Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo is a favourite on the arts scenes in Nigeria and the United States, and his mantra, “Everything is my canvas”, borne of a desire to exhibit his work on the go, is taking him everywhere. What is even more interesting, though, is how Sebanjo is seemingly speaking his future into existence.
“On a beautiful Fall day just like this one in 2015, in NY, I was holding a Starbucks cup in my hand, taking in the logo, an Instagram post by visual artist Laolu Senbanjo reads. “I started to imagine my art growing from it. I imposed patterns on it dreaming up different incarnations. I drew designs on the cup, again and again, inspired by the iconic Starbucks Siren. What a dream, then, that 3 years later, I would be part of the 5 artist team that would design limited edition merchandise for Starbucks! Dare to dream!”
Though the artist has come to be respected in his sphere, Senbanjo began his journey as a human rights lawyer in Nigeria’s capital. Typical of where he hails from, career paths have the history of being strictly limited by parents to the sciences. This has seen many studying what is socially acceptable, rather than what they are passionate about. Acceptance has grown, however, in the past few years due to the boom of the gig economy, and also the lack of adequate jobs in those sectors. He quit his job after he finally decided to take up his passion full time, moving to the city of New York to achieve his dream of being an artist.
Sebanjo himself had had family tensions due to his choice to fully pursue arts only assuaged by his grandmother’s stories of Yoruba mythology and her recital of his Oriki, a form of Yoruba poetry consisting of songs of praise, which went on to influence his art. It is believed that if you call someone by their Oríki, determined by a person’s name, it inspires them and evokes innate character traits of fortitude and perseverance. “I believe when you tap into your Ori, then you can move mountains,” Sebanjo said at his TED talk in 2017.
Laolu’s artwork featured on Beyonce’s Lemonade album in 2016
The mystery of the Yoruba markings and the history attached to it are part of the unique things about the performance art ritual Senbanjo has now named ‘The Sacred Art of the Ori’.
“I use the ‘Sacred Art of the Ori’—a ritual that I created, coming from the Yoruba word and ethos, Ori. “In my language, Yoruba ‘Ori’ literally means your essence, your soul, your destiny,” Senbanjo explains in his artist statement. In this ritual, Senbanjo has a conversation with his subjects, then chooses specific symbol and patterns that represent their individual qualities—which ensures that no two of Senbanjo’s designs are alike—in a style of art he calls afromysterics. He coined the term in 2007, which 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, infusing everything he touches with his geometrical patterns.In addition, Senbanjo’s temporary but impactful creations have shed light on contemporary Nigerian artists as well.
The visual artist has collaborated with Nike to design limited edition t-shirts, sneakers, and posters. He also worked with brands like Bulgari for their 2017 limited edition scent (GQ), Empire, Nigerian artist Adekunle Gold About 30 album, the Grammy Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and with Belvedere Vodka for a one-of-a-kind limited edition bottle where he toured Nigeria for a series of co-created art experiences and events to celebrate the launch of the new bottle. But the New York-based artist is most famous for his collaboration with Beyoncé on her visual album Lemonade, for which he painted all of the dancers’ bodies and that of the singer herself.
Senbanjo is still taking in his project which Starbucks which he had indicated interest by painting on a Starbucks cup photographed on a fire hydrant on the streets of New York in 2015.
“Starbucks took me to one of their beautiful stores while in conversation on partnering with this inspiring brand,” he said while speaking of his creative process. “As the barista spoke about how she makes the caramel macchiato, I thought about the journey this coffee bean takes from the highlands of Kenya to Brazil. I thought about the refining, the grinding and the pressing.
“It reminded me of my journey from western Nigeria to Midtown New York and the pressing, grinding and refining of my craft. What an amazing opportunity to partner with Starbucks to create art for their limited-edition #CoffeeStories Espresso Roast Coffee and Merchandise. Stay motivated, stay inspired. Keep learning.”
If the trend of dreams becoming reality continues, Laolu Senbanjo may be due to work with Nasa anytime soon as the artist has put out a request expressing his desire to paint on Space Shuttles. Everything is a canvas, literally