The city of Ilorin in Western Nigeria is home to generations of lawyers, and was founded by the Yoruba—one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. When Laolu Senbanjo was born in Ilorin, his fate was already determined. His father was a lawyer, so he, too, would become a lawyer.
Despite being groomed in the legal field, and eventually becoming a human rights lawyer, Senbanjo always chose art as his first love. This passion created tension within the family, especially between Senbanjo and his father. It was culturally understood that respectable professions were in one of the following fields: law, medicine, or engineering. “I knew if I pursued a career in the arts, I’d have to live with the fact that some people in my hometown might never talk to me again,” says Senbanjo.
Parental objection to pursuing a career in the arts is rooted in a common stereotype – being an artist means being a starving artist. But, who says that has to become your reality? And, more importantly, who determines what your career path will be — you or your parents?
To ease the parental tension and lift his spirits, Senbanjo’s paternal grandmother would recite an Oríki, which is a form of Yoruba poetry consisting of songs of praise. Your name determines your Oríki, and it is believed that if you call someone by their Oríki, it inspires them and evokes innate character traits of fortitude and perseverance. The English translation of Senbanjo’s Oríki is: “You are somebody who has what the West doesn’t have.” As a child, Senbanjo didn’t grasp its meaning, but he always found comfort in his grandmother’s words.
Throughout his upbringing, it was a constant struggle for Senbanjo to suppress his interest in the arts in order to follow the expected path of becoming a lawyer. He settled on the reality that, if he sacrificed sleep, he could pursue both law and art. However, when he could no longer function on sleepless nights, Senbanjo accepted his artistic talents and made the valiant leap to pursue a career in the arts full-time.
Today, Senbanjo’s style of art, Afromysterics, incorporates African themes and African traditions. He coined the term in 2007, and it means the mystery of the African thought pattern. Since moving to the United States in 2013, his unique style has resulted in commissions and partnerships from celebrities and brand titans including Nike, Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, the Grammy Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution.
We recently sat down with the New York-based visual artist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. to discuss how he overcame parental objection to pursue a career in the arts and how he maintains creative control when working with brands and celebrities.
Your family was hell-bent on you becoming a lawyer. How did they react when you expressed your interest in the arts?
From a young age, I was taught that to be a lawyer is to be seen as somebody. Even as a law student, you’re given respect from your peers and society. However, I always had an interest in sketching and music. When I was 14 years old, my art teacher told my father that I had a special gift. My father’s response was, “Okay. But that is not what you’re supposed to do.” Although I went on to study law at Nigeria’s University of Ilorin, my first love remained art. I’d stay up all night using charcoal to sketch intricate patterns and images. During my second year of law school I reached my tipping point and told my parents I was going to drop out of law school to pursue art full-time.
My father completely flipped out, and his friends, my uncles, and my brother met with me to provide counsel. “What’s wrong with you? You have an opportunity to be a lawyer. Finish three more years, and you’ll be out before you know. You can always have art as backup. You’ll thank us,” they said. My brother added, “If you drop out, I won’t support you when we’re older.” My mother pleaded, “Please don’t destroy my family!”
The only thing my father said was, “Fumi, talk to your son. I didn’t give birth to this kind of child.” In a Yoruba family, when a father says, “Talk to your son,” it is a very strong statement because it automatically means that you become your mother’s problem, and he cuts himself off. It also creates tension outside the home because everyone will say, “He doesn’t listen to anyone.” But, when a child becomes successful, he is his father’s son.
How did your father try to dissuade you from pursuing the arts?
Whenever I mentioned art to my father, he would tell me, “You’re majoring in your minor, and you’re minoring in your major.” I often thought to myself, Who determines what my major is—my father or me? One afternoon, my father wanted to show me firsthand how artists in Nigeria live, and he drove me around the slums. “See that artist! Is that how you really want to live?” he asked. This experience messed with my psyche, and I’ll never forget the squalid conditions in which the artists lived. They were completely isolated, and society did not reckon them as people who could stand up for anyone.
So, I persisted through three more years of law school and received my degree in 2005. It never stops with African parents. You have to keep racking up degrees, but when you get them, your life is gone. In their eyes, they see you as better off because of your degrees instead of what you achieve.
I practiced as a human rights lawyer for five years, and spent my final three years working at the National Human Rights Commission. I was the senior legal officer and focused on women and children’s rights. I’d travel to different parts of Northern Nigeria visiting schools and villages to educate men and women about why children should be in school. We also served as a shield for girls who were being forced into early marriages. Girls would run to our office or write letters, and we would try to help them by taking them to shelters. My eyes were opened to this epidemic through my practice. Somehow I always found time to continue making art on the side. I loved helping people, but I also knew my art was like a monster just waiting to unleash its power. When I told my father I needed money for art he said, “Nobody has money for that stuff!”
What strategies did you use to overcome negative opinions of pursuing an art career?
There were moments when I felt very misunderstood and ostracized. It was painful to watch people downplay what I held as my truth. People want to tell you “This is who you are versus who you know you are.” It’s difficult for people to understand, because you can be a lot of things to different people. However, every time I picked up my pen and sketched anything, it was an act of reassurance that I could do this. This was my survival mechanism.
I was also inspired by people’s reaction and connection to my art. I could see that my work made people feel something special. I never made people feel this way with my law practice. Art is a powerful channel that can move fast and change a whole generation.
Most importantly, I had to create a chosen family. In 2010, I quit my job to pursue art full-time, and started the Laolu Senbanjo Art Gallery in Abuja, Nigeria. I put all my money into it and didn’t make much back, but I was happy. My family never bought my art, and that was painful. I befriended a curator named Osi, and he became my curator. My friend Daisy played the guitar and we would gather amazing musicians, poets, and artists at the gallery. It was my safe haven where I could create magic with people who understood me. Additionally, through my space, I got put in contact with people from the American Embassy and Jamaican Embassy who bought my art, and connected me with other people locally to hold exhibitions. By the time I applied for my visa to come to the U.S., many of the employees at the American Embassy already knew me. It’s important to find people who will support you.
How did you develop your craft?
Whether I’m using charcoal, ink, or another medium, you must consistently find different ways to apply it. I learn through trial and error and by watching people. I have always paid attention to details and can look at any surface, even a table, and create complex patterns. The challenge is taking the ideas in my head, and putting them onto paper. It’s stressful when the two don’t match, but I’ve learned that what’s on the canvas is meant to be there. Once I nailed my style, I knew I could do it on any surface—even the human body, which I call the Sacred Art of the Ori. This Yoruba body painting ritual is a spiritually- intimate experience, and it’s cathartic for me and my muse.
When you find your gift, you have to own it. Art is pure and honest. Every time I put my mark on something, it’s going to stop you in your tracks, and you’re going to feel something. If it doesn’t, I’m not doing my job. People want a formula, but I say, “Just do you.”
You moved to New York City in 2013. How did you go from lawyer-turned-artist to landing crazy commissions with Nike, Beyoncé and others?
Things didn’t happen immediately, and it was difficult acclimating to the culture and pace of New York City. I joined fellow musicians in Brooklyn to form a band and consistently created artwork to post on my digital platforms and website. My father would call just to make sure I was alive or say, “When you’re done with this art craze, let us know.” I experienced a series of minor successes and failures until Nike handpicked me as a Master of Air to create a T-shirt and sneaker design for AIR MAX CON 2016. I was the only black and Nigerian amongst the team of masters, so when the announcement went live, Nigerian media ran with the story.
My brother called to congratulate me, and said that our father was bragging about me to everyone. “That’s my son,” he’d say. I knew that was going to happen.
What was it like collaborating with Nike?
It was cool, and I wish I could do an entire line with them. Both of my custom designs sold out! I’m currently working on a project with Nike South Africa, but I can’t say much else about that project. One thing about working with a brand like Nike is there’s more bureaucracy in the decision-making process, but I still felt like I maintained creative freedom. For one, they approached me because of my Afromysterics style, so they knew what they were getting. Brands come to you because they see something special or something they’d like to capitalize on. And, for me, it’s a blessing to be in a unique space talking about our culture, our themes, and putting Afromysterics at the forefront.
How did Beyoncé find you, and what was it like collaborating on her visual album, Lemonade, which literally put your body art—Sacred Art of the Ori—on the map?
I was surprised when Beyoncé’s team contacted me, but at the same time I wasn’t. What I do, very few people can. When they called, I was hired on the spot, and there was no recommendation, interview, trial run or anything. They found me through social media, and checked all my stuff on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to be sure I was actually the guy doing what I was doing.
When I arrived on set, I was surrounded by veterans who could rifle off all the celebrities they’d worked with in the past 10 to 20 years. Even though I was new to the scene, there was a mutual respect for my craft. They had to create my title because my role did not exist. I’m not a makeup artist; I’m an “artist on set.”
Beyoncé shared her vision with me for the song, Sorry, and told me she admired my work. Then, she simply said, “Do you.” I’ve never been more proud of myself, and just brought my A-game. The cameramen were congratulating me after the shoot, and I didn’t see how much airtime my art received until Lemonade debuted in April 2016. It’s amazing for someone to see what you do, and put it in on that kind of stage. Now, people everywhere in the world have seen my art, and I get emails from people in Australia, Japan, the U.S. and other countries who are inspired by my work.
As crazy as it sounds, when Lemonade came out, I met other musicians and celebrities who were like, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, but when we saw your stuff in Beyonce’s video, we thought we were late.” That’s how you know Beyoncé is a real businesswoman. Some people see things before they happen. Others watch things happen. While others are like, “What the hell happened?” The question is—where do you want to be?
More celebrities have jumped on your designs, and you will be releasing some projects with major brands next year. How do you manage the pressure of living up to high expectations?
I’m currently working on a project with Swizz Beatz & The Dean Collection, which will come out next year in London, and he’s been putting my name out to everyone. It’s crazy because sometimes the people you hold up are there holding you up! I never want to let my clients down, so I do what I’m there to do—my art. As a pioneer in the Afrofuturism movement, I consider it my duty to keep creating and to continue pushing boundaries. My art is never a job, just another exploration.
My grandmother passed in 2001, and I recently just blurted out my Oríkì: “You are somebody who has what the West doesn’t have.” Now, it all makes sense. In fact, it’s never made more sense.
Has your relationship with your father changed?
We are good friends now. I love him. I came to understand that Yoruba parents have to get outside their own reality, which is difficult because they have no reference point for you. They haven’t seen anyone who has done what you do before. They only see you as an extension of themselves. From their perspective, any extension that is unfamiliar cannot be extraordinary. Up until 2015, there was no art of mine in my father’s house.
A Yoruba father will never apologize, but something powerful he told me was this: “We are your parents and you taught us something about art and being an artist. Parents are like children—they don’t know what they don’t know.”