‘They Came With Brushes In One Hand And A Bag Of Knowledge In The Other’

‘They Came With Brushes In One Hand And A Bag Of Knowledge In The Other’

‘They Came With Brushes In One Hand And A Bag Of Knowledge In The Other’

‘They Came With Brushes In One Hand And A Bag Of Knowledge In The Other’

Chief Taiwo Olaniyi (aka Twins 77), the world renowned artist and UNESCO Ambassador for the Arts, who passed on at age 67 on Thursday after weeks of illness at the UCH Ibadan was one of the pioneers of the famous Osogbo Art Movement, having participated in the 1960s workshop that led to the emergence of the movement. In this narration excerpted from the book, Thirty Years of Osogbo Art (Iwalewa Haus, 1991), edited by the man who (with his wife, Georgina) inspired and coordinated the workshop, the German scholar and culture worker, Uli Beier (also late), Olaniyi explains how he came into the world of the art. The interview was based on an interview with Gabi Duigu in Sydney, 1984.

THE first time I saw Ulli was towards September 1963. Then I was still working with the medicine sellers, and I never knew I was going to come to them. But I just like him as a person, I don’t know why, but I just like him. He was driving his French car. This strange orange car: more like a tin box.

People called him an idol worshipper, but I felt attracted to him, maybe because he was wearing Nigerian dress always; or maybe because – spiritually – something inside me told me that things were going to happen to me through them in my life. The first time I ever talked to Ulli and Georgina was in 1964, when I gatecrashed a party at Mbari. I just forced myself in, because there was music, and I love dancing, and in those days I don’t know any other thing than dancing. Everything I do is dancing, everyday, and day in and day out!

There were a lot of people there, ambassadors and intellectuals; it was a very big party, and they all notice my dancing. After the party Ulli asked me whether I want to work for him.

I say: to do what? He says: I don’t know, I just want you to stay with us at Mbari. I told him I have to think about it; but at that time the medicine sellers were treating me very badly, and I would have gone to Ulli, even if he had asked me to clean his kitchen.

Georgina – I don’t know – I like Georgina a lot. When I say like, I am not referring to the likeness between man and woman: but she had the kind of personality around her that make people feel like working with her.

Ulli was more like a father to us; we have to respect him because of his age and because he was a chief. Georgina was more like one of us. Anytime we need something from Ulli we would go and talk to her first.

Ullli had to settle a lot of quarrels between us at Mbari. It was his plan to let me join Duro Ladipo’s Theatre Company, but Duro never liked me. When the company was invited to go to Germany he refused to take me. I was very upset, but Ulli could not persuade Duro. So before they left for Berlin, he bought me a guitar. I don’t know why he did so. Maybe he wanted to make me happy. Maybe it was his foresight, because he saw my love for music. So he gave me the guitar and he said: this will keep you busy. But up till today, I don’t know how to play guitar! But the guitar helped me to get a lot of boys around me who wanted to join me and form a musical group!

The band became very popular; and when Duro and Ulli and Georgina came back from Berlin I threw a welcoming party for them. All my musical friends came and there were hundreds of people who wanted to hear my music, because some of my songs were very popular at that time:

“The wise man uses his beans to make cake

Let me tell you what the world is like.

Two friends live together in one room:

The one has a talent for spending

The other has talent for saving.

The first spends all

The second save all

The foolish man will perish in the ocean

The wise man’s bean makes cake.”

But Duro wasn’t happy when he saw me so popular, because it was as if the whole Mbari Club has been created only for me, and he must have been thinking that I was taking over his father’s premises!

So a few days later, he drove me out of Mbari, saying he did not need my assistance any more. Fortunately, by that time, my artistic talent had already been discovered by Georgina; because about a month before they left for Germany she had been conducting her art workshop. She had left me lots of pen and ink and paper, and before she returned I had done a lot of black and white drawings. Georgina was happy with the work I had done and immediately I told her I had been driven out of Mbari, she decided I should come and work in the house every day. I could tell from her smiling that she thought I was more talented than others. I think she like my work, because it was different from anybody else. The others were all doing what I might term “mural paintings”. They were all working with thick brushes, drawing in heavy black line. My own work was something completely new. When I make my shapes, I never look at any book, and I was never moved by anybody elses painting, I don’t even know where they are coming from.

My method of working was also different from others: others drew sketches; then they developed their paintings from that. I never drew sketches. I hated drawing sketches; in fact even when I draw a sketch, I find I can never copy it again when I work on the painting: because when I work, I close my eyes and I put my hand there and I draw things. That’s how I work.

When I came to Georgina’s house to work she had brought an etching press and she taught me how to draw on a zinc plate, how to etch the plate and how to use the press. Ulli had given me a book by Amos Tutuola to read: My life in the Bush of Ghosts. He said that my titles reminded him of Tutuolas stories. Now that book gave me very good ideas for giving more titles to my works.

When I had made about twenty plates, we started printing them. That was a very good time in my life with Georgina: because we would work all night; we would print and print and print. And any time there were some small smudges on the margin, she would say: this is not good enough and throw it out and make me start all over again.

I learned many technical tricks from her. When I first put the gouache colours on my paintings, I found that they would submerge my pen and ink lines. She then taught me how to apply the colour with a sponge; then she bought some yachting varnish, and she showed me how to varnish the paintings I had painted on brown paper. The varnish made the black line come through again from underneath the colour. And it also helped to preserve the paper. Some of my pictures, which I painted on paper twenty years ago, are still in very good condition.

The most important thing I learned from her was energy: Because Georgina was very hard working. You will find her making a mosaic on her kitchen wall; she would make backdrops for Duro’s Theatre; she would paint murals in the palace of Ido Oshun; she would do a lot of sewing, she would be designing furniture; she would run to the palace where Bisi and Muraina were working, she would run back again to the house where I was working on prints. We always called her a witch, because she never get tired; but we don’t mean a negative witch, we mean she was a woman who had a lot of power.

Maybe that’s why I like working with her, because I also like to be very active. And before I was having this big accident, I will be dancing, I will be singing, I will be painting, I will be travelling; I will be doing a lot of things at the same time. I learned energy from her. Maybe I also learn smoking from her, because at that time she would be smoking five or six cigarettes while she was working; she was smoking those French cigarettes, very black tobacco in a blue packet.

Georgina also taught us to look at work critically. Before an exhibition she taught us how to look carefully and pick the best works; she never wanted us to exhibit any second rate pictures; and I know she used to destroy many of her own works, when she wasn’t satisfied with them. Many paintings she would just paint over them again. But unfortunately, since I have become so popular, the collectors cannot allow me to wait. They just jump in and by the time you know it, they will say: I am going home with this! Because they want to go away with your work. And there is nothing you can do. But nowadays, I stop people form buying, because I just put a very high price on my work... to scare people away. But – some people still buy. I remember one painting – I put $50,000 on it because I love it and I don’t want to sell it. But somebody still bought it in Spain. But one good thing about having high prices is that you don’t have to paint as much; you can afford to spend more time on a painting. One good thing about working with Ulli and Georgina in those early days was that they gave you time to work without having to sell. They gave you money for food and they bought your materials. So we had about two and half years to develop, before having to fight for existence. Working in Georgina’s house was like going to school: I would start work early in the morning by seven o’clock and I would not finish until six in the evening. I learned how to have patience then. But many of the younger artists, who are imitating us now, they feel that immediately they do something, they should sell it. They call themselves “Oshogbo artists” but they don’t know the experiences we went through. They have nothing in common with us; they merely copy us, but they don’t have the same energy. I don’t blame them too much, because they see us building houses and they see us riding some of the best cars in town.

But when we started, we didn’t know that our work would ever be worth anything; we did it because we loved doing it! Perhaps the most important thing I got from the workshop was that it taught me how to stand on my own feet. It enabled me to discover myself as an artist; it enabled me to sit down and work for hours without getting tired; it made me understand that concentration is one of the most important things an artist needs in life.

Nowadays we see many artists trained in the universities. But I think they are more imitating other people’s work; I don’t think they have all we have; because what is the point of a teacher teaching you, and he makes you look at Picasso’s work. I don’t think that’s the way it should be. An artist should be given the freedom to work. I was never able to accept instructions form anybody in my life; that’s why I dropped out of school, because I could not tolerate the headmaster ordering me to dig out big iroko trees from the school compound as a punishment. That’s why I refused a scholarship I was offered in Theatre Arts at the University of Ife.

But Georgina would never try to give us instructions, but she might say things like: why don’t you try this. Many people in Oshogbo did not understand Ulli and Georgina at the time. They called them pagans and idol worshippers and they said to us: these people want to turn you into olorishas. But I didn’t care about that. I told them: as for me, I have already got orisha in my family, both my father’s family and my mother’s family. My father’s compound in Ibadan is called Oloshun, which means that we have always been worshipping Oshun; and my grandmother in Ogidi was a very powerful woman in the Imole cult. So it is not surprising that 90% of my work has to do with Yoruba religion and orisha. Ulli never talked to me about religion, but you could see in his face that he had this interest and you could see him going to many orisha ceremonies and you could see that many Shango priests were his friends and they came to his house a lot. He wanted us to respect our traditions, and I think his interest had a lot to do with the content of Duro’s plays as well. But in those early days we got a lot of abuse from people; some people didn’t even want to sit next to us in a taxi, because we all started to imitate Ulli and Georgina and we wear adire and handwoven Yoruba cloth. So the people said we were backward; but later they got to know we were more civilised than they.

These things never bothered me. In fact I loved it. Because it makes you more powerful. People didn’t dare to touch you, and some people were afraid of Ulli because they said, he must have strong medicine to turn us all into orisha worshippers. These people themselves were going to see the orisha priest at night, but they wont show themselves in the afternoon. In the daytime they pretend to be Muslims, but they were not really Muslims, in their heart they weren’t Muslims, but because you may not get any business unless you call yourself an Alhaji, or because you cannot marry the Alhaji’s daughter, unless you pretend to be a Muslim – that’s why these people accuse us of doing the same thing that they themselves will be doing at night.

Some people were jealous of Ulli and Georgina. In later years, when I became very successful myself, I discovered that the more successful you are, the more jealousy you are going to meet and people are trying this and the other to harm you. Well, there were some intellectuals, who told us that we were being exploited and that these people were gong to make millions out of us. There was a special meeting we were called to for that – and up to now I haven’t even told Ulli about it. And I said to them: well, as far as I am concerned, I lost my father when I was seven and none of you – so called intellectuals – ever dreamed of looking for me, or of finding out who I am. You were laughing at me, calling me a crazy boy, because from birth I was having dreadlocks, which I was not allowed to cut and I was dancing in the streets. I wouldn’t even care if these people make a million on me – because if I leave them, which of you will give me a job? I don’t want to be an armed robber, and I don’t want to roam about the street without a job. I have no paper qualification, so what am I going to do? You want me to start hating Ulli and Georgina: then how much is your salary? I am feeding more than twenty people – because I have always attracted a lot of young people. If you come to my house you will find it full of people, who either come to seek my help or who just want to be around me. Who is going to take care of this responsibility? If I am what I am today, it is not because of you, but because Ulli and Georgina believed in my talents, when you would not even talk to me.

Then some of them even said: these people may carry the Oshun from the sacred grove and carry her to Europe. And I said to them: what have you people done for Oshun? If not for Susanne and Ulli – would the Oshun grove even be there today? And who amongst you has built a museum for your town, as Ulli and Georgina have done?

Well, they said a lot of things in those days: but now they know and now they even apologise to us.

But I never listened to anybody; because where would I go and where would I be given the same opportunities? Where else could I find out who I am and bring out all the things that were in me?

Ulli and Georgina were unique. The uniqueness of it was that they came from another culture and they made us more aware of our own culture. They revealed our creativity to the world and to ourselves. That’s what I see in them. They were a kind of missionary; but they were not like those Christian missionaries, who came with the Bible in one hand and with the sword in the other. They came with brushes in one hand and with a bag of knowledge in the other.

(excerpted from Thirty Years of Osogbon Art, (Iwalewa Haus, 1991)

1967 – A Year in the Live of an Artist, By Beier
User Rating: / 0

1967 was the most crucial year in the life of the Oshogbo artists. Shortly before Christmas 1966 Georgina and I left Nigeria. For three and a half years the “Oshogbo Artists” had worked in Georgina’s studio. They had been able to devote their energy and imagination to their artistic work, without hassling for their daily bread. Their art materials were supplied and they received enough money to subsist without selling their work. Several exhibitions had been arranged for them abroad (Naprstek Muzeum in Prague, Neue Munchner Galerie in Munich) and their career had reached a first climax in Nigeria with a major Oshogbo exhibition, which opened at the Goethe Institute in Lagos on December, 14th, 1966.

Now, for the first time, the artists had to fend for themselves and many critics predicted that they would not survive without this special patronage. For some the transition was made easier, because they were able to find jobs to sustain them: Muraina Oyelami and Bisi Fabunmi were caretakers of the Oshogbo Museum; Jacob Afolabi looked after the Mbari Mbayo Club and its little gallery; Jimoh Buraimoh was the electrician of the Duro Ladipo Theatre and Samuel Ojo was a tailor by profession.

Twin Seven-Seven was one of the few who had to live off his paintings alone. As he was the only one of the artists to keep diary, we are able to reconstruct this turbulent year in the life of one of the major Oshogbo artists.

Though he was still in his early twenties and at the very start of his career, he had already burdened himself with heavy social commitments: his first wife Bintu had given birth to a baby daughter; he still owed the bride price for his second wife, Iyabo, but she too gave birth to a daughter. He was courting a third girl, Risi, but had difficulties in obtaining the parents consent.

With his first earning he began to build a house for his mother in his home town Ogidi. This is a way of showing reverence to his mother, and at the same time acquiring new status and prestige by being the first person to build an “upstair” house in Ogidi. At the same time he works hard to re-establish his rights in his father’s compound in Ibadan, trying to move himself into line for his eventual succession to the family title of Olosun. He is surrounded by a gang of young admirers and followers, who have grouped themselves into a band. While Twins is more anxious to succeed as a band leader than as a painter, he is obliged – more often than not – to subsidise his band from the earnings of his art. Perhaps the single most important event in this year is his visit to London, where he participates in an exhibition of modern African Art at Institute of Contemporary Art, together with Ibrahim el Salahi, Malangatana, Asiru and Jimoh Akolo. His brief comment on the opening reads:

‘’We met a lot of friends and reporters came; we made a lot of jokes, we have fun and a good time.”

In London he cuts a spectacular figure in the streets with his gold-embroidered Yoruba cap and a Victorian policeman’s cape that is lined with purple silk. Children follow him into the house to watch him paint, much to the chagrin of their racialist parents. He likes to go shopping with Georgina and spends all his money on present to take back to Nigeria. He is picked up by a Vogue photographer, who makes him model capes, sitting on a white horse in front of the Victoria and Albert Memorial. He is busy framing his pictures for an exhibition at the University of Sussex and relaxes to the music of Ambrose Campbell in London’s famous Abalabi club. The most lasting impression of his London visit is the old gorilla “Guy” in London zoo:

March 23th: On this day I fell in love with a gorilla named Guy. He is standing there in that tiny space; I felt he was supposed to have freedom and I felt sad for him. His image stays in my mind...”

The moving pen and ink drawing Twins made of Guy must be considered one of his major works. Back in Nigeria the hassle for daily existence began again. The very day after his arrival in Oshogbo he travels to Ibadan to sell some paintings and to see his family. The amount of travelling Twins does during this year is quite incredible. He has made a name for himself in Lagos at an exhibition of prints that took place in Tayo Aiyegbusi’s Mbari Mbayo Gallery. There is an increasing stream of visitors to Oshogbo, who come to look at his paintings and who also use him as a guide to other artist studios and to the Oshun shrine. Twins records twenty-two visits, mostly by Americans during this year: on one occasion thirty Peace Corps workers arrive; on another day a group of American and European visitors arrive on Oshogbo airport in a chartered plane.

In spite of this, he has to make twenty trips to Lagos and sixteen to Ibadan in pursuit of sales. In Lagos the Wolfords keep an open house every Thursday for the display of Oshogbo art: they also introduce Twins to many other expatriates. The Argentinian and the Venezuelan ambassadors become friends and begin to collect his paintings. Another American, Mr. Springwater, arranges an exhibition of Twins etchings at the Wesleyan University of Connecticut. Although these are in fact the prints that Georgina has sorted out as rejects. Twins earns about £5000 during that year. Twins is often hard up, because his social commitments are so great. Numerous diary entries read:

“A penniless day. No visitor, no friend, no helper. I pray for energy and creativity”. Or again.

“Another penniless day. People think I have money and I am hiding it. But I try to explain to them that I depend on my luck”.

In spite of his considerable income, Twins is forced to borrow money continuously; from the bank manager, from fellow artists, from his food seller. Three days after receiving about £1000 from America, he records borrowing £10 from Susanne Wenger. His money is spent on building his mother’s house at Ogidi, on his band boys and on socialising. After his return from London he notes:

“A very busy week when I spend about £40 both in celebrating my return from Europe and for making other friends happy, who complain that I don’t bring anything back from Europe for them”.

Whenever he has a windfall of money, he pays his debts, buys food, clothes for his family and band and building materials and throws parties. On his daughter’s first birthday, he spends no less than £432 – an enormous sum at the time. If he has no money and unexpected visitors arrive, he borrows money from the bank to entertain them. Much of his money goes on his motor cycle – understandable, because without mobility he can’s exist. In 1967 he goes through three machines: one Honda and two Yamahas. He has four road accidents, seriously hurts his knee in one of them, but escapes without a scratch in the others. On November 13th, his Yamahas catches fire in the house, perhaps from a cigarette that was carelessly thrown away:

“A bad day in y life. I am ruined by an unseen power. My motor cycle caught fire”.

People sympathise with him:

“Mr. Jimoh Buraimoh came to my house to give me hope”.

On November 15th, he records:

“Early in the morning I woke up. I go here and there looking for cash to buy a new motor cycle”.

The Yamaha is his lifeline. He needs it, not only to sell his work in Ibadan and Lagos but also to keep his links with his mother’s relatives and his old school mates in Kabba province. He has a strong emotional attachment to that part of the country, where his real roots are. He makes eight trips to Kabba province during that year. Each visit lasts four or five days, during which he rushes restlessly from village to village. On May 24th, he travels from:

“Oshogbo to Ikare, from Ikare to Ishe, Ishe to Ishua, Ishua to Epinmi”.

On the following day he travels:

“First to Ishua, then back to Epinmi, to Ukpe and back to Ishe. All is well. A short visit to Ogidi”.

May 26th:

“Left Ogidi in the night for Ishe, Life in Ishe. On a short visit to Ikare in the morning. Two times trip to Ishua. Another rush to Ikare. Visit Dupe and Karimu at Highlife bar”.

May 27th:

“Life in Ishe on the market day. Plan a rush visit to Ogidi. Took Dele with me to Ogidi and later travel all the way to Iyara, to see the burial ground of my father and m other’s mother. Slept at Ogidi”.

While he is strengthening his links with his mother’s people, he is also trying to put down new roots in Ibadan. After the early death of his father, his mother’s people had kept him away from Ibadan, because it was said by an oracle priest that the child’s life was in danger there. Now he gets to know his father’s relatives in the Olosun Compound of Ibadan. He learns the family history and discovers that from 1895 to 1897, one of his ancestors was the Olubadan (ruler) of Ibadan:

“I went back to Oshogbo late in the night and I was sad to know that I am a prince and to know that Christian influence has really relegated our family to the background”.

He decides that one day he will become the Olubadan of Ibadan to restore the lost dignity of his family. After a while he accepts the fact that he may not realise this ambition for a while, the effort needed in time and energy and money is too great at the present moment. With all these hectic activities he has little peace at home. Bintu, his wife, feels neglected; she suspects him of having other women and resents the fact that he spends so much time and money on friends and hangers-on. He records seventeen quarrels with Bintu.

“A very slow Sunday. I expected big cash, but none came. I work harder. A little fight between me and my wife Bintu, because she thought that every time I went out to play and came back in the night, that I must have been with some other women: forgetting that music is not something you play and rush back home. You have to shake hands with friends and have drinks with them”.

Some of the quarrels become serious. Twice Bintu runs away to her mother in Ede, leaving the baby behind. Both Bintu’s and Twin’s mother repeatedly get involved in the quarrel.

Things are not going smoothly with the band either; there are constant demands for more money, but there is also disagreement on the type of music to be played. But in these disagreements Twins always comes out on top; the band stays together and they give at least 30 performances during that year, usually with great success. He is immensely popular as a musician.

During this year the Oshogbo artists remain a cohesive group. Twins participated actively in the foundation of the Oshogbo Artists Association, of which Asiru became the President. An All-Oshogbo exhibition was staged at Mbari Oshogbe. Twins assists Tijani Mayakiri to become a member, but resents the fact that new artists are now calling themselves “Oshogbo” artists, even when they have no connection with the group. He has a public row with Z.K. Oloruntoba about this at Ibadan. Twins sees much of the original Oshogbo artist group, in particular Muraina, Bisi Fabunmi, Jimoh Buraimoh and of course Samuel Ojo, who is also a member of his band. They visit each other’s houses, lend each other money, attend each other’s family ceremonies and go out drinking together.

Occasionally Twins goes to church; regularly he consults his ‘readers’, traditional oracle priests as well as Muslim fortune tellers and Christian ‘prophets’ from the Apostolic Church. He performs several traditional rituals and regularly visits the Oshun shrine in Oshogbo. He washes his new born baby with the sacred water of the river Oshun and gives the Oshun priests money for a sacrifice after he has escaped from a motor cycle accident.

He has several major exhibitions during that year: at the University of Sussex, the Travers Gallery in Edinburgh, the Wesleyan University in the U.S., at Mbari Ibadan and at the Goethe Institute in Lagos. He finds time to produce all his works, by applying himself with relentless energy. This entry for July, 19th, is typical for many others:

“A very busy day. I don’t want to see anybody. I am thinking and planning of how to create new work, to beat some of the Oshogbo artists, who have already copied my work”.

Twins emerges from his diary as a man of restless energy, a man generous to a fault, an ingenious survivor, a philosopher who takes life as it comes and makes the best of it; a man with an unshakeable belief in his talent and his destiny, an ambitious man but one whose repeated prayer is for ‘energy and creativity’.


Popular posts from this blog

Taken from EyinOdu

Preemptive: The Quest For Peace And Civilised Humanity