Prince and Henry Glassie with the painting “Kissing Birds” at an exhibition.
As Prince drove from success to success in the city of Osun, the dilemma of his existence was set. By virtue of his incorporation of his sister’s spirit, he was both male and female. He bore within the powers of Sango and the powers of Osun, who were, as Prince told it, husband and wife. His eternal, internal struggle was to subordinate Sango’s red powers to the white powers of Osun. To that end, once he had come to self-knowledge, he always wore white, white robe and underclothes, white socks, white shoes. When the white powers prevailed, he was endlessly creative, effortlessly making painting after painting. At work in solitude he became a famous painter. With fame, the red forces rose. A charismatic, extroverted man—flamboyant was his word for himself—he was sucked into the social swirl, delighted by adulation, drawn away from art, and tempted by the political entanglements that could carry him, like Sango, toward worldly power.
The spirits had warned him. Late in the 1970s, Prince had become active in politics, first at the local level, then at the national. In 1982, he was coming home from a political meeting, when he swerved off the narrow Gbonga-Ikere Road to avoid a head-on collision, plunging into the bush and crashing into another car. The spirits nearly killed him, he said, to warn him away from politics, to keep him focused on art. But the Sango within could not be checked. Prince ran for office again and, accepting high chieftaincies in the places of his parents, far from the compound he had built and decorated in Osogbo, he became so enveloped in obligations, so ensnared in troubles, that he fled. Osun directed him to Philadelphia, a city set between rivers, where he had brought new people to knowledge of the goddess in the past. It was hard, but in time—removed from the enticements and encumbrances of Nigeria— he fully recovered his artistic energies. Then she brought him home again.
Once home, he distracted himself with the desire to become a king, and in the midst of a political campaign, he was struck into silence, becoming at the end of his waiting—as he would put it—an invisible person. He returned to Orun, not as a king, but, with Osun’s blessing, as one of the signal artists of the twentieth century.
Ulli Beier wrote that Twins Seven-Seven’s great creation was himself. His triumph was that he lived life to the limit. Bravely taking on new tasks, winning, then losing, then winning again, Prince looked forward and went forward, remaining perpetually in motion. But what will last is the art that incarnates, permanently, his talent and intentions.
Prince’s art was grounded in an inherent talent that unified imagination and skill. They met so easily—imagination and skill, thought and action—that the choice of an artist’s head in Obatala’s garden is as good an explanation as any. Born an artist, he rarely paused for a thought, his hand kept going. Planning was minimal, the end uncertain: he started with wide, swift gestures, confirmed them with black outlines, then filled bold forms with delicate, geometric patterning, proceeding in an additive process that he called ant work, that Robert Plant Armstrong called syndesis and identified forty years ago as the key feature of Yoruba creation. Prince rolled the Yoruba aesthetic onto a flat European surface, creating paintings that matched the masterworks of Western modernism.
Not from influence, but through parallels of proclivity, Prince’s works resemble Paul Klee’s. Both were musicians, both were draftsmen who rendered the invisible with precision. Prince’s paintings, like Pollock’s dripped pictures, develop order through tonal balance, establish connections through curving lines, and achieve depth out of variations in scale.
Prince’s bright, particular talent unfolded in a fraught historical context. He was born in a British colony, and in early anger he felt that, as he put it, the British had come with their guns and books to destroy his civilization. Educated in Islamic and Christian schools, he turned away from the intrusive new faiths of his parents to embrace the rooted religion of the Yoruba people. His radical, oppositional stance positioned him among the artists who, in the moment of Nigerian independence, set about the creation of a culture that drew ideas from the West but sought for its energy in the native tradition. The writers led, but Prince was there. He read Amos Tutuola’s novels, he acted in plays by Wole Soyinka, and, like them, he employed alien media to bring the Yoruba tradition into new vitality.
Opposition to external intrusion and internal decay, awareness of international developments, and the selective retrieval of old traditions combined in innovative actions to shape and propel the force of modernism. Like Yeats in poetry or Bartók in music, Prince, the painter, was a modernist.
At once personal and traditional, oppositional, innovative, and modern, Prince’s works assemble into an exhibition of his worldview. He painted scenes of village life that erased all signs of colonial presence to imagine a unity of labor and faith. His village scenes stood against the decadent fragmentation of contemporary existence. Inspired by the folk fables his mother told, he used animals to expose moral problems. His pictures of animals argue for critical self-awareness. Most often he pictured the Yoruba spirits and deities, revealing the unseen powers of the universe to affirm his commitment to the old Yoruba faith. As Prince’s life wore on, his prime subject became the goddess Osun; her image, an icon, was for him a prayer to his goddess.