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You might not know the name Laolu Senbanjo, but there's a good chance you've seen his work, which has appeared everywhere from magazine covers to music videos. Born and raised in Ilorin, Nigeria, Senbanjo previously worked as a human rights lawyer before leaving the field in 2010 to start his own gallery in Abuja, later moving to Flatbush, Brooklyn in 2013 to immerse himself in the area's diverse Afro-Caribbean community. There he flourished, coining a new style of art, Afromysterics, a technique that combines traditional African themes and Nigeria's unique Yoruba designs with a Basquiat-esque modern art sensibility.
With a personal mantra of "everything is my canvas," Senbanjo's paintings have adorned jackets, shoes, and, most famously, Beyonce—the artist crafted the distinctive body art adorning the singer in her haunting, Afro-centric “Sorry" video, off 2016's Grammy Award-winning LEMONADE. In addition to the Queen of Pop, the artist has also collaborated with Nike, The Smithsonian Institute, and The Washington Post (to name a few), his striking patterns appearing in the personal collections of Janelle Monáe, Alicia Keys, and Usher. Now, we catch up with the Senbanjo to discuss his whirlwind life and process.
First off, what made you decide to leave human rights law and become an artist?
“Growing up, I always wanted to be an artist. But in Nigeria, many don’t consider art a viable profession. It would have been going against the grain. So I went to law school, like my father and my brother did before. But art just kept calling, so I quit my job and began working with embassies, later traveling to Germany, South Africa, and France. I came back and was more open-minded about my profession. I knew I wanted to do art full-time and for the rest of my life, and since then I’ve never felt more alive.”
Beyond a change of scenery, what did your move to the U.S. do for your work and creative process?
"Coming to Brooklyn gave me a whole new network of artists that put me in local exhibitions. People here really loved my art. But I didn’t have an agent and wanted to get into museums and galleries. So I started to put work on jackets and shoes, really everything. Suddenly, everyone wanted to not just 'see' themselves in the art, but to actually be in the art itself."
And that’s when you started working on "The Sacred Art of the Ori"? Your ritual body art meant to capture an essence or destiny.
"Yes, I would tell people they were 'becoming the art.' Using patterns from traditional African mythology, I would paint on the skin, helping many in my community connect with their African, especially West African, heritage. It’s a special privilege to be a bridge, to connect people to art in that kind of unique, intimate space. From there, my work took on a life of its own, and I began to collaborate with Usher, Nike, it just got crazy. People fell in love with it. And it became such an opportunity to showcase this other language I had created."
Around this time you began to get several celebrity commissions. What was it like having Beyonce personally DM you?
“Beyonce saw my work on Instagram, and when she first reached out, I thought it was a hoax. That someone was trying to pull my leg. But then I asked for a meeting and signed a nondisclosure agreement saying I wouldn’t talk about LEMONADE to outsiders. I kept wondering when someone was going to ask me for money, or if it was a scam. But then suddenly I was in New Orleans, virtually treated like a rock star. I get to the hotel, and on the fourth floor, Beyonce is there, saying “Hi, I’m Beyonce, great job you’re doing, I’m a big fan of your work.” It was a pinch myself moment. That she wanted me to put my work on the album, in my own language.”
How did you conceptualize the work for the video?
"When you listen to the song, the back and forth movements reminded me of the connection to slavery, people being forced to move and migrate. The movement of water, which travels back and forth. All of this influenced my work and allowed me to draw on new imagery."
How do you think your past profession as a lawyer has influenced your current work?
“I worked as a human rights lawyer advocating for women and children in Nigeria, and have been praying for an opportunity to merge that part of me with what I do as an artist. My newest collaboration with Belvedere Vodka finally gave me that opportunity. A proceed of each bottle goes to (Red)—Bono’s charitable organization, which Belvedere has partnered with for eight years—to help those with HIV and AIDS in Nigeria. When I would travel to these regions as a human rights lawyer, I saw for myself how difficult the situation is and wanted to help. So this has become a very personal project and given me a lot of opportunities to check my privilege, while also creating something that can reach a lot of people."
What inspired your new work for Belvedere?
"With Belvedere, you can see the passion. If you look through the bottle, you can see a heart pattern. You can feel the texture on the outside. Feel the passion and the balance of elements, and which is a very common idea in Yoruba culture, which I come from. I included a triangle, which represents balance, and there’s also a little eye, meant to reveal inner beauty. I wanted to create something that when people are done using it, they can put it on their shelves and it can become an art piece."