“Understand that you have to build value on your own, they’ll come back, it’s just a matter of time.” said the confident Human Rights Lawyer turned Artist, Laolu Senbanjo, as he talked about mastering his style of art and standing out from a sea of imitations. The world can attest to Beyonce seeing the value in his art, allowing him to make her face his canvas. But many nights of hard work led to his overnight success. In this interview Laolu talks about starting out in Nigeria, working with Beyonce on Lemonade, and the importance of location.
Iroegbu Ebere-Lisa

Our future is controlled by where we are born.” This was one of the quotes I connected with while watching your TED talk. How important was your location to the exploration and subsequent popularisation of your art?

The location is important for everybody, for me Nigeria is a place where I’d say I started out from. This is where I was groomed as an artist. Everything I know I learnt them here in Nigeria. I didn’t learn anything abroad or in the US, I learnt it all here.

But the thing is, platform gives you more leverage, and platforms for every artist is very important. Working with a lot of international brands brought me into a lot of places, and media attention also, which is good. But before then, I’ve been doing my stuff and I’ve always been that person doing art, people who know me, know my art from way back.
I said that at the TED Talk because of how that affects one’s work.
For example, a girl child born in the northern part of Nigeria, for example, Nassarawa state, aspires to go to school, become a doctor or anything she wants.

Then another girl child born in New York City or California who has the same dream and aspirations as the girl child from Nassarawa state.

[Now] the girl child from Nassarawa state might end up in a child marriage. That in itself almost puts a ceiling on the girl and what her dreams become ,as opposed to the child born in New York or Europe.

Why should where we are born actually limit our dreams?

That has always been my question, because a lot people don’t understand that where you are born literally almost controls what you become.

A lot of times I tell people to dig deeper and understand that these are factors. How do you deal with them when you recognize them? How do you overcome them? How do you deal with them as whatever you want to be, whether you are medical doctor or an artist. Once you realize those factors then you can sit back and figure out how to grow yourself.

Starting your work in Nigeria, how were you able to overcome those factors that could have restricted you?

I had a lot of obstacles…
A. Family
B. I eventually got into a job that I really loved at first, but then I didn’t want to be there after a while, because I thought I could do more.

I always wanted to be an artist, but then I ended up studying Law. I went to Law School.

I had to create space for myself and say this is who I am at the core of my core and I wasn’t deceiving myself. I knew I was an artist. Everybody around said try this try that, but I knew it was who I was and I wasn’t trying to deceive myself.

So when the time was right, I quit my job, and I started a gallery in Abuja. [Of course] It didn’t go well. I went broke. But I felt liberated and I felt more alive because I started expressing myself in ways I never even thought I could, because I was just channelling that energy into different things, painting on different things. I started working with charcoal, using acrylic and oil. I started painting on different things. I was just practicing my craft and doing what I was best at.

When I eventually moved to the States, I already had a craft that had a core. I just wanted to try and see what it’d look like and I was like oh wow!

I met a lot of people that were inspired by my art and just wanted to help me. And that was very inspiring for me- for people to see my art and say wow, I felt it was amazing. That inspired me a whole lot and everything became my canvas.

Living in New York was not easy, everything was expensive, no one told me that. I finished my saving, and at a point I didn’t have a place to stay and I didn’t know how I’d sustain myself.

A lot of people do not hear stories about people who do not make it which is one of the things about our society because there are a lot of people who struggle at some point in their lives. But people are more interested in ‘so how did you make it’ forgetting that it is a journey. That is what I tell a people who are still in the process. It is your process, it never turns into something great if you don’t go through process.

We go through different stages in our lives, and we have different struggles. I have my own struggles too right now, I get paid for my work but there are other things I want to do. Even though I’m grateful, I still have aspirations. It’s the same thing with everybody, we are all in different spaces at different stages of our lives. To be able to do art and put it on a bottle, on a brand like Belvedere, that is kind of astonishing, that is something you only aspire to do. Sometimes you don’t even how it’s going to happen.

If someone had told me I’d be putting my art on a bottle, I would have asked how?

Some artists have come close to mastering your style. What makes your work stand out from the sea of imitations?
It is sad though, it is painful sometimes (laughs). I’m like they should have hired me, and someone is trying to take credit for my work (laughs). But the beautiful part is that, I stopped thinking about it that way. After I read a book, I began to think of it as flattery to be imitated. Not many artists get to that level in their lifetime, where people can see something and say that looks like Laolu’s work. That’s something I didn’t even know was going to happen. But I’m proud about it, I’m excited, and I’m looking at the future and thinking what other things can I possibly do to elevate the art.

The thing about my art is that it is different from what anybody else does. The art on my face is a negative drawing and people don’t understand that. I draw on a lot of things, on my face and anything. When I say negative space, it is drawing from black to white. When you look at my face, you will see a lot of lines and arches which are symbols from the Yoruba culture. The arches represents Sango. Sango controls thunder, he is also the masculine god of beauty. I am elevating Sango to a level like a Greek god like Zeus. So when people outside Nigeria ask me who is Sango, I say he’s like Zeus, Thor and other gods they know, because they are comfortable with that and they can go watch it in the movies, so we can also watch our own in the movies and profit from our stories. The whole idea is that we should not over demonize these things, there is so much beauty in it.
Sango is a masculine god of beauty, so the white paint on my skin highlights the black skin. You see the ‘blackness’ of my skin shine through.

Being a part of Beyonce’s Lemonade video was a huge moment for the world, especially Nigerians. What did such an opportunity do for you?
The video came out 8months after we did it. I couldn’t tell anyone. I just had this super feeling, It was always in my head like oh wow, I spoke to Beyonce last week OMG!

But I couldn’t tell people. So when it eventually came out, everyone was playing catch up and asking why didn’t you tell me, and I’m like how am I supposed to tell you, so they can kick me off the project (laughs).

It was an exciting time for me and my career, because a lot of people who had already said no to me, all of a sudden they say Laolu would you want to work with me.

But I understand how that works now. Sometimes as an artist what you need to do is go within yourself and build value. Initially I tried to get some people to work and collaborate with, but they would hesitate. Understand that you have to build value on your own, they’ll come back, it’s just a matter of time.

Nobody likes anyone who is not bringing anything, everybody wants to see what you can bring to the table. Everybody is selfish. Everybody is about their numbers. I didn’t understand that. I used to think ; just work hard and once you are cool and good to everybody then you’ll get results, but no.
Every time every brand works with you, they think about numbers. How does working with you affect their brand? Belvedere for example talks about inner beauty, Laolu talks about inner beauty. Belvedere Stands for human minds, Laolu stands for human minds. We come together for a collaboration and everyone is happy.

What would you say to someone who is just starting out in the creative space?

Don’t start. What I mean by don’t start is you should immerse yourself in it. In this art thing there’s no starting hours or closing hours. Be fluid. Open your heart, open your mind and be patient. Patience is very key. Identify that thing that makes you stand out, that thing that makes you unique. Don’t just follow everybody because it’s very easy to follow trends. You need to go and wait for people at the corner, that’s how artists actually are. You go to the corner and master your craft and just stay there and wait for people, then eventually when everyone is catching up, you are already the boss in that space.

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