“I’ve never felt more black than I have since I moved to this city.”
That's what Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo said two years after he left his home of Ilorin, Nigeria, and settled in Ditmas Park to work as an artist.
While media outlets have been buzzing about his rising-star status, Senbanjo spoke with DNAinfo New York about his cultural identity in the context of an artist community in Flatbush.
Senbanjo channels his experiences as both a Nigerian in America and a black man in Brooklyn in his art, some of which can be seen at a recently launched exhibit at Bar Chord. Senbanjo uses the word “afromysterics” to describe much of his work, a phrase he coined in 2007 that refers to the mystery of the African thought pattern.
“People ask you what part of Africa you’re from and I find myself being like, ‘Nigeria, where there are 350 ethnic groups.’
"When I tell them that I’m just one of those [groups], people can’t understand that. [In my art], I’m trying to explain how I understand the world and what I’m trying to spread.”
On the one hand, Senbanjo says that living in a city like New York means that he’s never that far from home — or anywhere else.
“It feels like this is another continent,” Senbanjo said. “It’s mixed up, with people from everywhere, and your identity doesn’t have to change.
“There’s a place in Flatbush, when you walk in, it’s like you’re walking in Nigeria. [Flatbush] is a place where you can be part of whatever culture you want.”
But Senbanjo recognizes that his move to the United States meant he would also inherit certain cultures that can make life in Brooklyn “not so easy,” one of which is being identified — and judged — by the color of his skin.
“Somebody called me black when I walk down the street,” Senbanjo recalls. “But I’m not black. I’m Yoruba. I’m not African American, and my identity is not the color of my skin.”
For Senbanjo, the city's "stop and frisk" policy was one of the first things that opened his eyes to race and social justice issues in the United States.
“When I first came [to the city] I didn’t understand it,” Senbanjo said. “I spoke with a couple friends, and they tell me, ‘You gotta be careful because of racial profiling.'”
Senbanjo recalls a time when he went shopping at Target and experienced firsthand the ways one's skin color can affect daily life.
“I was with my girlfriend, who is white,” Senbanjo said. “She went through security and was fine. Security stopped me. It dawned on me why they stopped me. It was just so weird. I felt so weird that they actually thought I stole something.
“I started realizing that OK, I live in a black body. I inherit this problem. I’m only one culture, but when I cross the border, I inherit these problems because of my skin.”
Born in the '80s, Senbanjo loved art from a young age but didn’t take it seriously because his parents told him it “wasn’t practical.” In 2013, Senbanjo decided to pursue a career in art, but believed that to truly make a living from it, he must abandon his home.
“Art in Nigeria was very frustrating for me,” Senbanjo said.
“Doing art itself is not hard [there], but profiting off it is. Nigeria just doesn’t have the kind of art supply selection that the city does and, if you find it, it’s crazy expensive so artists can’t afford it. New York gives artists room to thrive.”
And Senbanjo certainly has. Since the former human rights lawyer “quit practicing law to practice art” and moved to Ditmas Park, his work has taken him in a number of directions.
As an actor, his role in the web series “Assorted Meat” — which depicts Nigerian life in New York City — brings Senbanjo into the home of anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in the African diaspora.
As a musician, he has traveled to Austin, Texas, where this year he performed with his band, Laolu & the Afromysterics, at the popular music festival South by Southwest.
As an artist, his work has caught the attention of Afropunk festival goers, Essence Magazine and The New York Times Magazine.
Where some New Yorkers struggle to comprehend his Nigerian background, Senbanjo has found understanding in his neighborhood art collective, Flatbush Artists.
“The first meeting I went to, it felt like home,” Senbanjo said.
“I saw people who didn’t look like me, but they welcomed me and [have been] very supportive. I have learned a lot from them.”
Senbanjo will return to Nigeria this December to visit his family, and plans to bring some art supplies for others' use. "Nothing compares to Brooklyn," Senbanjo said. "It's the place where everybody gets to share."