From Ilorin to Abuja and then New York: Meet the the 'hottest Nigerian visual artist' who signed with Nike



special project
NAIJ.com

– A Nigerian visual artist and singer Laolu Senbanjo speaks exclusively to NAIJ.com on his works, struggling to carve a name and reaching the top

– The artist also narrates about relocating to New York City to further pursue his dreams in art

– Laolu notes that though his paintings revolve around women, he is not sexist in any way whatsoever
From Ilorin to Abuja and then New York City, Laolu Senbanjo has risen sky-high to the point where the accolades are beginning to pour in for him as a professional visual artist.

It is almost incredible, especially given the many critics in his earlier days. But with his recent Nike endorsement and the scores of interviews and media briefings plus unveiling and autograph sessions in the wake of the deal, it is clear how far Laolu's craft is taking him.

NAIJ.com has caught up with the 'hottest Nigerian visual artist' at the moment in New York recently and he spoke about his rise to global recognition. Laolu was natural and true, with several obvious references to his Nigerian roots.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs. Several times I almost quit doing art because it's not easy. You have to make sacrifices and sometimes those aren't easy,"
Laolu Senbanjo
told NAIJ.com
"Sometimes, actually, a lot of the time, it's hard to make rent each month. You've got hustle. You've got to put yourself out there, network all the time, you've got to become an entrepreneur whether or not you want to,"

the visual artist explained.
About being reached by Nike
Nike actually called me one day when I was out. I picked up the call and I didn't think it was real. Later, I found out that they'd been following me for a while now and had already vetted me long before they called me.

When they [Nike] called me for a meeting and I got to their offices in the Google building in Manhattan, and they sent me home with bags of shoes, it seemed unreal. It was crazy.
About the major challenges
Well, Nigeria and New York are both expensive places to live. It's not like you can just sit down and create all day. You've got to create, innovate, and let people know that this is your life and this is how you pay bills. And if they don't buy art then you can't survive. They have to believe in you and your dream.
About personal ups and downs

[I mean] starting a fresh, having to build from the ground up, building a new fan base, meeting people and networking, getting shows, getting people to the shows, venues, building that audience and turning that audience into buyers.

The point where I could figure all this out was when I struck gold when I figured out how to make my art wearable. The average person doesn't want to buy a piece that's expensive to put on their wall. But they will wear something hand painted and unique to them and wear that around. It allows them to show off and it is great marketing for me. They post it on social media and share it with friends.

About greatest sources of strength through the trying times

"Close friends, most especially my partner, and a few family members who believe in me and my fans. My fans confirm my talent. It helps keep the dream alive."
Laolu Senbanjo says.

About plans to break into the Nigerian and African market

Well, my audience is global but I already have clients both from Nigeria and in the diaspora. [In addition], I'm a Yoruba and my culture impacts my art. It's a part of me so whether it resonates with someone only matters if I resonate with them. Whether or not they have a similar story or dream. It's all about relating to people. People often say they can relate to my story and then there's that connection.

"My education was very strict. It was all about getting straight 'A's and being the top in my class, and going to the best university. Anything but being an artist. That was completely unacceptable and discouraged at all costs."
About parents' attitude
My parents said that art wasn't practical. They kept having relatives call me and tell me I should go and study nursing or take the bar here, in NY. They just didn't understand why and how making art could make me successful, but it's only about success through their eyes which is about having a house, a top position at some company, cars, etc. That isn't my dream.

Most of them [family members] still haven't acknowledged my success, the doubters that is. My folks and my brother they're proud of me now and I've surprised them. But all this success it's been building. You know? We've had lots of small victories and just kept moving forward. They always said, I work to hard, that I should take a break but I insisted that I need to keep striving.
About living in Nigeria

Well, after my Bachelors of Law, I went to Law School in Bwari, outside of Abuja, and I served my NYSC there too. I spent most of my adult life in Abuja with a very short year in Lagos. So Ilorin was a great quiet place to grow up and daydream. Abuja was a great place to live and decide that art was what I want to do. I couldn't become a full-time artist in Ilorin. The people in Abuja made it possible, especially the diplomatic communities because they really respect and actually buy art. The decision to move Brooklyn came after I traveled to Germany, France, and South Africa. I realized that Nigeria wasn't where I was meant to be and to thrive. NYC presented itself and the rest was history.

About the term 'Afromysterics'?
Afromysterics is my style of Art and Laolu. NYC is my brand name. I coined the term back in 2007. It means the mystery of the African thought pattern. My style is also considered Afrofuturism.
On turning from a human rights lawyer into creative artist
Well, I've always created art to reflect the times and my environment. Even while I was working as a human rights lawyer at the National Human Rights Commission in Abuja I was creating art. For example, during the fuel subsidy removal strike [in 2012], I made several pieces during that period related to oil corruption. I've made works on a variety of subjects from #BringBackOurGirls, to the struggle of Lagos life, teenage pregnancy, works on Madiba [Nelson Mandela] and his life and while he was struggling to live, Black Lives Matter, and even recently about Hillary and soon Trump.

About plans to visit Nigeria

Soon. I'm not exactly sure when yet, in the next few months. I definitely want to attend the Ake festival later in the year and I'll likely be having an exhibition before the year runs out in Nigeria.

On the special woman in life

Yeah, she understands my creative needs and gives me the space I need to create and explore my art.

She's part of the Laolu.NYC team. Nothing gets done without having a good team.
About his art being tagged as 'sexist'
Well, if anyone sees my art as being sexist, then they do not have love for the female form and the female body and for all the possibilities that come from the female body like giving birth to children, to all of us technically. I choose to show women in their natural form and natural state, showing all their glory, if that comes off as sexist, I really don't think it does, but just because I show breasts doesn't make me a sexist.
About background as a musician and stance on the Nigerian music industry
There's a lot of music coming out of Nigeria and we hear it a lot in the diaspora. It's becoming really popular especially that Lagos Afro pop music that people call Afro beats. Lol. I never want that music to be confused with Afro beat, Fela and Tony Allen's genre. However, there's a lot of amazing independent music being made all over Nigeria that we never hear on the radio. But because it doesn't fit into that Afro beats sound it doesn't go beyond the limited audiences.
"I've always believed in myself and that this is what I'm meant to be doing. It's my purpose."
About personal preferences
To be honest, I've lost touch, but I listen to Wizkid, Davido, Bez, Omawumi, Angelique Kidjo and some old stuff from Jesse Jagz. I also did a song with Jesse Jagz back in the day. I am also big on world music, I recently did an artistic collaboration with South African DJ Black Coffee.
To conclude the talk, Laolu offered us to listen to Love Before, his song featuring Lindsey. Enjoy!
naij.com
special project