By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
When Beyoncé’s Grammy Award-winning album, Lemonade, first emerged on the scene, very few people associated the visual design to the precocious talent, Olaolu Isaac Senbanjo. Olaolu, who now bestrides New York like a colossus, is one of Nigeria’s biggest artists outside the country.
Recently, Belvedere Vodka announced its global partnership with the award-winning Laolu. The highly acclaimed artist has designed a stunning limited-edition bottle to be unveiled in Nigeria this month.
Laolu will be touring Nigeria from tomorrow to September 28 for a series of co-created art experiences and events to celebrate the launch of the new bottle amongst other activities. He will also be hosting an exclusive canvas painting and art masterclass for established and upcoming artists at the African Arts’ Foundation.
With an artistic vision to reveal the beauty within each of his subjects, the new limited-edition bottle visually brings to life Laolu’s interpretation of the complexity, nuance and character of the Belvedere liquid.The Brooklyn-based performance and visual artist, Laolu’s main artistic medium is the skin; in fact, he is best known for his body-painting featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
Laolu applies his mantra, “Everything is My Canvas,” to mural designs, fashion partnerships, live art events and installations, and now to, the new limited-edition Belvedere Vodka bottle. The first Belvedere bottle with high-quality full-wrap sleeve technology features a flowing design with sharp edges that represent the water and rye working together to produce dimension and taste.
Subtle skin-sense texture, which reacts to ultra violent lights, is used to bring another sensory component to the bottle. The charcoal coloring and distinct shapes create complex, story-rich designs, which draw heavily from his Yoruba heritage.
“When Laolu paints a subject, each design is unique to what he believes depicts their inner beauty. This phenomenal message is seamlessly in line with our mission to reveal the unexpected beauty in life,” said Rodney Williams, president of Belvedere Vodka.
“Also as a social advocate and former human rights attorney, Laolu’s philosophies align with our commitment to community and creating positive action in the world; in this case, the programme supports the (RED) organisation and the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, a cause we’ve been supporting for eight years.”
“As an artist, I get to share my soul with people around me, my environment and the world and I’m able to channel my experiences like my journey as a human rights attorney and as a Nigerian,” said Laolu.
“The Belvedere bottle design came from that inspiration as well as doing a lot of research about what Belvedere is at its core, like the rye and the pristine water. The bottle is an amazing blend of my art and bringing to life what Belvedere stands for – and I get to be a part of giving back to society, which means a lot to me.”
Popularly known as ‘Laolu NYC’, he was born October 19 in Ilorin, Kwara State. The former human rights attorney, grew up performing in his church’s choir. He started drawing as an undergraduate at the University of Ilorin, and since then, has developed the Afromysterics style of art. He describes Afromysterics as “the mystery of the African thought pattern” as expressed through a variety of artistic mediums, including visual and musical. “I talk about things or stories that most times are not told outside of Africa. I try to take stories from my roots.”
His art – usually rendered in charcoal – is visually bold, consisting of strong lines that create organic shapes embedded with symbolism and imagery. He often depicts stories that make references to West African mythologies or representations of his environment. While in school, he had a music group called Light and Fire, which performed original songs and covers.
He studied law at the University of Ilorin and, despite wanting to drop out during his second year of law school, 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. Laolu 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 Laolu in an interview with 99U.
Despite this, in 2010, he quit his job as a lawyer and started the Laolu Senbanjo Art Gallery in Abuja, Nigeria. In August 2013, he relocated to the U.S. to pursue his art career. The artist, who is very popular for his sacred art of the Ori, says o f the concept, “the sacred art of Ori is a spiritually intimate experience. It’s cathartic for both my muse and me. We connect our minds, bodies, and souls on higher level. I paint their spirit and soul from that connection. It breathes life into us both.”
To him, the foundation of Ori ritual is the “Yoruba religious practice of becoming one with yourself or awakening the God in you (Ori).” In Yoruba language, Ori literally means “your essence, your soul, your destiny and also comes with a mantra.”Laolu’s influence creating this practice is his paternal grandmother (mama), who strongly impacted his life and his art.
“When I work with a muse, we 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.”
Artists he looks up to include Twins Seven Seven of Nigeria, Salvador Dali, Fela Kuti, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Picasso. While he does hope that his art communicates a particular story, he is aware that everyone will get something different out of it: “I see art as an experience.
He has had commissions from, and formed partnerships with, celebrities and brand titans including Nike, for him to become a master of air and create a T-shirt and sneaker design for Nike Air Max 2016, for sneaker enthusiasts, 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 a September 11, 2017, TED talk.