- Prince Twins Seven-Seven: His Art, His Life in Nigeria, His Exile in America by Henry Glassie
Oral autobiography and biography often generate contentious debates over what actually constitutes autobiography, biography, and life history. Scholars’ use of these terms often affects the representation of context in ethno-graphic exchange. The inherent difficulties of representation in oral autobiographies have often compelled scholars to approach this genre creatively and strategically. Thus, the quest for improving representation in oral autobiography has inspired many distinguished anthropologists and folklorists, since the 1930s, to develop new methodologies for writing oral autobiography as ethnography, in [End Page 109] order to access personhood and the individual motivations that shape and are shaped by larger cultural and historical contexts. Henry Glassie’s book Prince Twins Seven-Seven provides an improved foundational methodology for scholars to elicit, record, and analyze oral autobiographical narratives in light of cultural and historical contexts.
Glassie’s book is about Prince Twins Seven-Seven (henceforth Seven-Seven), an accomplished Nigerian artist. The form of the book is exceptionally dialogic, as Glassie creatively and explicitly positions himself as a mediator and witness. His creative methodology and alternating narrative voices carefully distill and preserve the voice of Seven-Seven while illuminating larger and broader historical and political questions, as told in oral autobiography.
The oral autobiography begins at “a roadside restaurant outside of Lokoja” (p. 2) in Nigeria, where Seven-Seven is sitting across from Glassie, the ethnographer, engaging in this collaborative oral autobiography project. Dialogic engagement resurfaces throughout the book, again and again, in diverse settings, as Seven-Seven, the middle-aged successful artist, and Glassie, an accomplished folklorist, dialogically weave this fabulous oral autobiography together. Among the many topics Glassie seeks to understand are what it means to be an abiku child in Yoruba society; how abiku children are treated by Yoruba society; and how the abiku children feel, think, and express themselves artistically.
According to Glassie, Seven-Seven and his society perceive abiku as children being destined to be gifted and become artists. During his research, Seven-Seven and various other people share with Glassie accounts of how certain abiku children are born and die and then are reborn. Seven-Seven himself told Glassie his belief that he has died six times and has returned to this earth for the seventh time. Seven-Seven perceives abiku children’s life experiences and their deaths and rebirths as divine enactments. According to Seven-Seven, he came into this world seven times as an abiku child, each time as one of a set of twins, returning to the spirits who sent him, but that this time he has managed to remain after his seventh birth to become an artist achieving international fame.
Seven-Seven often remembers the tales of his grandmother about the dark waters of Omielja, a sacred lake where people offer sacrifices for protection to Osun, the goddess of peace who dines on vegetation (p. 61). These cherished memories remind Seven-Seven of his vulnerability as an abiku person, which, at the same time, privileges and distinguishes him, as a gifted person, from the rest of his society. Later in life, as an artist, Seven-Seven weaves these childhood memories into his art, his paintings, which are richly illustrated in the book. He also cherishes his memories of traveling in Europe displaying his artwork and finally coming to the United States. While in the States, Seven-Seven nostalgically speaks of the Osogbo town where he encountered Ulli Beier, an expatriate, who became a critical force in his development as an artist.
Seven-Seven’s autobiography is not only about himself and his self-conception as an abiku person, it is also about the history of Nigeria, its colonization and decolonization, and its struggle with colonial and postcolonial nation state politics. This oral autobiography takes us back to a period during which energetic young African intellectuals and political activists, including Seven...