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Laolu Senbanjo: The Mystery of the African Thought Pattern

Laolu Senbanjo is a visual artist, musician, human rights lawyer and activist from Nigeria who has achieved global recognition in recent years. We know him best for his Africa inspired designs and artwork that have been featured on the likes of CNN, Vogue, Huffington Post, ABC, FOX, the BBC and more!

One of the reasons Laolu is so unique is that his designs are seen on more than just conventional canvas - everything from shoes, walls, buildings and even clothing gets a makeover. In fact, one of his signature works the 'Sacred Art of the Ori' - a Yoruba Ritual that literally interprets your soul and destiny - actually uses the human body as a canvas. Born and raised in Ilorin, Nigeria to Yoruba Parents, Laolu fuses a modern style with his Yoruba heritage, creating his own unique style called ‘Afromysterics’. 

He has recently been named “Master of Air” for a new collaboration with Nike and his 'Sacred Art of the Ori' was premiered in Beyoncé’s new conceptual video Lemonade. We were thrilled to talk to Laolu and find out more about his work: 

1. You trained as a human rights lawyer in Nigeria and now you are an acclaimed artist & musician. When and why did you decide to change careers?

My dream was to be an artist. When I was growing up I didn't have a choice to study art, and studying law was expected of me because my dad was a lawyer, and therefore I had to become one too. In my community growing up, art was not seen as an actual profession. What prompted me to give up my legal career and become a full time artist was the fact that I was spending the majority of my day, even while practising law, doing my art - not just visual art, but music as well. I would sneak my art into the office just so that I could have more time to work on it.

When I begin a work, or get an idea to create, it takes on a life of its own and consumes me. It is like it is burning inside me to come out and I cannot relax until it is finished. While law is a field that I am interested in, I needed to give it up because I was in love with my art. I was already wasting too much time as a lawyer because it would take me an hour to just get to the law office while I was living in Abuja, Nigeria. By the time I would get back from my 9-5 law job, I wouldn't get home until 6pm or so, and then I would just spend the entire night (and even early morning) creating - sometimes I wouldn't even sleep. As the nights got longer, and the days working in law seemed like wasted potential, I knew that my art, my passion, was bigger than me, and for that reason I needed to commit to it and share this part of me with my family, friends and anyone who would take the time to look (or listen).

2. You describe your style as ‘Afromysterics’, what does that mean?

“Afromysterics” is the term I use to define my creative works (both visual and sonic). It means the mystery of the African thought pattern - which I feel my work embodies and promotes.

3. Where do you get inspiration for your work?

My inspiration comes from my Yoruba culture. It is influenced by my surroundings, and also the social climate. But at the same time, I gain inspiration from my dreams that ignite my creativity during both the day and night. 

4. How has your art evolved since you first coined Afromysterics in 2007?

I have gained more confidence, and maturity. A lot has happened to me since 2007 -good, bad and in-between. My work is an aspect of my person-hood - each line or gesture is expressive of a particular feeling during a moment in my life. I would like to believe that my style is more dynamic and more unabashedly energetic.

5. Do you feel like anything’s changed in terms of how people are seeing and receiving African art globally?

My work is giving more visibility to the idea that there are distinct cultures within Africa (which is sadly something that most people from around the world don’t realize). My work is also opening up the discourse on African Diasporic art. I also believe that my art is changing how people view “Africa” by showing that it is a multi-cultural continent - with distinct customs and religions in each region. I think that people feel proud when they look at my art. They feel a pride in themselves and pride in its strong connection and tie to the dynamism of the Yoruba culture.

6. Can you tell us more about the ‘Sacred Art Of Ori’?

In my language, Yoruba "Ori" literally means your essence, your soul, your destiny and also comes with a mantra. When I work with a muse, the muse, their Ori, and I become one. My Art form is physically drawing what's on the inside, what's in your soul, and your essence and being;  on your canvas which is the skin.  It's the deepest most spiritual experience I've ever had with my Art as an artist. It's amazing and energizing. The connection is phenomenal. 

7. Congratulations on being selected as one of the artists for ‘Masters of Air’ with Nike Air Max, it’s incredible to see African inspired prints on Nike trainers! Tell us more about the project…

Thank you so much! It is really amazing, isn’t it? When I first got the call saying that I was chosen to be a “Master of Air”, I thought it was a prank - a really mean practical joke. I honestly could not believe it! It is such a blessing and an honor to be asked by someone who admires and respects your work to create - especially by a corporation such as Nike. My motto is “Everything is my canvas” and it was so exciting for me to put my art (which tells stories through pattern) onto trainers - it is a new place for people to see my work, and connect with it. I also love fashion (I'm very into aesthetics) as a platform for my work as it allows people to take something personal to me (my art) and make it their own through their own unique style, which is something I find really cool and shows the never-ending creative process.

You can find out more about Laolu and his incredible art on his website, and see more about his work with Nike here

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If you enjoyed reading this article, you may be interested in reading about fellow Nigerian artist Kip Omolade and his hyper-realistic oil paintings that draw on West African traditions, or browsing through our Africa Inspires blog.