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The Devil’s Dogs: Visualizing the Agency of Esu in Twins Seven-Seven’s Artistic Ensemble


By Sikiru Abiona Yusuff


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 to 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 Nigeria independence, set about the creation of a culture that drew ideas from West but sought for its energy in the native tradition. (Glassie 2010, 2012)

Prince Taiwo Bamidele Olaniyi Oyewale Oyekale Aitoyeje Osuntoki (1941-2011), popularly called Twins Seven-Seven (Twins Seven-Seven henceforth), was a largely self-taught contemporary Nigerian artist whose encounter with Ulli and Georgina Beier at Osogbo Art School transformed him into a world acclaimed artist (Hersey 1976: 82).[1] Twins Seven-Seven was born and grew up in his maternal home, Ogidi, a town in the then Kabba Province (present day Kogi State), Northern Nigeria (Beier 1967, 1991, 1999). His father was a native of Ibadan from the Osuntoki Royal Family (Falola 2012: 949). From his early life, he was exposed to the enthralling religious traditions, rituals, festivals and other wider aspects of Yoruba culture.[2] Through the trade networks of his maternal grandmother and father, Twins Seven-Seven also acquired some entrepreneurial proficiency (Beier 1999). Indeed, these early influences prepared him for greater exploits as a multi-talented individual.

Twins Seven-Seven’s trepidation in the face of Western culture, particularly the agency of western education and its role in undermining the Yoruba religio-cultural practices and beliefs, made him a non-conformist within the colonial education system (Beier 1991). His profound interest in Yoruba religious and cultural life launched him into the search of his essence in life. After withdrawing from school in 1960, he ventured into music and dance performance (Beier 1967), commencing a gradual realization of his innate potentials. It was at this point that Twins Seven-Seven encountered Ulli and Georgina Beier which translated into an enduring friendship upon which the foundation of one of the modern and contemporary Yoruba arts and artistic impressions was built (Probst 2013).

This article interrogates ‘The Devil’s Dogs’, an ensemble of early paintings by Twins Seven-Seven. Eṣu, the central theme of the ensemble is often misconstrued as evil or devil in Christian and Islamic texts by the ‘monotheistic’ religions. The article provides his background and how this later influenced his artistic style. It also discusses his encounter with Ulli and Georgina Beier and the momentum such encounter spurred. Lastly, the paper provides a contextual appraisal of the various symbols used in the ‘The Devil’s Dogs’ to describe the complexity of Esu in Yoruba belief system.

Mentors and Mentee: A Conceptual Illustration

Conceptualizing the relationship between mentor and mentee has continued to generate scholarly polemics. This is because ‘mentor’ according to Haggard has witnessed paradigm shift in the actual meaning, functions and roles of mentors over mentees (Haggard et al. 2011: 281). Extant literature agreed that the term ‘mentor’ was traced to the Greek mythology, through the agency of the Goddess of Athena who disguised in human form and assumed the name ‘mentor’, and a friend to Odysseus to provide counsel and guidance to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus (McKimm et al. 2003, 2007). Consequently, mentor becomes someone who nurtures desirable individuals to actualise their potentials (Haggard et al.: 281). According to Montreel, a mentor is someone who helps another person to become what the person aspires to be (McKimm et al 2003, 2007). A mentee on the other hand is that individual who acquires a specific expertise through a professional counsel and guidance, either formally or informally (Ibid). Such a mentee carefully and painstakingly goes through a process of tutoring and mentoring either to acquire new skills or unleash innate potentials. This latter relationship between mentor and mentee, thus, defined the enduring relationship between Ulli, Georgina Beier and Twins Seven-Seven.

Twins Seven-Seven was perhaps one of the most fascinating artists encountered by both Ulli and Georgina Beier during their times at Osogbo. There were of course several figures both came by, but the bond that the trio shared remain phenomenal (Beier 1991). Ulli Beier was himself quoted to have said that their first encounter is unforgettable – even after 33 years (Beier 1999: 7). Twins Seven-Seven’s potential was suddenly spotted after he gate-crashed a valedictory service for Dr. Michael Crowder at the two-year old Mbari Mbayo Club, Osogbo. The encounter was rather bizarre and, brief but with lasting memory. It was in 1964, during a valedictory service for Michael Crowder at the two-year old Mbari Mbayo Club, Osogbo. This enthralling encounter was aptly put:

…Even more spectacular than his dress were the skill and originality of his dancing. Dancing is not an entertainment for spectators in Nigeria – virtually everyone is on the floor all the time. But when Twins began his startling performance, everybody stopped to watch (Beier 1999: 7).

The encounter left a lasting impression on Ulli Beier which he described as bizarre (Beier ed. 1999). So captivating was the dancing steps that Ulli Beier immediately offered Twins Seven-Seven a job as a "backroom boy" without "portfolio" (Beier 1967). Given his engagement as a herbal merchant, Twins Seven-Seven did not immediately accept Ulli Beier’s offer until much later. His acceptance became the hallmark of a mentor-mentee relationship that spanned more than three decades. Soon after, Ulli Beier discovered that Twins Seven-Seven was a multitalented artiste. Ulli Beier had done extensive works on his background (Beier 1967; Beier 1988; Beier 1999). It has been written that Twins Seven-Seven was born on seven occasions, what the Yoruba refers to as an Abiku (a child born to die). It was in memorialisation of his previous births that he adopted the name ‘Twins Seven-Seven’ (Beier 1988). A number of factors can be attributed to Beier and Seven-Seven’s mentor-mentee relationship–for instance, the two were anti-establishment (Ogundele 2003).

Both Ulli Beier and Twins Seven-Seven were non-conformist in their own right. Nonetheless, as an embodiment of talents; it became easier for Ulli Beier, who ordinarily was in search of raw talent to embrace him. Identifying raw talents was the primary focus of the promoter Mbari Mbayo Club and the subsequent Osogbo Art School. Both the Duro Ladipo’s[3] play, Oba Moro (The Ghost-Catcher King), and the exhibition on linocuts and batik by Susanne Wenger drew young participants, who six months later, participated in the first 'experimental art school', which became the pioneer of the Osogbo Art School. According to Probst (2013), the encounter witnessed men, women, children and the elderly who popped in to participate at the 1964 workshop. It was those considered gifted that were given further training in painting techniques, batik, woodcuts, linocuts, etching, and so on.

Modelled after the Mbari Club of Ibadan, Mbari Mbayo Club of Osogbo was a multifaceted organisation where literary culture, visual and performing arts merged to offer the emerging middle class in Osogbo a place for leisure. Duro Ladipo prepared the ground for Mbari Mbayo through his close interactions with Ulli Beier (Isabelle & Nadine 2018). It afforded Ulli Beier the opportunity to identify the needed talents and provided them with the required mentorship in all forms of arts (Ogundele 2003). Ulli Beier was a bridge builder who sought to unify all the artists close to him. For instance, he tried to incorporate Twins Seven-Seven into the Duro Ladipo theatre group. In fact, Twins Seven-Seven participated in Duro Ladipo’s Oba Koso and Oba Moro but it appeared that both could not form a relationship. According to Ulli Beier, Twins Seven-Seven’s talent was intrinsically "subjective" such that he could not easily fit into another theatre company (Beier 1999); although the realization of this incompatibility did not in any way affect the relationship he shared with the two. Perhaps, he thought that there could be another chance for Twins Seven-Seven to finally discover his unchartered potential; hence, Ulli Beier provided him with little stipends to support himself (Beier 1999).

In 1962 and 1963, Ulli Beier encouraged both Denis Williams[4] and Jacob Lawrence[5] to carry out two different art workshops in Osogbo. At the workshops, the duo of Jacob Afolabi and Rufus Ogundele were discovered as potential artists. It was these workshops that prepared the ground for Georgina Beier’s all-important workshop of 1964 where the legacy of the Osogbo Art School was entrenched (Beier ed. 1991). Ogundele (2003) contends that the success recorded by these groups of artists was borne out of Ulli and Georgina’s unrelenting efforts to discover profound talents who had not been exposed to western influence, yet, with immense potentials that could become the torchbearers of contemporary Yoruba arts. Twins Seven-Seven interestingly emerged as one of the most talented at this workshop. Ulli Beier finally realised that his conviction about Twins Seven-Seven was not futile. At the 1964 experimental art workshop, Twins Seven-Seven emerged as a unique, talented, raw and passionate artist. Ulli Beier (1967: 47-48) wrote:

Seven-Seven stood out from the start because his approach was different from everybody else. He did not go for the bold outline, the bright colour and the highly organized composition of the other Osogbo artists. …He preferred drawing to painting and doodling to planning. He did not think about form or expression, but about telling stories.

Twins Seven-Seven from then onward came under the tutorship of Ulli and Georgina Beier and the duo remarkably succeeded in unleashing the hidden talents within him. Their mentoring styles were not hegemonic; rather, it was a meticulous process of guiding and developing innate potentials. At the workshop, Georgina immediately realised onward that he would perform better using the etching style or technique which was uncommon among the emerging Osogbo artists at the time (Beier 1967: 48). Georgina as an artist was not as such interested in etching but she picked the idea during a workshop conducted earlier by Dutch graphic artist, Ru van Rossem. Georgina picked the etching style at this workshop not for herself though as she thought it might be passed on to someone who could become an expert in it (Ogundele 2003). Thus, when Twins Seven-Seven appeared to favour etching, she did pass it on to him. And like Bruce Onabrakpeya, one of the participants at Rossem’s workshop who became the master of etching, so also was Seven-Seven among the Osogbo artists (Beier ed. 1991). Twins Seven-Seven captures the impact of Georgina his development thus:

Of course, when we started work with Georgina, we had no idea that anybody would ever come and see what we were doing. We didn’t know that people would come from far away and but our paintings. So at that time we only tried the best we could, because we wanted to please Georgina. And sometimes, when I was tired and I wanted to rush things, she would just tell me to go and relax... (Beier, 1999: 20).

Representation and Impression: Contextualizing the Symbols of The Devils Dogs (1964)

The etching shows an imposing gouache of a giant diabolical monster dog with eighteen legs. Beneath the giant monster is another little monster with eight legs, a human head, horns with strings of moustache and beard. Two men appear on the right of the little monster in praying positions while a mysterious bird is shown opposite them.

Figure 1: Devil's Dog One (1964) etching.[6]

The imposing gouache of a giant diabolical monster dog with eighteen legs above was painted with pen and ink in 1964. It was the only work drawn with pen and ink at the experimental workshop. Beneath the giant painting is another little monster with eight legs, a human head, horns with strings of moustache and beard. Two men appear on the right of the little monster in praying positions while a mysterious bird is shown opposite them. This painting was collected by one of the richest arts collector in London, Elaine Winter in 1967 (Mundy-Castle and Castle 1972). Appreciating this artwork, Twins Seven-Seven opined that the painting was borne out of his imagination prior to his extensive interaction with Ulli and Georgina Beier.

In this work, Twins Seven-Seven made use of dog, moon, cock, cowrie shells, snail, cocoa and cutlass to explain the powers of Esu. He argues that Esu was, indeed, very powerful such that before attempting an attack on someone, he needed an agent which the dog represented. Twins Seven-Seven contends that Esu was capable of both benevolence and malevolence depending on the prevailing situation. This malevolent attribute was intended to checkmate human excesses and to ensure that other divinities were on guard.

The ‘Dog’ with multiple legs metaphorically describes Esu’s crafty nature and its ability to manipulate human actions. Citing an example of Twins Seven-Seven’s personal life, it is said that whenever he deviated from his paintings to carry out other non-art-related activities, he ends up becoming bankrupt (Glassie 2012). For instance, after auctioning his paintings he spends his earnings on frivolous things such as gambling. This shows that Olodumare (the creator) may endow a person with wealth, knowledge and wisdom but can easily be taken away when such endowments are not judiciously managed. The moon underscores Yoruba steadfastness to Olodumare keeping evil thoughts at bay. The Yoruba believe that evil deeds are orchestrated in the dead of the night hence, the moon symbolizes consciousness. Sacrificial offerings are a common tradition among the Yoruba (Awolalu 1979). However, it was often the practice to appease Esu in order to ward off his malevolent hand.  Similarly, the Yoruba believe that evil usually occur at night; therefore the cock in the etching represents an ‘alarm’ which keeps everyone alert at every moment towards their duty. Other symbols such as cowrie shells, cutlass, snail and cocoa were used to depict sources of evil.

Cowrie shells represents ‘money’ which portends that accumulation of material things could result to evil acts. In Nigeria and, indeed, many parts of the world today, for instance, crime and anti-social behaviour remains at the heart of national life. These anti-social behaviours are often attributed to the devil in certain cultures. Among the Yoruba, for instance, when a criminal is apprehended, he or she attributes the crime to the saying through the common saying, "ise esu ni" (it is the devil’s handwork). There is evidence that suggest evil thoughts in Seven-Seven’s lifestyle too:

I began to become sad, because most of my works were not available to me. When I sell a painting and the money is gone, then I hate going back to visit the person who bought my painting, because when I see it, I feel like taking my painting back (Beier 1999).

This expression of despair and desperation demonstrate the extent to which human mind could be pre-occupied with evil thoughts. The Yoruba believe that evil deeds have human element (Oguntola-Laguda 2013). Both cocoa and snail are believed to be potential symbols of evil acts although both serve as sources of food as well as income. For instance, one of the factors for the resurgent of the age-long Modakeke-Ife crises in southwest Nigeria in the 1950s can be linked to the increase in the marketability of cocoa in Nigeria (Akinrinade & Akinjogbin, 1980). Contrary to the popular perception that unclear boundary demarcation was the source of friction between Ibadan and Ijebu from the late 19th to the mid-20th century; increase in the commercial value of cocoa at the periods was the deciding factor of conflict (Aderinto 2013). Other examples exist where claims over farmlands and produce snowballed into generational conflicts.

It would, therefore, seem that lack of food, mineral resources and inadequate access to farmlands was a potential factor for conflicts. The implication of this, as demonstrated by Seven-Seven, is that farm produce were potential causes of evil acts. More so, the cutlass is used to exemplify the instrument of evil. But regardless of these malevolent attributes, the Yoruba believe that Esu was not evil personified. As a mediator, Esu was only carrying out the responsibilities assigned to him by Olodumare. As showed in the etching, the human element in the work gave credence to the fact that through regular worship, the negative attributes associated with Esu could be curbed. Hence, his adherents ensure that Esu is appeased from time to time to avoid his malevolent character.

The Devil’s Dog Two (1964)

Petra Stegmann succinctly described this imposing painting. She wrote:

The gouache ‘Devil’s Dog’ was influenced by the literature of Amos Tutuola. This diabolical dog is an enormous monster with six legs and a human face, almost bursting the bounds of the painting. The being’s body is drawn in profile, while its head is turned to gaze behind it – as if in search of possible pursuers. Its body is covered with large scales, and the coiled tail ends in a snake’s head. The creature is surrounded by a number of smaller fantasy beings, snakes, humanoid figures and ornaments. Almost every line is embellished with more ornaments; not a single spot of the picture is left uncovered (Stegmann 2003).

Described as Aya Esu (Esu’s wife),[7] this etching reveals that women sometimes could be audacious, cool-headed and caring. Contrarily, it also shows that a woman could be dangerous, cataclysmic and cause evil (Beier, 1999). Carefully etched, the painting includes a third eye on the figure’s forehead which enables the vision of Aya Esu beyond her immediate environment. Within the mythical narration of the origin of Esu and the function that is associated with it, the Yoruba believe that the reason Esu usually serve as watchdog of the society was because of its protective ability, an attribute that a woman also possess as a wife, mother and the pillar that bind a family. Other symbols in the drawing include a cat, bird and snake.

The drawing depicts a diabolical dog as an enormous monster with six legs and a human face. The being’s body is drawn in profile, while its head is turned to gaze behind it – as if in search of possible pursuers. Its body is covered with large scales, and the coiled tail ends in a snake’s head. The creature is surrounded by a number of smaller fantasy beings, snakes, humanoid figures and ornaments.

Figure 2 Devil's Dog 2 (1964) Line drawing & gouache/paper (73.5 x 114cm)[8]

The Devil’s Dog Three (1966)

The third etching was produced in 1966. It is presently located at the Iwalewahaus collection plate VIII in Germany. Twins Seven-Seven symbolically describes the phenomenon of leaders-followers relationship in this painting. He employs the symbols of a king (leader), a city (followers), a dog with four legs and a wild cat sitting behind the king. According to Seven-Seven, the metaphorical trajectory of this etching can be viewed from the fact that certain leaders possess supernatural powers which are used to suppress their followers. Depending on their mood, such leaders could use their powers positively or negatively. This is captured in the Yoruba aphorism, 'Oba to je ti ilu toro, araye ko ni gbagbe re. Oba to je ti ilu baje, araye ko ni gbagbe re' (a leader whose reign was peaceful and progressive would forever be remembered, while that whose reign was turbulent would neither be forgotten). The case of Basorun Gaa in the history of Oyo Empire is a classic example of power intoxication and high handedness which contributed to the fall of Oyo Empire in the 19th century (Johnson 1921). Kurunmi of Ijaye, whose cruelty and over ambition led to his eventual fall, is also a clear example (Oguntomisin 2015).

The etching depicts a 'king' as a dog with four legs and a 'follower' as a wild cat sitting behind the king. A city is depicted as houses in the background.

Figure 3: Devil's Dog Three (1966).[9]

The Devil’s Dog Four (1966)

Unlike the previous etchings, Esu, according to Twins Seven-Seven, was a child of innocent and immature mind. Ironically, the use of a cat and snake tail in this etching underscores the strength the youth possess and their tendency for manipulation in an increasingly stratified society. The Yoruba saying, 'Igbaya omode ni were disi' (the heart of the young harbours bad thoughts) points to the fact that youth, when not properly mentored and nurtured, could channel their energies to negative actions. It is, therefore, imperative that the youth are productively engaged for national development. With over 50 percent of Nigeria’s population within the age bracket of 18 and 35, the bulk of the youth are largely unemployed or under-employed.


In this article, attempt is made to demonstrate how Twins Seven-Seven, one of the foremost artists of the Osogbo Art School, visualized Esu, the Yoruba trickster god, in the painting titled, ‘The Devils Dogs’. The article examined the role and impact of Ulli and Georgina Beier on the background and artistic influence on Twins Seven-Seven. The article argued that Twins Seven-Seven was a product of circumstance and that the circumstance became his cornerstone through the help of two cultural expatriates. On the other hand, the article also noted that the Yoruba religious and cultural practices and belief system greatly influenced his artistic instinct. As demonstrated in the Devils Dogs, Twins Seven-Seven, through his paintings, provided a refreshing interpretation of Esu who, due to the growing influence of Christianity and Islam, had assumed evil representation. The article similarly showed that Twins Seven-Seven’s paintings through the use of symbolic elements such as dogs, cowries, snail, cat and human, demonstrates the inter-connectedness of these symbols to argue that Esu espoused ambivalent and malevolent characters and actions


[1] Ulli Beier conception of school was radically different from western conception of school. To Beier, what is referred to as informal education is actually formal in respect to Yoruba culture where the idea of school is dynamic.

[2] The Yoruba are predominantly domiciled in Southwestern Nigeria today, parts of West Africa and the Black Atlantic.

[3] Duro Ladipo was one of the foremost theatre thespians to have emerged in post-colonial Nigeria.

[4] Denis Williams was a Guyanese painter, novelist and art historian that Ulli Beier met in Khartoum and subsequently invited him to Nigeria.

[5] He was an American artist.

[6] Culled from Beier 1999.

[7] It is important to mention that Esu sometimes could be female in appearance.

[8] Culled from Beier 1999.

[9] Culled from Beier 1999.


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