Meet The Artist Behind the Mystical Body Painting in 'Lemonade'
The “Apathy” chapter of Lemonade occurs around 16 minutes and 20 seconds into the film. But before Beyoncé’s unapologetic anthem even begins, before Serena languidly cavorts down the stairwell, we hear Bey’s powerful words.
“So what are you gonna say to me now that you’ve killed me? Here lies the body of the love of my life whose heart I broke without a gun to my head,” Beyoncé says, reciting the poetry of Warsan Shire. “Here lies the mother of my children, both living and dead. Rest in peace, my true love, who I took for granted, most bomb pussy… Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.”
She introduces a clear corporeal element into the film with these words, and also with the accompanying visuals. We see girls sitting on a bus, in two lines, one facing the other. Their bodies and faces bear intricate designs and patterns, all painted in white that, contrasted against their beautiful, dark skin, commands attention. And rightfully so. This wasn’t the work of your average face painter; it’s the work of Laolu Senbanjo, the Nigerian-born artist and musician. If, like us, this moment in Lemonade is the one you recall most vividly—if it was also seared into your brain because it sparked some inexplicable energy—that’s no coincidence. Senbanjo’s work is both complex and symbolic; body art that’s meant to reflect the soul within.
About five years ago, Senbanjo abandoned his day job as an attorney and, in an unusual move for his culture, decided to move to New York to pursue art, his real passion. One Nike collaboration and one call from Beyoncé later, Senbanjo agreed to swing by Milk to talk about his art, his process, and Queen B herself.
What was it like to get the call from Beyoncé?
First, I thought it was a hoax. [Laughs] It was short notice; they told me I was going to go in two weeks to New Orleans. At that point, I had things happening already for the whole month. Then I got another email saying, “Oh I want you to come in next week.” Like, from two weeks to next week. And then I got an email after that, “I want you to come this Thursday,” and it was already Monday!! They were like, “We need you to be all ready on set.”
I was excited, but I couldn’t tell anybody anything. I just told everybody, “You’re going to get it later, but I can’t say anything now.” So that one week I disappeared and nobody knew where I was.
How was your time on set? You filmed it in New Orleans?
Yeah, New Orleans. It was beautiful. It was my first major Hollywood type of thing. I got there, I checked into my hotel, I walked around, and then I met with the director. They asked me to come to the fourth floor. I got into Beyoncé’s dressing room—oh my God, like, a whole floor.
A whole floor for her dressing room?
Yeah! Everything was just huge. And everybody was so organized. I met the director, I met Todd [Tourso, Beyoncé’s creative director], I met the producer, the dancers, Beyoncé’s stand-in person, who just looks exactly like her.
Stop it, that’s insane. So to be honest, “Sorry” is my favorite song on the album and my favorite part of Lemonade. Did you get to meet Serena Williams?
I didn’t meet her on set. I think either she left before I came or I came after she left. We shot a lot of videos. Like, a lot of videos that I saw—at that time, I didn’t know [what they were for]. I know it was “Project Lemonade,” but we couldn’t say anything about that because of non-disclosure and everything.
When I met Beyoncé, it was just incredible. I was just walking around and I didn’t know she was behind me. She [came up to say hi], and I was [thinking to myself], how does she know me? It was so crazy. When she spoke to me she was like, “Aw, thank you so much for coming. I knew it was short notice.” I was like, “You’re thanking me?? It’s an honor!” I knew, already, that this was going to be life-changing. Because her telling me she knows what I do and thinks that I’m a genius—coming from her, it was insane. I respect her so much. And she’s so hands-on. Watching her move around on set, talking to all the dancers—she’s the first to get on, the last to get off, making sure everybody [was okay]. And she didn’t have to! Seeing someone at that level who’s so involved in their craft inspired me a lot. I just told myself, you’re not even as busy as she is. So now you have no excuse not to be successful at what you do.
Could you describe your process?
If I wanted to paint you, I always observe a certain ritual. Basically I’m going to hold your hand, stare into your face, ask you a few questions, just get to know you a little bit—get a little bit of your energy. I kind of interpret you based on my instinct. And that is what I try [to do with my] patterns. Those patterns have symbols; symbols have meaning. So that’s what I did with a lot of the dancers.
What was it like to paint Beyoncé? Was it intimidating?
She’s just so down to earth. I didn’t get that feeling of working for a boss. Everyone was just in their element. To me, this was like [applying] all the skillset I’ve acquired in my life—everything, my whole life, it flashed before me.
[At one point in my life] I almost gave up art. I switched from my law career to study art—I used to be a lawyer, doing nine-to-five, but I left that to follow my passion. At first it was crazy—I lost a lot of family members, people didn’t talk to me for a while. Like, my dad thought I was crazy. Nigeria is so different—here, people have the option to follow whatever they want to do, and society accepts that. Back home it’s pretty much, you gotta be an engineer, a lawyer, or a doctor. Art and music and things like that are basically frowned upon. Nobody would tell you not to do it but people would not want to associate with that.
Has your dad seen Lemonade?
Yeah he saw it. Everyone was talking [about Beyoncé]—like Beyoncé this, Beyoncé that. And [my dad was like], “Who is Beyoncé?” [Laughs] I mean, it was still kind of hard for them to [be really happy for me], but my mom called and said they’re sorry for everything that happened, now they understand.
Do you ever get annoyed if random people come up to you and ask you to paint their face?
Not really. What I find to be annoying is when I meet people and the first thing they say is “We’re Beyhive! How was it? What did she look like? What did she talk like? What did she sound like? Is it true they’re getting divorced?” and I’m like, “How do you expect me to know that?” They ask me so many personal questions about Beyoncé—like, I just worked with her, I don’t know this. She doesn’t come and tell us everything about her life. But they call themselves beehive and [I want to just be like], “Are you okay?”
Ha! How do you usually select your models?
I use Instagram now. Also, when I connect with a certain person, [when] they understand the essence of what I’m doing. I don’t put out open calls. Right now everybody is like, “Just paint my body! Paint me!” people send me DMs—it’s crazy. People send me nude pictures of them with messages like, “Oh just paint me! I’ll be your perfect model!”
Oooh. I don’t think they get the essence.
Yeah, and everybody just wants to be the next [“it] person. And no, I’m not going to do it with [those people] because [they’re] getting it all wrong.
Can you tell me a little bit more about The Sacred Life of the Ori?
Ori, in Yoruba, literally means your head. But the thing about English is it does not have adequate words to describe something—you lose a lot of things in translation. So I would say “Ori” can also mean your essence. Your energy you give off, your vibe. Ori can also mean eleda—what the creator has put you on the planet to achieve. And that Ori is what I try to put on your skin. If you tell me you’re the first born child, there are symbols and elements, there are masks, that [represent] the first born child. I put those things on your skin, I put those markers on your skin. So in a sense, I’m giving you an ancestral skin. It’s like I’m putting you back in time in the present.
Wow, that’s incredible. So I’m guessing you enjoyed Lemonade?
I loved it, man. I’m so happy it happened because it’s given me a platform and it’s gotten people to check out other things I do, because I’m not [exclusively] a body artist. I use the slogan “everything is my canvas.” I could paint on a chair, I could paint a car, I do murals, I’ve painted shoes, I paint jackets, and also human bodies. But when I say that I paint human bodies, everything just exploded. Everyone was like “Whaaaat?! I gotta have that!” There’s something about it that I cannot explain, so that has given me an edge. It’s beautiful.
Images via Lemonade.
Stay tuned to Milk for more young artists on the rise.