he says. “I’ve been able to take this style and infuse it into what I want to say.” Each and every work—landscape, figurative or both—invokes his personal translation of this artistic language.
Much of Laolu’s professional life prior to being an artist influences the charisma in his work. “When I quit my job as a human rights lawyer it was hard being around the people I had known my whole life. Everyone thought I was going to come back to the job. Everyone thought I was crazy,” he says. “My family wanted to know how I planned to survive. They thought I gave something up—not that I was seeking something out. They also said, ‘You’re not that great. We all draw. How do you stand out?'” Laolu was lost for a year or so—and then he moved to the US for rebirth. “I got sucked into Brooklyn,” he adds, “And I saw that there were people living their truth.”
His life became producing work and trying to connect with others in the art world. It was rigorous and filled with opposition. He didn’t go to art school, something many gallerists noted. Others said his work didn’t fit into their client base. Then, “Someone introduced me to the Flatbush Artists network. I joined them. In two months there was a show and they wanted to put my art in it,” he says. His work was different from everything else there. Later, Catherine Green of Arts East New York saw some pieces and gave him a show. It was an emotional and commercial breakthrough. Later Green commissioned Laolu for his first mural. From there, interest has been exponential.
The diversity of his background—and studying law, in particular—acts as continued inspiration. “I saw human rights abuses, especially against women and children. I needed to be a voice here,” he says. This also motivated him to use skin as a canvas. “The human body is reactive. It is participatory. It is so involved in the creation,” he adds. And the work is almost collaborative with the person being painted on: “We share a vibe and I interpret what the person is telling me about themselves. It is drawing in the negative sense, using the skin as the paint.”
With such fervor, everything became his canvas—not just canvas and flesh. “I made custom jackets for people and told their story on them. Each was a one of one. People loved that. It appealed to them—and sold itself.” And his want for collaboration and broader artistic platforms lead to work with Beyoncé. “Videos are moving art,” he begins. “The time we are in now, everything is a vortex. There is huge amount of content everywhere but there’s still some content that is missing in terms of representation. There are styles that are not mainstream. For all the people that are in the world, there were so many who had never seen Yoruba art until they had seen my work.” The video for “Sorry” certainly acted as a catalyst for many.
Laolu’s latest happens to be a Belvedere bottle—and it’s more than an example of a brand tapping a forward-thinking artist. “Back in Nigeria, people were screaming ‘Whoa, that’s our bottle,'” he says about the reaction. “This was my dream—two, three or four years ago—to bring Yoruba art to the forefront. When Belvedere embraced that, it got to the whole world. He notes that they gave him enough room on the bottle—and took out the palace and the trees—in order for him to wrap up his art as he pleased. Further, it was produced in collaboration with (RED), meaning it literally gives back to people in Nigeria.
As for pinpointing his allure, Laolu describes it as “a plethora of events that have happened before now,” that have granted his success. “It wasn’t this cool to be African—or this African—before now. People have been knocking on these doors for decades. I have to give credit to those people. Now, there’s awareness. There’s Wakanda. It’s powerful.” He notes that timing is everything and it’s valuable to credit everyone’s art as valid—but his own growing mythology touches something universal.
“It is more than art for me now,” he says. “When people see me they don’t say that they love my art—they say they ‘love my story’ or ‘I love what you’re doing.’ It’s a role I never wanted to be in—a leader of some sort. Now I have to be perfect, and I’ve come to embrace that.” His next mission: find a way to paint on a spaceship. “No-one has done that,” he concludes. “I need to put that out there.”
Images by David Graver