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Laolu Senbanjo: I Was a Struggling Immigrant Artist, Then Beyoncé Called

Laolu Senbanjo: I Was a Struggling Immigrant Artist, Then Beyoncé Called 

-Andrea Arterbery

Laolu Senbanjo gave up his job as a Human-Rights Lawyer in Nigeria to move to New York and follow his dream.

Laolu Senbanjo didn’t know what to expect when he gave up his human-rights attorney job in Ilorin, Nigeria, to pursue his dream of making it as an artist in New York: After arriving in Brooklyn in 2013, with no support from his immediate family, he quickly faced rejections from art galleries and soon found himself a struggling artist.

Laolu Senbanjo says his mantra is “everything is my canvas,” and he shows his work on everything from human bodies to sneakers.

But he kept going and, less than five years later, he’s had his artwork — bold designs that draw heavily on his Yoruba heritage and feature ancient Nigerian symbols and patterns — featured on Nike apparel and on dancers in Beyoncé’s epic performance-art video Lemonade. It’s all thanks to being discovered on platforms like Instagram, where the 35-year-old has built more than 130,000 followers and is also outspoken on social-justice issues such as Black Lives Matter. Here, Senbanjo, whose mantra is “everything is my canvas” and showcases his work on everything from human bodies to sneakers, explains his rapid ascent in the New York art world.

How Did Your Parents React When You Said You Wanted To Quit Your Stable JOB To Become An Artist?
My parents wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, and it was hard going against what my parents wanted me to be. I’d been doing art in Nigeria, but it really didn’t pick up because having a 9-5 made it hard. I went from that to doing my 5-9 — my nighttime was art. So, I moved to New York [in 2013] to pursue my dream as an artist. I moved to Brooklyn and lived with my aunt.

One of the highest and lowest points of my life is when I decided to do art full-time, because I didn’t get support immediately — I remember my mom and dad stopped talking to me [until Lemonade came out]. The reason they began speaking to me again is because they saw what I had done and were proud.

What Were Your First Days In New York Like?
I thought when I came to New York that, boom! I was going to make it. It was a rude shock. I had some savings from my last job, but it was still hard. I would go to galleries to try and meet with curators, and they would be like, “This doesn’t fit with our type of art,” or, “Clients aren’t going to buy this type of art.” I didn’t have an agent, and most people told me that, because of this, I didn’t stand a chance.

So What Did You Do Instead To Get Noticed?
I used to put my art in coffee shops, ones like Café Madeline in Bed-Stuy, to help them beautify the space. People would ask about it, and if I sold art from the café, I would get a commission. I gave customized shoes to a [shop owner] in Brooklyn named Moshood, and people would approach him all the time asking where he got [them], and he would tell them about me. So then I started making customized shoes for people for $100. I used things like their birthdays [as inspiration] — you know, things that were really personal. People really liked that. I also started hanging out in Soho and met some artist friends and just put art on the sidewalks. In 2015 I got a call from Nike to do a limited-edition poster, T-shirts, and a shoe for Airmax. That was a pretty huge moment in my career. And then Beyoncé happened.

What Were You Doing When Beyoncé’sTeam Called?
I was in my apartment, just painting away — I had no idea that Beyoncé had found me on her own on Instagram. I got an e-mail from Parkwood [Entertainment] asking if I wanted to be a part of her music video, and I was like, “Of course! Hell yes!” I had to sign a bunch of nondisclosures for the project before they told me what I would be working on. They asked me to come to New Orleans for a meeting. Part of me felt like it was a joke, like someone was just trying to play a prank on me. We filmed Lemonade about eight months prior to when it came out in 2016, so it was a long wait and I couldn’t tell anybody. After it came out, everyone wanted to know who I was — like, “Who is this guy that worked with Beyoncé?

What Was It Like Working On-Set With Beyoncé And Her Team?
There was something in that moment that was always telling me that, “This is going to be something.” I was thinking about, you know, what happens after this. And I was thinking that my life was about to change. I remember working with the dancers, and they were all smiling at me and like, “You know she’s about to go crazy for you, right?” And I was like, “OK, we’ll see!” I knew what I was doing, but, I was like, “Yo, man. I don’t even know how I got here!”

Beyoncé [knew] about my shoes, my jackets, Yoruba mythology — we had a lot to talk about. The fact that she was actually paying attention to what I was doing was kind of refreshing. It’s one thing to meet someone that you respect so much, but then that person shows you a mutual respect. She told me just to bring my skills to the music.

The moment the filming stopped, and everyone gave me the thumbs-up, that was just crazy. And she has the most amazing team. I didn’t have to tell them not to wear makeup before painting them. You know, stuff like that. They said, “We are going to let you do your thing first, and then they [the dancers] can come to hair and makeup.”

In addition to working with Beyoncé, Laolu has collaborated with brands like Nike.

How Did You Come Up With The Art YOU Painted On Everyone?
It was pretty much just moving my art from the canvas to the human body. It’s the Sacred Art of the Ori. In Yoruba mythology, “Ori” means your “soul” or “essence,” with the idea being that tapping into it will help you achieve anything. I created the Sacred Art of the Ori as a way to share my heritage and to change the narrative of African art. So, what I did was kind of take different patterns and different Orishas, or spirits, that I felt at the moment and put them on everyone. It’s a very deep experience.

The Sacred Art of the Ori just came to me after I started the process of painting. I was super excited to work on this project with Beyoncé, because more people had been asking questions about Oriba mythology, and I think our stories should be told more. We can take this mythology and make it modern.

What’s It Like To Go From No One Knowing Your Art To Literally Everyone Requesting It?
I’m just excited to be able to do what I love and to just inspire and encourage other people back home to pursue their dreams and never give up on themselves. I don’t think art should be limited to just the four walls of a gallery. Art should be everywhere, for everyone.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

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