Laolu Senbanjo Is Making Art With Afromysterics and NFTs

Artist Laolu Senbanjo sat down with Observer to discuss his work, physical and digital, Nigerian art, and the global art world.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 06: Laolu Senbanjo attends the 3rd Annual MACRO Pre-Oscar Party on February 06, 2020 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images for MACRO)

Brooklyn-based artist Laolu Senbanjo is most interested in making anything his canvas— not excluding the body. In the past decade, the Nigeria-born artist didn’t just get unfettered by conventional art rules but created a whole niche in the creative world, the sort that comes from the spirituality of  his rich cultural heritage; the Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria. “Afromysterics and the sacred art of the Ori,” he calls it and if you scroll through his instagram profile, you will witness the grits of wavy lines, facial drawings, uneven shapes, god-like portraits in his signature black and white paintings or sometimes in other colors. One thing for sure, his visual-induced principles and technique is authentically gratifying. 

Observer sat with the artist to have a chat about his artistic  journey and NFT project “Time to Heal” featuring Academy Award-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou and other things. 

Observer: Can you tell me how you discovered your art, how did this sacredness happen to you?

Laolu Senbanjo: I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. Honestly, I think humans are born with an innate ability to create. Whether or not that ability is nurtured and developed as we age is ultimately what determines those who are artists versus those who make art for a living. For me, these two things happened simultaneously. 

Seeing as my art is heavily informed by my Yoruba heritage, I would say its sacredness is informed by the lessons my paternal grandmother taught me at an early age about our people’s history, culture, and traditions. I owe my wealth of knowledge and introduction to many topics explored in my work to her. 

It’s no news that you are one of the artists exuding Africa’s potential and offering it to the world, does it make you feel powerful?

So much of who I understand myself to be stems from my identity as a Nigerian; not as a man, not as an artist, but as a physical continuation of what I have always known to be a rich, expansive, beautiful historical account that simply lives on through me. Because of this, whenever people make statements in which they seek to discover “Africa’s potential,” it kind of makes me laugh. The continent is filled with so many other talented and creative minds that many people are simply not paying attention to. Though I am flattered to be one of the forces that embodies the wealth of Africa’s human resources, specifically, within the art arena, I do not want to stand here alone. 

Rather than make me feel powerful, it reminds me that I have an obligation to other Nigerian artists to ensure that they are given the opportunity to be recognized for their talent. As someone who moved to the States with nothing but a dream, I know there are so many others just like me who want to do the same. I want my success to not only be an example, but the resource another young, Nigerian or African artist can leverage to their benefit. 

You have worked with top industry names such as Beyoncé, Ashanti, Serena Williams, and top brands such as Nike. How does it feel being you and reaching heights doing what you love?

It’s still very surreal. I am always grateful when I work with someone I admire who likes my work but also relates to the mission and meaning behind it as well. Instances like those always give way to the best collaborations because we understand the greater purpose behind the work at hand.

As for working with brands, I’m pretty sure I’ll never get over seeing my artwork on shoes, t-shirts, or bags my cousins and I would gawk over as children. It’s a full circle moment that I hope remains.  

Speaking as a Nigerian, not every Nigerian gets to be a human right lawyer, walk from it and become an artist without having close family who don’t understand to keep mute. Tell me what did your family think of it, how did you navigate them to go down this path?

I understand this completely. Culturally, pursuing a career in art is practically unheard of. For a long time, it was a major point of contention between my family and I. For my parents, I’m sure it felt like every attempt to get me away from art only pushed me closer to it. After they forced me into law school, I became that much more invested in art; focusing on anything else just felt like self-sabotage. It’s funny to see how supportive everyone is now that I’ve established a name for myself in the States. 

In spite of the difficulties it brought, their support now means the world to me. 

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 07: Laolu Senbanjo attends The Worldwide Editors Of Harper’s Bazaar Celebrate ICONS by Carine Roitfeld presented by Infor, Stella Artois, FUJIFILM, Estee Lauder, Saks Fifth Avenue and Genesis at The Plaza Hotel on September 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

How would you describe your art?

I describe my art with the two art styles I coined very early on in my career: Afromysterics and the Sacred Art of The Ori. 

Afromysterics is the mystery of the African thought pattern; through it, I visually communicate the wise words of past Orishas into a piece of artwork in an attempt to find ways we can carry on their ancient wisdom in the present day.  The Sacred Art of The Ori is the visual manifestation of one’s essence; it is used primarily on the human form. Here, I draw inspiration from Yoruba gods and goddesses to help depict a person in their truest form. 

Have watched countless videos of how these arts spiral from you to your canvas. Do you sort of communicate with it on how you wish it to be or does it come freely like that?

The first step of my process always involves a dialogue with the canvas. In the end, the goal is to tame the canvas at hand with the story that will unfold in the end. Often time the details within each piece are determined by the vessel that will carry the story be it music, artwork, or social justice. I let the message consume me, then direct me. All the shapes, spirals, and faces present throughout are drawn from Yoruba mythology and meant to take the viewer on a visual journey. 

Do you think people connect deeply to your art?

Absolutely. It’s a very humbling experience wherever I am faced with people’s real time reactions to things I’ve created. In the past, I’ve seen people cry or deeply connect with my pieces in ways I never thought were possible back when my work was confined to the pages of my notebook. Seeing these reactions now is beyond endearing. 

You were also an afro pop musician, what changed?

Haha, nothing has actually changed. Music is an essential part of who I am and that much more of my artistry. I still actively work on music on a daily basis. The time is still uncertain, but I’m working on an EP that will be released in due time. 

Late last year, you made a visual art series ‘Time to Heal.’  Tell me about it inspo and message and working with Academy Award-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou?

The ‘Time to Heal’ series was a premium NFT auction on Binance NFT Marketplace in support of the Djimon Hounsou Foundation that aims to fight modern day slavery and reconnect the diaspora to the continent. Djimon and I initially connected over the fact that we’re both African artists living in America. We are able to fully acknowledge our connection to the continent and translate that back into our work. As a previous human rights lawyer, I was immediately in support of the efforts DHF is making to combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking. These are similar issues I focused on during my time as an attorney. 

Why did you decide on directing it towards NFT?

The world is changing at an unprecedented rate. As a result, the consumption of art is evolving in ways that were previously not possible. With recent innovations in digital currency, NFTs, and now the metaverse, having the auction hosted on Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, simply aligned with the times in addition to the impact we hope to have within that digital space. 

Together, we broke a lot of barriers as Africans from the continent by infiltrating digital art space while it’s still in its early stages. I am excited to see how artists on the continent will continue to  leverage this to their benefit. 

Should we expect any future project from you in 2022? 

Of course. Expect any and everything. After all, everything is my canvas.  Laolu Senbanjo Is Making Art With Afromysterics and NFTs