The Long Reach of the Orishas: West Africa in the Art and Life of Philadelphia

Africa in the Arts of Philadelphia: Bullock, Searles, and Twins Seven-Seven

an exhibition at the Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

until May 17, 2020

 

https://woodmereartmuseum.org/experience/exhibitions/africa-in-philadelphia-bullock-searles-and-twins-seven-seven

 

 

 

The history of Philadelphia is enmeshed in in the multi-century struggle for African-American emancipation, political autonomy and economic access.

 

 

 

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The Mother and Tatooed Body, 1980, ink, watercolour and oil on carved wood. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Private loan to Woodmere Museum in 2020

 

 

 

The Woodmere Museum of Art is focusing on a most important stage in this struggle:

 

 

 

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A partial view of the central rotunda of Woodmere Museum of Art’s mounting of this exhibition, February 2020

 

 

the search of African Americans for their ancestral civilizations and gods;

for the place of their physical and spiritual descent;

their kinship with the world and its histories.

 

 

The response was and is the embrace by the Orishas of those who have searched for them, who have invoked them. 

 

 

 

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A partial view of the Woodmere Museum of Art in this exhibition, February 2020

 

 

Artists have documented this.  Hundreds of thousands of North Americans have lived and live within this embrace.

 

Woodmere Museum illustrates this history with a focus on three artists whose lives intersected at the Ile-Ife Black Humanitarian Center and the Afro-American Dance Ensemble founded in 1969 by Arthur Hall in Philadelphia. 

 

 

 

 

 

There are five actors in this history.

 

Arthur Hall, 1934-2000, American:  dancer and choreographer. 

Born in Memphis, TN,  Arthur Hall arrived in Philadelphia at the age of 17.  Studying dance, he came into contact with West African cultural traditions. 

 

Arthur Hall was a founder of the Black Arts movement in Philadelphia through three institutions:  the Afro-American Dance Ensemble, the Ile-Ife Black Humanitarian Center and the Ile-Ife Museum of African Art. 

 

With collaborators, Arthur Hall presented workshops in dance, theater and the visual arts and introduced large numbers of children and adults to West African culture. 

 

In 1974, Arthur Hall and his dancers visited both Ghana and Nigeria.

 

 

 

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From the performance, c. 1970, Obatala; Arthur Hall Collections , Special Collections Research Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

Obatala is the Yoruba father of all other deities and creator of the earth and all humanity.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938,

artist, was hired to lead Ile-Ife Center’s visual department.¬†

 

 

 

 

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A partial view of the upper gallery at Woodmere Museum. 

On the extreme right, a portrait by Barbara Bullock of an Ile-Ife Center student

 

 

Barbara Bullock, who has had a long career apart from her work with the Ile-Ife Center, did extensive research into African cultures and her visits to both east and west Africa deeply influenced her work and life.

 

 

 

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The artist Barbara Bullock standing in front of her painting of stiltdancers at the opening of this exhibition in February 2020

 

 

 

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Stiltdancer from the Stiltdance Series, 1982, acrylic on canvas (with light interference at the top of the painting)

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Loaned to Woodmere Museum by the African American Museum, Philadelphia

 

 

 

 

Charles Searles, American, 1937-2004,

who also had a career independent of the Ile-Ife Center was both artist and dancer.

 

He worked with Barbara Bullock and also involved himself with the Ile-Ife Center’s music and dance programs.

 

 

 

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Untitled (Boxer), 1963, India ink and watercolour.  Charles Searle, 1937-2004, American.  Woodmere Museum of Art

 

 

 

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Dancers from the Dancer Series, 1975, acrylic on canvas (with light interference).

Charles Searle, American, 1937-2004.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2007

 

 

 

 

Twins Seven-Seven (Omoba Taiwo Olaniyi Oyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki),

Nigerian of Yoruban descent,  1944-2011,

 

visual artist, actor, dancer, singer, musician found at the Ile-Ife Center a  home and platform for his work and teaching.  He was born and died in Nigeria. 

 

The Yoruba have the highest twinning rate in the world.  Twins in this culture  have magical powers and particular spiritual insight. 

 

 

Twin Figure (Ere Ibeji), wood, pigment, beads and organic materials, 20th century. Unknown Yoruba artist positioned on the second floor gallery of Woodmere Art Museum on loan from La Salle University Art Museum 

 

Twins Seven-Seven took  his name from his status as the only surviving child of seven sets of twins born to his parents.

 

 

 

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Detail from (below): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

 

 

He was devoted to Oshun, the Orisha who represents the divine feminine, a river deity, intimately connected with fertility and divination, whom his mother credited with his survival. 

 

 

 

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Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth.

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Woodmere Museum in 2020

 

 

Twins Seven-Seven arrived in New York in 1972 for an exhibition of his work. Arthur Hall invited him to Philadelphia to the 1972 opening of Ile-Ife’s Museum of Afro-American Culture.¬†

 

Repeatedly re-invited to the city, Twins Seven-Seven finally came to live in the city for a number of years.

 

 

 

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Detail from (above): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

 

 

 

The Yoruba are the fifth actor in this history.  

 

An estimated 44 million people; diverse in origin but sharing the same language,  culture, religious beliefs, and myth of origin.  A history documented to at least 800 years before the current era. 

 

 

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Detail from (above): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

 

The Yoruba homeland stretches into five separate west African countries with the majority living in southwestern Nigeria. 

 

 

A diaspora of two kinds: those forced into slavery in almost every country in which Europeans and Americans deported West Africans for slave labour. 

 

A second, like Twins Seven-Seven, emigrants of the 20th and 21st centuries.

 

 

 

 

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Detail from (above): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

 

Ile Ife is a Yoruban town: spiritual center of the Yoruba and keeper of its most ancient urban culture. 

 

Most important: it is the place where the Yourba believe human beings originated. 

 

It was primarily the philosophy¬† and culture of the Yoruba which influenced Arthur Hall’s teaching at the Ile-Ife Center in Philadelphia.

 

 

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Detail from (above): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

 

African Americans whose paths crossed Arthur Hall‘s at the Ile-Ife Center were sprung

 

 

 

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Reaching, 1988, acrylic on wood.  Charles Searles, 1937-2004, American.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

clear across the world not only to the actual physical origin of some of their ancestors but, symbolically, to the putative homeland of the whole human species. 

 

From this path-crossing people grasped Ile Ife as their home, not in its physical contours, but in its symbolic sense: for what it means to the spirit, mind and body. 

 

Because home is an internal construct – a history, gods, habits of mind, dispositions of many kinds –¬† carried in the DNA of human memory from a known place of origin.¬†

 

And more rarely from a place of the imagination; or a place of longing, of visceral identification.

 

 

The full-bodied acceptance of this symbolic home embodied in a real place of real people and their history is what enlivened participants in the Ile-Ife Center. 

 

And this real place is the land of the Yoruba  and the Yoruba way of being and believing:

 

a flexible, sophisticated structure of belief by a people in its history, its fate, its gods, its survival, its aesthetics.

 

For participants:  a liberation,  a course-setting of the mind and body and spirit offered through the lectures, music, song and dance of the Ile-Ife Center. 

 

 

 

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Detail from (above): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

 

In response, the Orishas came out to embrace those of their people who invoked them. 

 

 

 

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Water Spirit for Yemonja, date unknown, gouache collage on heavy watercolour paper.  Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Private loan to Woodmere Art Museum in 2020.

 

Yemonja is an orisha.  She is the major protector of women, governing every part of their life cycle.  She is associated with water and the moon also.

 

 

 

The Orishas are the principal conduits, performative assets and human guardians of the Yoruba religion:

 

divine avatars of God, the Supreme Being.  They take on varying forms and represent various characteristics and powers.

 

The Orishas are present in a religious tradition of the greatest flexibility and imagination,

having no orthodoxy and no central laid-down word of authority; no conquering armies;

seeking to enable their people to navigate a world both abundant and dangerous; and to flourish.

 

 

 

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Guardian Spirit Altar, c. early 1970’s, mixed media.¬†

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Courtesy of the artist on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

 

In other words, a complex of beliefs able  to move with their people into whatever foreign places their people find themselves.

 

 

This seems to be story of the syncretic Santeria in Cuba whose sacred language is Lucumi, a remnant of the Yoruba language. 

 

Also of the Brazilian Candomblé, another syncretic religion, whose Supreme Being has the same name as that of the Yoruba and whose Orishas operate in full force. 

 

And also of the revival in the United States of the Yoruba religion with one of its centers in Philadelphia.

 

 

The Orishas were forcefully invoked in the last three decades of the 20th century in Philadelphia through the work of Ile-Ife Center;  and then by others.

 

Philadelphia was not the only place in which the Orishas were invoked during this time.

 

 

 

Wives of Sango (Shango), 1971, acrylic paint, gold and silver foil on cardboard. 

 Jeff Donaldson, 1932-2004, American.

Oshun, Oba and Oya, the three wives of Shango, a ruler of the Yoruba before his deification as the Orisha of thunder and lightning

The artist was a driving force in the arts community in Chicago and later long-time Howard University professor and dean of its Fine Arts College, Washington, DC

Smithsonian Museum of American Art on loan to Brooklyn Museum in 2018/19 in an exhibition first organized by the Tate Modern, London: Soul of A Nation

 

 

The Ile-Ife Center was part of a movement of artists and intellectuals looking to Africa in the context of the fight for civil rights and self-definition in the United States. 

 

 

 

Book cover illustration, 1969. 

Sonia Sanchez, American born 1934.  Elmer Douglas, American born 1943. 

Private collection on loan to Brooklyn Museum in 2017/18 in an exhibition organized by the Tate Modern, London: Soul of A Nation

 

 

 

The Conjur Woman, 1964, photostat on fiberboard. 

  Romare Beardon, 1911-1988, American.  Private collection on loan to the Brooklyn Museum in 2018/19 for an exhibition organized by the Tate Modern, London: Soul of A Nation

 

 

 

 

The Ile-Ife Center was under Arthur Hall’s direction for 20 years.¬† In 1989 he left the city.

The Center evolved into the Village of Arts and Humanities, a community arts center which operates still. The museum closed; and the dance company, whose creation preceded that of the Center, closed down also after 30 years.

 

 

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Animals, especially birds, play a large part in Yoruba life and spiritual well-being. They have an intimate presence in the work presented at the Woodmere Museum.

 

 

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Ogongo, the King of Birds 1969, ink, pastel and oil on wood.

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Private loan to Woodmere Museum in 2020

 

 

As do rivers, rituals, dance, foods. 

 

 

 

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Smiling Beast in Spider Bush, 1984, etching. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Private loan to Woodmere Museum in 2020

 

 

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Beasts, Birds, Reptiles in Sun Worshiping Gathering, 2005, watercolour and magic marker mixed media. 

 Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

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Goddess of Wealth, 1980, oil and coins on wood. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Private loan to Woodmere Museum in 2020

 

 

 

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Remembrance, 1985, acrylic on canvas. 

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Collection of the artist loaned to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020 

 

A figure representing women as a container of knowledge. The images on either side seem to be based on the Snake Dance danced by Arthur Hall

 

 

 

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The Egg Beater Family, date unknown, ink, watercolour, acrylic and oil on cloth, date unknown. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia 

The cycle of life and death and life.

 

 

 

 

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Barefoot President in a Fragile Boat with the World Tears Apart, 2006-2007, print with paint. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia 

A depiction of George W. Bush bearing the cares of the world at a time when the United States believed it had responsibility to intervene forcefully in the word.

 

 

 

 

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Dancers, 1977, acrylic on canvas.

Charles Searles,  1937-2004, American.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

 

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The Acrobatic Dancers and the Unnoticed Crowd, 1969, ink, watercolour, and oil on wood. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia.  Priate collection loan to Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia in 2020

 

 

 

 

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Three Spirit Forms, 1979, acrylic on canvas.

  Charles Searles, 1937-2004.  Woodmere Museum of Art

 

 

 

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Animal Healer from the Healer Series, 1990, gouache on shaped paper. 

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

 

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Water Bearers, 1996, watercolour on paper. 

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

 

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Banner, 1970s, fabric.

  Charles Searles, 1937-2004, American.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

 

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The artist Barbara Bullock in discussion at Woodmere Museum on March 7, 2020

 

 

 

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Costume Dancer and Two Bell Ringers, 1989, gouache on paper.

Barbara Bullock, American born 1938.  Private collection on loan to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020

 

 

 

 

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The Spirits of My Reincarnation Brothers and Sisters, ink, batik, dye, watercolour, acrylic and oil on cloth. 

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia. Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia

 

 

 

 

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Portrait of George, ink, paint, charcoal and crayon on canvas, 2007.

Twins Seven Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian.  

George Jevremovic is the proprietor of a retail business in Philadelphia, an employer and patron of Twins Seven-Seven. He loaned this portrait to this exhibition.

 

 

 

 

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Dinosaur, 2007, paint on fiberglass.

Twins Seven-Seven, 1944-2011, Nigerian active Philadelphia. Loaned by Material Culture to Woodmere Museum of Art in 2020. 

Twins are clinging to her back.

 

 

 

 

The Orishas With Us Still, Always: the Odunde in Philadelphia

 

Arthur Hall introduced Twins Seven-Seven to a city resident, Lois Fernandez, (1936-2017, American).

 

Upon a return from a visit to Twins Seven-Seven in Nigeria, Lois Fernandez initiated the annual Odunde Festival in Philadelphia in honour of Oshun. 

Now in its 45th year, upwards of a hundred thousand people are estimated to attend the festival. Some estimates make this one half million.

 

 

The festival is a ritual of thanksgiving performed in honour of Oshun Рthe orisha of the divine feminine, of rivers, of divination and fertility Рat the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia in the midst of a large market set up for the occasion. 

 

 

 

Bead and beadwork for sale at the Odunde in 2013

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West African statuary, Ethiopian cross on sale, Odunde 2013

 

Tribute of fruit, honey and flowers are offered to the river.  Rum also.

 

The adherents of the Yoruba religion have been joined in the last I don’t know how long by immigrants to the city who are adepts of Santeria and Candombl√©.

 

 

 

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Odunde 2013-15

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Detail from (above): Oshun Wospers (Worshippers), 1988, ink, watercolour, acrylic, oil on cloth. 

 

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Odunde 2011 25

Scenes at the Odunde, 2013-2017

 

 

 

Woodmere Museum of Art’s exhibition illustrates a particular confluence in the arts in Philadelphia.

In the lives of many of its citizens. 

 

That between a civilization in West Africa, its spiritual and cultural norms as expressed in its art forms

and the inheritors of this civilization.

 

No matter where in the world they are now. 

 

No clearer example of the power of art to connect, communicate, inspirit, enliven.

 

 

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A young man participating in the Odunde, Philadelphia in 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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