Laolu (Olaolu) Senbanjo, also known as “Laolu NYC”, is a Nigerian visual artist, musician, singer/songwriter, and former human rights attorney.
Senbanjo was born and raised in Ilorin, Nigeria by Yoruba parents. His father was a lawyer, his mother was a nurse. He grew up performing in his church’s choir. While in school he had a music group called Light and Fire which performed original songs and covers.
Senbanjo studied law at Nigeria’s Law School and, despite wanting to drop out during his second year, received his degree in 2005. He then worked as a human rights lawyer for five years, spending his final three years working at the National Human Rights Commission as a senior legal officer focusing on women and children’s rights. Senbanjo travelled to different parts of Northern Nigeria visiting schools and villages to educate men and women about why children should be in school.
“I knew if I pursued a career in the arts, I’d have to live with the fact that some people in my hometown might never talk to me again”, said Senbanjo in an interview with 99U. Despite this, in 2010 Senbanjo quit his job as a lawyer and started the Laolu Senbanjo Art Gallery in Abuja, Nigeria.
Senbanjo moved to Brooklyn, New York, in August 2013 to pursue his art career.
Senbanjo has coined his style of art, Afromysterics, meaning mystery of the African thought pattern. It incorporates African themes and African traditions. His uses charcoal and distinct patterns to create complex, story-rich art designs that draw heavily on his Yoruba heritage and feature ancient Nigerian symbols and patterns. Senbanjo says his Nigerian roots are a major source for his visual inspiration. Though his visual references have been described as sharing “affinities with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring“.
He has had commissions from, and formed partnerships with, celebrities and brand titans including Nike, Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, the Grammy Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. He has also partnered with Danielle Brooks (who plays Tasha Jefferson on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black). In June 2015, Senbanjo’s new mantra became “everything is my canvas” and he began painting on everything from shoes, to jackets, to people. He created the Sacred Art of the Ori Ritual, which he describes and explains in an 11 September 2017 TED talk. In his TED talk, Senbanjo talks about his work Dreamscape. In Laolu Senbanjo’s 2018 print, Dreamscape, he reflects his frustration with the injustice in the world. Working as a human rights attorney, he saw cases with children who faced the harsh reality of getting forced into marriage or continuing their education at a university. The artwork “is a mind map,” starting where most life does, from a vagina, to then connecting the journey of life and all that comes with that experience to the origin story of being born. Some of the print’s “major themes include religion, war, politics, technology, Egyptology, sexuality, economics, environmental waste, media, history, music, greed and human nature.” Like most of his art, a bold design connects each element in the work inspired by his Yoruba ancestry. Another example of his art style and ancestral Yoruba influence that is more well-known is showcased in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, where Senbanjo’s body art is showcase throughout the visual album.