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Feb. 5: Watch Twins Seven-Seven work wood magic

Internationally renowned Nigerian artist Prince Twins Seven-Seven helps the IMA open its Eiteljorg Galleries of African Art by creating art before our eyes.

When: Sunday February 5, 2:00-5:00

Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art Blue Art Lab

February is a great month at the IMA. To commemorate the opening of its African art galleries, the IM has a great series of films. And it starts marvelously with Twins Seven-Seven. Here is an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association last year:

He is an artist like no other: painter, draftsman, sculptor, printmaker, metal worker, textile designer; he is also a musician: singer, dancer, bandleader, drummer. He is a writer, a poet. And he has acting credits. His official name is Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Oyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki, but he chooses to be known by the simpler, distinctive construction of Twins Seven Seven. Descended from a Nigerian chieftain, Twins Seven Seven (1944- ) was born in Ibadan to a leather worker father and cloth weaver mother; his mother was also a trader in women’s jewelry and clothing. When he was eight years old his father died and he moved with his mother to her ancestral village in the province of Kabba. At age 16 he left school and began the journey that would take him and his art around the world.

The first stop was Lagos, where he became a driver-apprentice, but after two years he went to Oshogbo, where he joined the experimental art workshop of two German artists, Ulli Beier and Suzanne Wenger. Because of the workshop, Oshogbo had become something of a tourist attraction; Twins Seven Seven was soon the center of that attraction.

Twins Seven Seven’s (Ibeji Meje Meje) name alludes to the fact that he was the only survivor in a family that had had seven sets of twins (ibeji meje). "Taiwo" in his original name indicates that he was the first-born twin of the set. (The second born of each pair is called "Kehinde"; though younger, Kehinde is charged with taking care of Taiwo.) If either, Taiwo or Kehinde, died—as was frequently the case—the spirit
of the dead twin was embodied in a wooden carving, ere ibeji, and the surviving twin was responsible for caring for it for as long as it lived. Twins Seven Seven, as the sole surviving member of 14 babies, had an especially heavy duty in caring for the spirits of all his deceased siblings.

Twins Seven Seven completed Healing of Abiku Children when he was in his late twenties. It had been commissioned a year earlier by the Indianapolis physician Dr Hanus Grosz under the general rubric of "Healing." The painting is a depiction of a religious ceremony of the Yoruba people that Twins Seven Seven knew from his own experience. According to Yoruba belief, abiku is a child who is fated to die not long after birth. Rebirth into the same family occurs, but this is followed by early death once again. The cycle continues until the mother brings the child to a divination priest, who, by means of special rituals and incantations to the spirits, persuades the child spirit to remain with its community. In Healing of Abiku Children such a mother is clearly identified. The largest single figure in the painting, she sits on an ornate stool in the foreground holding a twin in her lap, while another sleeps on her back. At her feet are tiny pictures of twins, and in an upward diagonal pointing left, a line of numerous other, seemingly paired children, representing perhaps her previous twin children. Framed in a doorway is the priest mixing potions, while behind him are throngs of people, villagers perhaps come to watch the ceremony. To the right are women arriving with supplies. Throughout the painting are other figures engaged in various other tasks, lavishly decorated structures, elaborate clothing, and, in the upper background, birds, representing perhaps spirits. Not a millimeter of space is left undecorated.

One need not know the narrative or symbolism behind the work to enjoy the painting, however. Like all his work, Healing of Abiku Children is exuberant, flamboyant, attention-grabbing, as Twins Seven Seven is himself said to be. The work is big and bold, busy as a marketplace, lush as an autumn forest; it is as complex as human relationships, as richly layered and as elaborately textured as the finest arras tapestry. The colors are warm and comforting, richly burnished, like sun
on copper. And they are loud, as attention-getting as the blast of the trumpet on judgment day.

Now considered the most famous representative of the Nigerian Oshogbo school of painting, Twins Seven Seven’s work is in museums throughout the world. He was recently (May 2005) named UNESCO Artist for Peace, "in recognition of his contribution to the promotion of dialogue and understanding among peoples, particularly in Africa and the African Diaspora."

We can see "Healing of Abiku Children" at the IMA, and more too. Twins Seven-Seven will work with a flat piece of wood, demonstrating how to turn it into a textured work of art. Very cool.

In fact, we in Indiana have a rare opportunity to compare two master artists at work ... more than just comparing their finished products. On February 21 Marster Au Ho-nien, one of the world's greatest living Chinese artists, will demonstrate his painting skills at the University of Indianapolis. Although they come from very different continents, very different worlds, Master Au and Prince Twins Seven-Seven are similar in many respects. Both are multi-faceted artists and scholars. Both have preserved their local schools of art while adapting them to a global audience. Getting a chance to see both of them create makes February a very special month indeed.

February also offers us a chance to learn much more about African art and life thanks to the IMA's celebration of the opening of the Eiteljorg wing. You can see a couple of important African films: on February 16 Moolaadé (the highly acclaimed film examining genital mutilation in Burkina Faso); on February 23 Daughters of Keltoum. One of Nigeria's greatest writer, Chris Abani, is coming to butler April 18. You can learn much more about the problems facing Africa at the talk about child soldiers in the Congo by Laura Engelbrecht on March 15.

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