“A lot of my work is heavily influenced by the culture of my Yoruba heritage… Your melanin is the paint.” Laolu Senbanjo said
Laolu Senbanjo stood silently, head slightly bent to one side. Clothing and arms speckled with white paint, he studied his muse a few feet away. With a scratch of his chin and a nod, Mr. Senbanjo glided in his socks toward the actress Danielle Brooks. His ever-present white marker in hand, a combination of body paint and other materials, he resumed adorning her face with continuous patterned lines.
“A lot of my work is heavily influenced by the culture of my Yoruba heritage,” said Mr. Senbanjo, a Nigerian-born visual artist and musician, in a recent interview at his Brooklyn studio. “I like to see the world in that lens.” His most recognized work, a form of body painting that he calls “the sacred art of the Ori,” draws on those cultural influences and was made famous through its appearance in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” visual album.
An important aspect of Yoruba culture, Ori means “head” or “essence,” and Mr. Senbanjo’s artistic depictions of it have elevated him from Instagram celebrity to appearances at New York art institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and to music festivals like Afropunk. “If you tap into your Ori you can move mountains,” Mr. Senbanjo said.
Drawing from personality traits of deities in Yoruba culture with words as well as patterns, Mr. Senbanjo says he conveys various attributes of the gods onto his subjects’ bodies, based on conversations before painting them. The process requires an average of six to eight hours to complete. For Ms. Brooks, he created a small crown on her forehead in a nod to royalty, and the idea of beauty and knowing one’s worth. Mr. Senbanjo said the triangles he paints on himself are symbolic of a religious trinity: father, son and Holy Ghost, and the idea of stability.
“For the Yoruba, as well as in several African cultures, the head is the wellspring of wisdom and seat of divine power,” Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, curator of African art at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, said in an email. With the head also a source for creativity, Dr. Nzewi said Mr. Senbanjo’s work is “pushing the boundaries of indigenous art traditions through recuperation, appropriation and reinvention, and combining them with formal ideas.”
“I tell a lot of people ‘your melanin is the paint,’” Mr. Senbanjo said. “When you look at the negative space and see what I do with it, what shines through is the darkness of your skin. It gives it the contrast.”
Ms. Brooks, who plays Tasha Jefferson (known as Taystee) in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” said in a telephone interview that the experience, which she likened to a ceremony, is an exercise in mutual trust. “When he is so intimately close to your body in that way, he’s seeing all of your scars, all of the things you deem beautiful or all of the things that you don’t like.” She continued: “There’s a part of him that he’s also sharing with me, the things that he’s writing on my body are a part of his culture.”
Mr. Senbanjo, a former human rights lawyer in Nigeria, found himself yearning for a life beyond the constraints of the corporate world. In 2013, he changed careers to focus full time on his art and relocated to New York. The struggle to break through the gallery scene led him to embrace the idea that everything could be his canvas, from murals to custom-designed clothing.
While the collaboration increased demand for his work, Mr. Senbanjo’s mission remains unchanged: to increase the attention paid to African artists both living and dead, including Prince Twins Seven-Seven, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Nike Davies-Okundaye and Tola Wewe.
“Laolu brings something that is necessary right now for art and black empowerment,” said Seun Kuti, a musician, collaborator and son of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. “Laolu’s work is unapologetically inspired by our ancestors, so I think that’s what makes it so unique and powerful, especially in the times we are in.”
Mr. Senbanjo said his work offers a history lesson in Yoruba culture. “There’s a lot of codes and writing in what I do, and I want people to study it. I want it to end up in libraries and textbooks,” he said. “This is a movement. If I know Picasso’s life story, why shouldn’t you know mine?”
Adapted from the New York Times.