Writings of the general word's body

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944 - 2011

News broke today of the death of Twins Seven-Seven, the great avantgarde artist of the Osogbo School, one of those that rose to prominence through the now historic art workshops organised by Ulli and Georgina Beier in the town on the River Osun in the 1960s.

Twins Seven-Seven - so self-named because he was the sole survivor of seven sets of 'abiku' twins born to his mother - had been known to be ill for some time; and in recent days some in the arts community and in the media had become increasingly concerned. Just yesterday journalists were beating anxious paths to the University College Hospital, Ibadan, where Twins was being cared for in the Intensive Care Unit. Family members rebuffed the journalists; the artist's children had apparently said they did not need anybody's help to look after their father, or so reporters were told; and the family did not want Twins' condition mentioned in the press.

Some handwringing in certain quarters as to what to do - afterall, Twins Seven-Seven was a world famous artist, a national treasure that long ago ceased to belong to his family and children alone, a UNESCO Artist for Peace. In any event, it was all too late, for today, death settled the matter.

His ex-wife, textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaiye, confirmed the passing. His last television appearance may well have been the recent CNN African Voices special on Okundaiye, a programme that did Twins Seven-Seven a bit of a disservice, in my view. African Voices neglected to mention the iconic name that would have chimed with thousands of people: Twins Seven-Seven. "Also an artist" was Christian Purefoy's casual reference to him, almost as an afterthought. And with that an artist of greater power was reduced to a mere footnote in Okundaiye's story.

Twins didn't do himself much of a favour in the programme either, he didn't know how, a lifetime of wildly creative eccentricity will do that to you. "I don't marry any woman older than 20, at my age," he said at one point, to the viewer's incredulity. His best years well behind him, he seemed to fancy himself a babe magnet still. "It's now I know I [was] very, very handsome," he said. But it's not so hard to see how women would have flocked to this prodigiously talented artist (singer, theatre performer, dancer, sculptor and painter) in his heyday. I remember reading an account by someone that visited his polygamous compound when Nike Okundaiye was still with him. The visitor remembered Twins-77 as a man loaded with animal magnetism.

For me, Twins Seven-Seven was one of the great culture icons of my youth. As a youngster in the town of Ijebu-Ijesa in the 1970s, the impact of three people on the culture reached us, though we were far from the scenes of their actions and reactions. The sacred trio were Fela, Susanne Wenger and Twins Seven-Seven. Their names reverberated all around us. I didn't even know Twins painted - who at my age had ever heard of 'Visual Art' then? His fame seemed to reach an apogee around the time of FESTAC '77, the year Fela released the rebellious 'Zombie' which all of us kids sang, knowing full well soldiers of the Nigerian army were the 'zombies'. We loved 'Zombie' even more because it had been banned. I was in Lagos that same year and the spirit of FESTAC '77 was in the air, which helped amplify in my young mind the myth of the man who also bore the numbers 7-7 in his name, like he was specially made for those brave times.

In the immediate reactions after the death, Deji Toye called Twins "the rock star of the Osogbo Art School", as indeed he was. His fame for us at a point in time, was on a par with Fela's. He had the plaited hair long before Urban Black music discovered corn-rows; he lived life in fast-forward.

Grown up, I became aware of Twins Seven-Seven's achievement as a visual artist; and have seen at least four of his pieces sold at Lagos auctions in the last year alone. I came to understand why he held adults and children in thrall all those years ago; and why his death is such a huge loss. A massively imitated artist, he stayed ahead of the pack and remained unique. In his fantabulous painted woodcuts, I see the world of D.O Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola, Asiru Olatunde and Ben Okri.

Okri may have written about Azaro, but Twins Seven-Seven - born Taiwo Olaniyi Osuntoki - was Azaro personified. Editing a feature on the artist about a year ago, I decided to make it the cover story. On the cover, I wrote: Magical Realist - for that is what Twins Seven-Seven was.

Photo by Akintayo Abodunrin


Wordsbody said...

This just in from Muraina Oyelami, one of the master artists of the Osogbo School:

Twins Seven-Seven! One of the famous Nigerian artists died yesterday after a brief illness. Twins, a member of the famous Osogbo art school, died in the intensive-care unit of the University of Ibadan after a protracted illness. Twins will be remembered for his unique pictures and stage performances. Burial arrangement is being planned by members of his family. May his soul rest in peace

Chief Muraina Oyelami
(Founder, OCCA, Iragbiji)

African Artists said...

This is so beautifully written, with compassion and adoration for an iconic artist - Brilliant writing.

Wordsbody said...

African Artists,

Thank you. What is one to do? We can only try to find the words...