I am Yoruba. That probably means nothing to you. You might not expect to hear this but I lacked a thorough understanding of what it means to be Yoruba. This blog is not focused on just Yoruba but there are moments that acts as a catalyst to address what I have learned recently. Yoruba is a tribe out of Nigeria, it has a language also called Yoruba – many people speak different forms of this language. As a young child, I learned about the migration of the Yoruba people across the world with many landing in the Caribbean and South America. What I did not know until recently is that the Yoruba is considered a religion by many not only from Nigeria but across the world.
A few years back I picked up a book by Wole Soyinka called “Of Africa”. The book is an essay on different topics addressing the politics, economics and culture of the continent. Of the many areas he addressed, what struck me was his argument that the traditional religions in Africa ought to be cherished and not cast away due to the adoption of more secular religions such as Christianity and Islam. Upon reading his book, I recall having flashbacks of me walking through certain neighborhoods’ in Nigeria and seeing homes hanging sculptures connected to the Yoruba religion. At the time, my position was to make fun of it; not understanding that these traditions are very much a part of the fabric of Nigeria.
Fast forward to 2016, I was listening to The Brilliant Idiots Podcast and they had two guests speaking about their Afro-Latino background. During the conversation, one of the women highlighted Yoruba as a religion that is practiced in her native homeland. They pray to “Oludumare” and follow many of the traditional customs started by the Yoruba people. I thought that was the end of it, until the Beyonce Lemonade album dropped and while reading some of the articles, a visual artist by the name of Laolu Sebanjo was highlighted.
Sebanjo contributed to the visual album through his body paint using ancient traditional Yoruba markings on his subject. He calls it the Sacred Art of the Ori. Ori, means head or destiny. His markings are done to capture the energy he feels from his subject and then proceeding to mark the the bodies of the people he is engaged. There is a spiritual connection he aims to achieve through his work not only on Beyonce’s video treatment but also going forward in his artistry.
So where does Sebanjo go now that he is a prominent artist with all the attention currently on him? For one, he has managed to land a deal with Nike to design sneakers using some of his work. Presently, there is an open renaissance embracing African artistry among the Diaspora that I believe has catapulted the Nigerian born artist in today’s market. Sebanjo will likely be able to parlay this new presence into other ventures, whether it is designing for other major fashion houses or simply continuing his own path and entering into merchandising on a larger scale.
There is an appreciation I have for artists who have conviction in their work. I don’t know this personally, but I am sure Sebanjo was discouraged from embracing this type of art. It is not mainstream enough or it will scare people away are likely words spoken often to him. He chose his path and is now thriving from this space he has created. To have an art presence that expands beyond Nollywood and Afrobeat music shows the multi layered aspects of Nigerian and wider African art. Sebanjo’s journey is worth following and you can find out more from his own website at www.laolu.nyc