Nigerian artist uses African celebrities as his canvas for malaria awareness campaign

CNN  — 

When Laolu Senbanjo received an email requesting him to work with Beyoncé, he thought it was a scam.

“The Nigerian in me was just thinking it’s just one of those emails,” the 38-year-old recalls. “I wanted to know what the catch was and when they would ask me to pay some money.” Eventually, he did respond – and ended up with a job doing body art for Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album “Lemonade.”

Having recently relocated from Nigeria to New York City to pursue his passion, this was the biggest break of his career.

Beyoncé wears face paint by Nigerian artist Laolu for her visual album "Lemonade."

The artist, who now goes by Laolu NYC or simply Laolu, has a style that stands out mostly because of his willingness to use anything, or anyone, as a canvas. Whether it’s sneakers for Nike, bottles for Belvedere, or face art for Serena Williams, Laolu’s signature brush strokes are in demand.

“The style is called ‘Afromysterics,’ which means the mystery of African thought pattern,” Laolu explains, adding that it “heavily relies on very sophisticated symbols. I call them hieroglyphs from Yoruba mythology.”

Now, the visual artist is using that style to help raise awareness for one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

An artistic take on malaria

Last year, Laolu was asked to become the art director for a new campaign geared to raise awareness among African youth about the dangers of malaria. Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that is most prevalent in Africa, with Laolu’s home country of Nigeria accounting for almost a quarter of the more than 400,000 people that die from the disease each year.

A former human rights attorney in Nigeria, Laolu has caught malaria multiple times himself and eagerly volunteered his services to help spread the message.

“Malaria has taken so many lives in my country,” he says. “(It) continues to be a stumbling block for a lot of us. And just to know that this is preventable – for me it’s a worthy cause.”

Laolu paints on the legs of Kenyan athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist Eliud Kipchoge, who features in the Draw The Line campaign film.

The campaign, which launched in February, is called Draw The Line Against Malaria. It includes a short film featuring African talents such as Nigerian actor Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, Rwandan choreographer Sherrie Silver, and Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge.

All are sporting custom artwork by Laolu. “It’s a skill that I’ve had to develop over time to be able to create art on anyone,” he says as he explains his body art process. “They have to be comfortable because it’s a level of intimacy that they probably don’t give just anyone. So it’s very ritualistic and is very sacred to me.”

Dr Omotola J Ekeinde, Nigerian actress and philanthropist, stars in the Draw The Line campaign film.
Dr Omotola J Ekeinde, Nigerian actress and philanthropist, stars in the Draw The Line campaign film.

Credit: TSE
Nigerian actor gets inked for malaria awareness
02:25 - Source: CNN

The Muundo

The designs for the campaign aren’t just random – they are based around images Laolu created that all have meaning.

The collection of symbols, lines and shapes creates a new visual language he calls “The Muundo” which means “artistic creation” or “structure” in Swahili.

As part of the campaign, users can design their own contribution to the Muundo. The goal is to create a giant mural that will be presented to world leaders at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, later this year.

“It’s a way where we are all collaborators on this project,” Laolu says. “We have everybody drawing the line, everybody’s being an artist, everybody, creating something, (and) being part of drawing the line against malaria. I think it’s pretty phenomenal.”

Watch a full profile of Laolu on the latest episode of African Voices Changemakers.