Prince Twins Seven-Seven Nigerian, 1944-2011
Taiwo Bamidele Olaniyi Oyewale Oyekale Aitoyeje Osuntoki changed his birth name to Prince Twins Seven-Seven in recognition of his standing as the sole survivor of his seven sets of twins born to his parents. He was born in Ijara in northern Nigeria and came from the royal clan of Osuntoki. He believed himself to be an “abiku”—a person predestined to die young, possessed by a spirit who returns to the same mother to be reborn and die many times—and thus endowed with a singular connection to the spirit world. Twins Seven-Seven began his career as an itinerant dancer and singer, but he started making art in the 1960s when he joined a workshop in the city of Osogbo led by Ulli Beier, a German linguist and promoter of African culture, and his wife, Georgina, founders of the Mbari Club, an important center for cultural activity in Africa’s post-independence era.
With imagery that pays homage to the folklore and the mythology in the Yoruba culture, Twins Seven-Seven worked with ink, pastel, and oil on paper, canvas, and carved plywood. Using the oral tradition and literary sources of his people, he depicted village scenes, animals, exotic deities, and anthropomorphic spirits in dense, graphically powerful compositions packed with symbolism. Although Twins Seven-Seven’s works are stylistically reminiscent of complex traditional textile weaving, he often broke through the limits of figuration with his instinctive, improvisational technique, filling the surface with lines and intricately detailed rhythmic patterns. In his 2010 biography and art catalogue Prince Twins Seven--Seven: His Art, His Life in Nigeria, His Exile in America the folklorist and scholar Henry Glassie wrote, “Twins was the great modernist of the Yoruba tradition . . . He turned back to tradition, just as Kandinsky or Klee did, but in his context drew on Yoruban sources to figure out an escape from tradition into modernity.”
After a promising inclusion in the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989, Twins Seven-Seven began traveling frequently and finally settled in Philadelphia. This marked the start of a period in his life dominated by gambling, drinking, and financial difficulties. It was during this time, when he worked as a parking lot attendant for a housewares store, that the store owner found out he was an artist, had him embellish the store’s wrapping paper, and later gave him a small space to use as a studio. Twins Seven-Seven’s career revived in 2000, when the Indianapolis Museum of Art (now Newfields) opened a wing devoted to contemporary African art with an exhibition of his work. In 2005 Twins Seven-Seven was named a UNESCO “Artist for Peace,” a title that brought him international visibility six years before he died at age sixty-seven from complications of a stroke. His work has been shown in museums throughout the world, including the Musée de L’Homme (Paris), the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum, the Fowler Museum (Los Angeles), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the National Museum of African Art (Washington, D.C.), and the National Gallery of Modern Art (Lagos).