The grey brooding sky shot down jagged shards of icy rain as the streets choked up bicyclists, taxis and underground steam from the snaking beast of urban living.
Weaving through yarns of shoulders, bags and headlights, passersby lingered just a little longer when they saw us, strutting down the street, hunting burgers, this mainstay of America’s most loyal if not idiosyncratic of palates. A young girl with hair blowing in the wind swept one foot on the side walk and kept one on her scooter, faster and faster so she could afford a second, and third look.
“Does it ever get to you? The stares?”
The breeze swam gently through our bodies bringing the voices of the city through porous storefronts, as the steel overhead bridge connecting Chelsea Market and 450 W 15th Street loomed above us. We stopped and waited for the red man to turn white.
Right across was an apartment block belching out recently checked-out patrons, hesitating ever so subtly to grab their version of this strange apparition on this ordinary street. I turned as well to observe for myself, catching a mist of rain that partially obscured my view and poured before me, coating the sidewalks in mirrored illusions. Disjointed heads, an arm, half of a wing flying past and a raised eyebrow.
“How do you process giggles and gasps that must often girth your experience each time you appear like you are right now?”
Earlier, while standing at the store front, he pulled the hoodie of the zipped-up jacket and secured the mask.
"But that is what this is about. If I cannot inspire conversation, if I cannot have you question your assumptions, if I cannot have you investigate your reality, then I fear I am failing.”
Laolu Senbanjo remembers superimposing non-existent patterns on marble floors as a young boy. He continued his foray in to art past his childhood, a helpless devotion to artistic expression following him to his years as an attorney in Nigeria. Desire to connect his continent, the thoughts of his part of the world to the “Western World” led him to relocate to New York. He worked as a band musician and performer while nursing his dreams of painting.
“If you are not inspired in New York...” Laolu started. His voice dropped off, saying more than words could. All around us were relics of past glory days of revelry and let-go-ism that Manhattan was known for. The now closed club you knew you would never be grown enough to go to, the entrances on the floor leading to basement spots right under the street whose lights went to sleep decades ago, birthing a new aura in Manhattan, a dark, grungy forbidding aria that artists could not resist.
New York provided the opportunity to pour out his long expanding passion, an avenue to roll out his expression.
“What does it mean for you to wear the mask?”
Laolu was on the street as Iwin, the spirit man. Needless to say, eyes popped and heads swung as he blew past, most seeming to ask a myriad of questions, not the least of which was, “Who are you?”
“You see, we communicate with the elements and embody them. Sometimes they lead us to dance, other times we are walking down the street, one with them. And other times, still, we allow them to flow through us and we together create a language, speaking the secrets of our past
and the present that carries us to our destiny.” Laolu speaks reverently of his Yoruba culture as a source for the rivers of his patterns. To him, the Iwin that he becomes demonstrates the continuum within life and death, now and yesterday, here and history. He speaks of how porous the human existence is, soaking from that which came before, ceaselessly emptying in to a perpetual then and now, then and now, then and now. He carries his heritage almost jealously, like the lips of a child on her mother’s breast.
“Does being Iwin in New York tell a different story than in Ilorin?”
“I find that as an African immigrant, it may be complex to navigate the particular intersectional paths we encounter living in the U.S. While before we were Yoruba and Gikûyû and Igbo and Zulu, now we are black. Many of us resist this tag. It feels like an erasure. Of a history. Of a culture. Of what makes a people. We are black and we are Yoruba; we must light our paths with new knowledge on how to be black, African and an immigrant in these complex times,” He said, almost parabolic.
Laolu pushed the door of the diner open and stood aside to let me in. We headed to the counter and a couple followed the pattern set by passersby out on the wet street.
Their eyes opened wide and lips started to move, a little hesitantly at first, for how is one to respond to an elaborately painted mask covering a face and a matching jacket to cloak the rest?
“We love your get-up”
Laolu nods courteously.
“Are you an artist?”
Laolu nods again indulgingly.
“It is beautiful...Have a good day”
The brief encounter over as soon as it began. I was baffled by Laolu’s approach. If the idea was to inspire conversation, why say so little when prompted by what I recognize as admirers or rather, curious partakers of his art?
“That was an acknowledgement of wonder and curiosity. What are we if not curious and longing to be awed? This gap hopefully leads you to yearn for more and interrogate what you already know. That is conversation.”
We settle in. I start to feel delirious, inundated with the maelstrom of lines, patterns, ink and charcoal suddenly rushing back to me drowning me in the consciousness of Laolu’s focus and the weight of his intent. He wants his art to speak, in a voice that the world recognizes as singular, distinct, explicit. Is this too lofty an ask? Too sublime an aspiration? The refrain from Laolu’s journey and the response to the call asking, “Is it too heavy a burden to carry,” seems to be; “I paint to share the story of our people, I paint to express my thoughts and feelings, I paint to pour my craft and hope it speaks clearly enough”
The buzzer lights up and the trays of food are ready.
Laolu arranges the sauces next to his thick juicy burger. He obviously carries a Midas effect. Everything he touches turns to art. The pink of the thousand island sauce, his strawberry lemonade, the deep yellow mustard and the creamy mayonnaise competing to splash on the fries, his chosen canvas. Completely oblivious of the eyes stealing glances at his now undressed face and the intricately patterned mask on the table beside him. Spending the afternoon with the artist, I began to feel that this was not at all oblivion, but a comfortable acceptance of his eccentricity, his otherness, his contribution.
He slowly reaches out his palm to the glass of water sitting on the table, sweating from the ice swimming at the rim. A stream brims over, cascading down to his fingers, almost porous as they soak in the drink. These fingers, the latest unsuspecting canvas, stained the psychedelic red, blue and yellow of his latest work.