In a Nasher Museum classroom recently, 20 students from the Duke Africa Conversations Club, Nasher MUSE and others waited eagerly for a special guest while discussing why they appreciate art. The room contained students from places around the globe: Nigeria, Kenya, Colombia, New York, Lebanon, etc. with ranging majors, ages, backgrounds and experiences with art. Soon the chatter stopped as Laolu Senbanjo walked in donning his own work on a fur and leather jacket, toting a suitcase equally adorned in patterns of white paint. These patterns, he later explained, were much more than random markings.
The Nigeria-born visual artist first explained his coat. All of his work is influenced by his Yoruba heritage and the painting taps into the “sacred art of the Ori.” The Ori is essentially all of the factors that make you who you are, have been and want to be. He used this style of body painting in his recent groundbreaking career move to paint for Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade. Yet this moment that granted him mainstream fame is just a part of his history, his life story.
“If I know Picasso’s life story, why shouldn’t you know mine?” he asked us, before explaining how he got to where he is today.
Living in Nigeria, Laolu was always an artist but he expressed that is it impossible to tell Nigerian parents that you were going to be an artist. On top of that, members of his extremely conservative and Christian family worried that his artwork might even invoke demonic forces. Under these circumstances, he pursued a career in law, which showed him the world and specifically his male privilege. Although appreciative of this opportunity, the artist in him stirred for more. His grandmother prophetically claimed that he is someone who has something that the west didn’t have — so he thought he would bring his talents to the west.
“You know that saying about how the prophet is not respected in his own home?” he asked us.
And so Laolu moved to a studio in Brooklyn to pursue his art career more wholeheartedly. He found Brooklyn to be a hotbed for creativity and instrumental in shaping his style, forming his belief that, “if you’re not inspired by New York, I think you must be dead.” Brooklyn gave him new tools and he states that an artist is only is good as his tools as he began to view everything as his canvas: skin, cars, shoes, buildings, etc.
The call from Beyoncé brought along a whole new movement as his work became universally recognized. People began asking him to paint their skin wherever he was, even on the subway. Beyond fame, this collaboration also brought up extremely important issues. He yearns to show the world that his art and the art by African artists cannot just be categorized and separated as African art or tribal. The artists should be appreciated and their stories should be known. Further, some viewed Beyoncé’s inclusion of Nigerian body painting as cultural appropriation. To which Laolu simply responded, “How can an African appropriate African culture?”
As long as credit is given where it is due, it is not appropriation, he explains. Further, he urges us to view the melding of cultures in a more positive light. In a world where globalization is inevitable, “it is not cultural appropriation, it is sharing.”
Photo courtesy Duke Africa Conversations Club