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Henry Glassie
Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology

Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Renowned African artist Prince Twins Seven-Seven is profiled in an IU professor's new book

March 10, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- While preparing a book about Prince Twins Seven-Seven, Henry Glassie spent countless hours with the renowned Nigerian artist, both in Africa and the United States.

The Spirit of My Reincarnation Brothers and Sisters

"The Spirit of My Reincarnation Brothers and Sisters"

However, what now excites Glassie the most is the prospect of returning to Nigeria to see the artist installed as the Mogaji -- or clan head -- of the Osuntoki family in Ibadan.

"On the day of the coronation, I intend to be there," the Indiana University professor said about the person he profiled in his new book, Prince Twins Seven-Seven: His Art, His Life in Nigeria, His Exile in America (IU Press).

"This is a great, tremendous success for this man. He's been looking forward to this for years and years and now and at last he's been selected," Glassie added. "On the day of the coronation, there's going to be a fantastic ceremony."

In his 475-page book, Glassie, College Professor Emeritus at IU and recipient of the Charles Homer Haskins Prize of the American Council of Learned Societies, tells Prince Twins' story and presents the stories behind nearly 50 of his paintings. The book features more than 180 color illustrations.

Glassie also is working with the artist on an exhibition of his work that will open April 24 at Material Culture, 4700 Wissahickon Ave., in Philadelphia, Pa.

Born Bamidele Olaniyi, he renamed himself Twins Seven-Seven because he is the lone survivor of seven sets of twins born to his mother. In 1996, he added Prince because of chieftaincy titles he was awarded in the places of his parents.

Prince Twins first attained cultural importance at the early age of 20 in 1964, when his talent was discovered at a literary event organized by German scholar Ulli Beier. The native of Ijara, Nigeria, had never made a drawing or painting before in his life, but within a year had major art shows in his homeland, Czechoslovakia and the United States.

Prince Twins Seven-Seven

Prince Twins Seven-Seven

Print-Quality Photo

By 1970, he was perhaps the most famous contemporary artist in Africa and had become the leader of the Osogbo School of Nigerian art.

"He had never had a minute of training, but he just had this power within himself," Glassie said. "He explains it in interesting mystical terms, but whatever the explanation is, the man just has tremendous depth of talent."

However, by the early 1980s, Prince Twins' life took a tragic turn. In 1982, he nearly died in an auto accident -- even the BBC had announced that he had died. After being in a coma for many weeks and off his feet for 18 months, when he returned to painting, he largely had become a forgotten artist.

Despite his successes, Prince Twins moved to the United States in 2000, ending up in Philadelphia, to look for a new start. Soon defrauded of his funds by fellow immigrants, his family was displaced from their home there. After a series of menial jobs, Glassie found out Prince Twins was working as a parking lot attendant across from his friend George Jevremovic's import-export business. Soon thereafter, the artist became a handyman at Material Culture.

"When George told me that he had hired a mercurial character named Twins Seven-Seven, I was shocked. How could this man be down and out in Philly? I had admired his work since the early 1970s when colleagues and friends who were experts in African art … told me about a young artist who was reshaping the Yoruba tradition into modern masterpieces," Glassie recalled in his book's introduction.

"When George hired him first, knowing nearly nothing about him, but trusting his instincts, it marked the beginning of a fresh and hopeful phase in Prince's turbulent life."

Since then, Prince Twins has enjoyed renewed interest in and commissions of his work. In 2005, he was successfully nominated by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo as the UNESCO Artist for Peace. He's since returned to his home country.

"Part of the reason for my writing this book is to tell the world that the man is still alive and is still painting well," Glassie said in an interview. "He's definitely come back, but he hasn't come back with the force that he deserves."

Glassie image

Photo by Chris Meyer

Henry Glassie

Print-Quality Photo

Glassie previously has studied the cultures of traditional communities around the world. He has documented his fieldwork in award-winning books on life in rural Virginia, Turkey, Ireland and Bangladesh. Three of his books have been named among the notable books of the year by the New York Times.

Prince Twins often is characterized as a contemporary African artist, but Glassie believes he should be considered among the modern arts greats.

"He is an artist, who in Africa, has done exactly what (Pablo) Picasso did in his place in Spain and what (Vassily) Kandinsky did in his place in Russia," the IU professor said. "He's performed like them, that is, he's looked backward into his own tradition and looked outward to other possibilities.

"It's the same move, to look into the past for inspiration and to look out to other cultures and then to draw all that together to produce a new kind of art," he added. "I'm a folklorist and students of folk art will tend to look backward for antecedents. Students of contemporary art usually look out to the contemporary art market. But I think he's looking to the future.

"The guiding principle of his art would be, 'what will the future be like if we could make it better than it is,' and his paintings tend to draw a picture of a future that would preferable to the present we live in."

The book is based on numerous conversations between the artist and author in Philadelphia, where they also became friends, as well as during an extended stay in Nigeria. Glassie said each story Prince Twins told about his life also expressed a broader theme that gave it deep cultural meaning.

After examining Prince Twins' life in the first half of the book, the second half analyzes the paintings individually. It's been described as part biography and part artist's catalog. Glassie addresses tradition and innovation in Prince Twins' art, the development of his personal style, the force of the supernatural in Nigerian life and the difficulties faced by an immigrant artist in the United States.

"His paintings are a plea to acknowledge the spiritual in this world, and then to acknowledge as a result of that the need for peaceful relations," Glassie summed up. "He's not just making a picture - he's got a rhetoric and a purpose. He told me, 'You don't just pick up a brush; you have a reason for doing what you are doing."