LAOLU SENBANJO ON MOULDING HIS IDENTITY AND ARTFORM
Laolu Senbanjo is an acclaimed artist most popular for his style – Afromysterics, which he interprets as the mystery of the African thought pattern. His signature has been branded by Beyoncé and most recently Belvedere vodka. In this interview he discusses the importance of navigating spaces without ever losing sight of one’s identity and history. After leaving a career in law, he is dedicated more than ever to pursue his calling in art.
How do all your identities: as Black, Nigerian and Yoruba inform your work?
I always drew inspiration from my Yoruba culture upbringing and even developed the Sacred Art of the Ori body painting performance, which is based on Yoruba mythology. Being Nigerian gives me a consciousness that I can have a voice that speaks to issues that are distinctly Nigerian through my art. “Adding” on being Black allows me an opportunity to identify with my Diaspora brothers and sisters and participate in their reality too. I have come to embrace all these identities and include this conversation in my pieces.
You are well versed with human rights law specifically women and children’s rights. What is your stance on the dire state of women as the Other?
Yes, I worked in northern Nigeria where some communities continue the practice of marrying off young girls, some as young as seven. My work involved representing the cases of these young girls and allowing them to be spared this injustice, as well as an opportunity to go to school. Having understood that strength is strength, power is power and ability is ability, we must also understand that both men and women are equally capable of whatever they aspire to be, even if we have often required women to take up predetermined “spaces”. Women are not the “other”. To quote a saying I heard before, “Women own half the sky”.
Your signature “Afromysterics” is indicative of your indigenous identity. How intentional is this and what does it mean?
Afromysterics is a term I coined to mean the mystery of the African thought pattern. This is in reference to the symbols, the patterns and the myths of Africa. I use these patterns and symbols to let us in on Yoruba artistic style, drawing from Yoruba myths and legends. It is a privilege to be able to present Yoruba art to the rest of the world and have new audiences receive it the way we do in Nigeria.
You have been successful in incorporating your art in to big marketing campaigns; what particular elements of your work make it useful in this regard?
Art is a language and languages have dialects. In my case, being able to interpret the message of a brand into symbols and patterns, and speak to the audience in this way allows the work to be relevant and personal. Take one look at the art and you understand what the brand is trying to communicate.
The Belvedere Vodka 2018 Limited Edition bottle is your latest collaboration with a global brand. How is the process of creating for brands of this ilk and how have these partnerships impacted your career?
I was fortunate enough to work on this project with a great team at Belvedere. They were intuitive and gave thought provoking insights during the entire period of creating the bottle. For example, the wavy lines on the bottle are representative of Rye and Water – essential ingredients that give Belvedere Vodka its distinct balance and character. In this way, the team allowed for the art to grow and integrate into what you see now, as well as ensure that our audience are given a chance to recognise and appreciate the symbolism within the design. The bottle is an excellent collector’s item and is available at all premium liquor stores nationwide.
Your mantra, “Everything is My Canvas” is a rousing statement. How does it facilitate the narrative and identity you’ve been able to form as an artist?
Everything is My Canvas is literally the path I follow to define and redefine what I do. It informs decisions I make in regards to new projects, does this new venture allow me to explore a new canvas? And in this way, I get to grow as an artist and communicate clearer my identity to the world.
You took a bold step when you left your law practice, moving to your own gallery. How was that shift and what were some of the challenges you overcame?
It was a pretty challenging move but I knew I had to do it. When I was little, I used to superimpose patterns and designs on white marble floors, they looked real to me and I later realised I was the only one who saw them. I was always an artist and it was a relief to come back from my law practice. There was the other challenge of having to tell my quintessentially Nigerian academic family that I wanted to pursue a career in art. I am glad that they are now one of my strongest supporters!
What advice do you have for aspiring artists who are trying to create their own style?
I’ll quote the great musician Miles Davis who said “it takes a long time to sound like yourself”. I appreciate that it is a challenging journey to carve your own voice in your art and create a distinctive style. Keep learning from those before you and from your peers, as well as those coming up behind you. Try to stay intuitive and recognise what about your art speaks of you, your life, what informs you and so on. In my case, my Oriki – statement of destiny – that my grandmother spoke over me through out several years, began to inform my art and the patterns I create. What’s your statement of destiny?
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