Laolu Sebanjo is the one artist who proudly says “everything is my canvas”, and you can take his word to the bank. When he visited Lagos recently, where he had series of co-created art experiences and events and celebrated the launch of the new Belvedere vodka bottle among other activities, he spared some time talking about his passion for art.
The lawyer-turned artist who moved to New York City in 2013, took off from there to becoming “Laolu NYC”, a Brooklyn based Nigerian visual artist and musician whose main artistic medium is the skin; he is best known for his body-painting featured in Beyoncé’s Grammy, award-winning visual album, Lemonade. In addition to Beyoncé, he counts artists, including Alicia Keys, Swiss Beatz, Seun Kuti, Tony Allen, Alek Wek, and Danielle Brooks among his collaborators.
Did he make his break hassle free? He says, “Things didn’t happen immediately, and it was difficult acclimating to the culture and pace of New York City. I joined fellow musicians in Brooklyn to form a band and, consistently, created artwork to post on my digital platforms and website.
“My father would call just to make sure I was alive or say, ‘When you’re done with this art craze, let us know.’ I experienced a series of minor successes and failures until Nike handpicked me as a Master of Air to create a T-shirt and sneaker design for AIR MAX CON 2016.
“I was the only black and Nigerian among the team of masters, so when the announcement went live, Nigerian media ran with the story. My brother called to congratulate me, and said that our father was bragging about me to everyone. ‘That’s my son,’ he’d say. I knew that was going to happen.”
The project with Nike was definitely worth the time as it became a springboard for the multitalented Sebanjo who sold out both of his custom designs and became a household name. Sebanjo has it going for him so when the brand came after him it was a no brainer.
“I wish I could do an entire line with them. Both of my custom designs sold out! I’m currently working on a project with Nike South Africa, but I can’t say much else about that project. One thing about working with a brand like Nike is there’s more bureaucracy in the decision-making process, but I still felt like I maintained creative freedom.
When Beyonce also found him on social media and admired his work, it was all it took to launch him to global stage. He was hired on the spot, without recommendation, interview, trial run or anything. “Beyoncé shared her vision with me for the song ‘Sorry’, and told me she admired my work. Then, she simply said, ‘Do you.’ I’ve never been more proud of myself, and just brought my A-game,” he says.
“The cameramen were congratulating me after the shoot, and I didn’t see how much airtime my art received until Lemonade debuted in April 2016. It’s amazing for someone to see what you do, and put it in on that kind of stage. Now, people everywhere in the world have seen my art, and I get emails from people in Australia, Japan, the U.S. and other countries who are inspired by my work,” he recalls.
Sebanjo is the typical Nigerian child born and raised in Ilorin. His father was a lawyer and mother a nurse. The church choir was where he started his music and, later, initiated the Light and Fire music group, which performed original songs and covers. He studied Law at the Nigeria’s University of Ilorin. In 2010, he quit as a lawyer and started the Laolu Senbanjo Art Gallery in Abuja, Nigeria, not minding whose ox was gored.
When Belvedere approached him to design a limited edition bottle that would demonstrate their values regarding revealing inner beauty the idea stuck easily with him. It brought back memories of the Sacred Art of the Ori. He explains, “I use these patterns and symbols to let us in on Yoruba artistic style, drawing from Yoruba myths and legends.”
Laolu hinges success in his creativity on staying true to course, developing self and listening intuitively to the voice within. More precisely, he is one who doesn’t limit his art of revealing the inner beauty of materials.