Mobilize: Beyoncé Made Him Famous, But This is Why You Must Know Laolu Senbanjo
For Afrofuturistic artist and activist, Laolu Senbanjo, art is an inexorable part of life. The urge to create is compulsory, as fundamental as breathing. It is with a zealous pursuit of his passion that he has garnered a notable following, which includes influencers like Beyoncé, who commissioned him to paint the body art in her music-film exploration, Lemonade. But his journey as an artist has not been easy, with trials emerging in his home country of Nigeria as well as in the United States. Still, his combination of symbolic cultural elements and modern, interpretive methods has elevated his status as a notable figure in the New York art scene, and his work is challenging the world to question how we think of the term “immigrant.”
Born in Ilorin, Nigeria, Laolu was never lacking in imaginative influences. His grandmother taught him his “Oriki,” an inspiring Yoruba literary genre, often in the form of poetry or songs of praise. She told him stories about the Yoruba Gods and Goddesses, filling him with his country’s narratives.
“I didn’t realize until I was an adult how much influence she had over me and my artistic style,” Laolu reflects, “Unfortunately, she passed away in 2001, and I never got to thank her for the tremendously profound impact she had in my life and my art. I think she’d be very proud of who I’ve become.”
Almost every piece that Laolu creates takes a cue from his Yoruba culture, and often nods to the tales his grandmother told. He places Yoruba religious iconography inside his work or renders artifacts, like a calabash offering cup and the ankara wrapper garment, both influential symbols of his culture.
The inclusion of these elements suffuse his artwork with nuanced undertones and an explosive charge, but they are also a point of controversy. In his home country, it is seen as taboo to utilize such significant tokens in public displays or for profit. Though his intention is to spread the glory of Nigeria’s history and culture, it has not always been easy to convey this to others. Artists like Beyoncé have helped to break down this barrier, empowering a culture through the use of their symbols and history, but it is still a difficult path to navigate.
Of course, as an artist, it is inevitable that you face opposition. For Laolu, this didn’t stop once he stepped inside his home. The profession of artist was not an easy concept for his parents to accept. He even went on to become a human rights lawyer at the National Human Rights Commission in Nigeria before switching into his chosen career.
“My dad thought art was a waste of time and that it wasn’t a proper career path. He didn’t think I could be successful as an artist.”
But, when something is as ingrained in you as art is for Laolu, it is impossible to ignore. The day Laolu left his law job to focus on art was the most important day of his life. Now, through that art, he continues to fight for the rights of humankind.
Each design invites you to connect, to take part in a dialogue with the art. His piece, “Am I a Threat to Your Liberty?” has an especially forceful impact on those who view it. Through a startling contrast of vibrancy and darkness and the juxtaposition of a familiar silhouette painted with primal patterns, it dares you to confront the emotions that have arisen since the implementation of the immigration ban.
“A lot of people say things like ‘immigrants are going to take my jobs or I pay taxes and they live off the system,’” Laolu says when describing what he hopes to confront with this piece, “Am I going to take their job? Not likely. I am an artist who actually creates jobs for others… and I work in a highly-specialized field. I also am not eligible for any of these services that they are afraid I might live off of. I pay taxes! Yes, jobs have been lost, but that’s not because of immigrants. It’s because of technology, and it’s been happening for years—since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Unless you’re a Native American, you or your ancestors were immigrants once upon a time.”
Combining pieces of himself, his Nigerian culture, and modern American symbolism, “Am I a Threat to Your Liberty?” asks viewers to stop and think about what they’re really afraid of.
All of Laolu’s artwork produces a visceral response. It features inclusive and alienating characteristics, making you feel connected and disconnected at the same time. This intriguing combination is a direct comment on the dilemma Americans face as we, a population of former immigrants, begin to see new immigrants as “outsiders.”
In the face of the current political climate (including the nationwide sweeps by US immigration agents), Laolu has continued to create, create, create. He feels that it is his duty as an activist and artist to continue to produce art in these times and to connect with like-minded on a higher level.
“As an artist, it’s my duty to create art that reflects the times; to communicate messages, messages that people don’t want to discuss or deal with. That is my role as an artist and activist, and I am committed.”
Laolu’s work is a symbolic representation of our individual identities as a combined whole. It encourages us to communicate with each other, become friends with our neighbors, and more importantly, with people who are different than us. When we allow ourselves to know the other, we can coexist.
To further this movement toward connection with our fellow humans, Laolu has donated his art to the Hobnob app. Whether you’re gathering a group to participate in a protest or to discuss your individual roles as Americans during this time or just coming together in a moment of optimism and hope, you can choose one of his pieces as a template for your invite. It’s a small yet powerful way to choose harmony and camaraderie over separatism and dissonance.
See more of Laolu’s work here.