Susanne Wenger, a decade after the glow
Art functions as a tool to maintain a concept of reality by giving form to the ideas/observations of the individual. These ideas/observations are translated into concrete forms through art. Also, art preserves and enhances a people’s culture for it serves as a method of record keeping and makes culture mobile.
Historical records are embedded in forms of art, which serves as a means of preserving the peoples culture. Another function of art is entertainment, a means of relieving tension through relaxation. Often times, however, there is an overlap between these functions, hence art could entertain, express a people’s idea of reality and record their history all at once. What is implausible is for art to fail in performing at least one of the aforementioned functions at any given time or space.
Art could either be visual or verbal. Visual arts consist of works such as sculptures, woodcarvings and paintings. While verbal arts are expressed through verbal and audible senses, they manifest in avenues such as songs, poetry and recitations. Works of art consist of two elements, the inner and the outer as well as two levels of knowledge, esoteric and exoteric. The esoteric knowledge level usually informs the inner element of art through Knowledge, which is informed by the artist’s intended meaning(s) for the work of art. This could be a story that goes with the work of art, the content of which may consist of private or public concerns. This knowledge is accessible to a few people, the artist and/or cultic functionaries in the case of religious art. The outer element of art gives expression to the inner element and manifest at the exoteric knowledge level for it is accessible to all. It is expressed in aesthetic values and decorations. The outer element gives the work of art its visible and audible qualities. Both elements are significant and affect the performance/presentation of any work of art.
Art, Religion In Yorubaland
The Yoruba are more apt to think of art as an act of creative imagination (oju ona) executed with skill and an understanding of the subject rather than seeing art as an object. For the Yoruba then, artistry is the exploration and imaginative recreation of received ideas and forms, usually from the divine. Art is a vital part of being and creativity is associated with the divine. This is underscored by the people’s worldview and cosmic experiences as recorded in oral texts, especially the Ifa corpus. A prime place is therefore accorded to oral traditions in any artistic enterprise among the people. The interrelationship between art and religion among the Yoruba is profound and it has been suggested that one could be taken as a pictorial abstraction of the other.
The permeating influence of religion on every sector of the people’s lives manifest in works of art as naturalistic tendencies. This artistic naturalism could be taken as not only a matter of form but also of content and as implying a naturalistic philosophy, which is rooted in the people’s cosmic experiences.
Moreover, art has always been a relevant component of Yoruba religion and culture. This is reflected in the various works of art identifiable in the history of the religion and works of art in the religion today. Such include paintings on walls, batik designing, pottery, sculptures, songs, dances, poetry, and decorations. Art was employed to achieve different pursuits in Yoruba religion traversing aesthetics and functional realities. The beauty of oral poetry renditions is not lost to any keen observer of Yoruba religion neither can one fail to appreciate the significant yet aesthetic designs made on traditional adire clothes in Yoruba land.
Art in Yoruba religion often gives credence to individual capabilities and creativity. Each artist develops his/her style. In addition, certain styles of art could be classified along regions in Yoruba land due to semblances of stylistic signatures. Instances of wood carvers who could be identified based on style are known as well as regional classifications of wood carving due to semblances of stylistic signatures.
The same is true of the verbal arts where tonal variations often exist from region to region in Yoruba land. Flourishing in the Yoruba religious space are arts of various styles and forms, which often exhibit a strong link with rituals and mythology. Examples include, hunters who recite oral poetry regularly as part of their vocation; women who design the traditional adire cloth; women who paint and design places of cultic worships; sculptors who make sculptural images for deities and wood carvers who produce relevant images in the religious space. Furthermore, art functions as a means of communication in Yoruba religion. The visual and verbal arts serve as means through which tenets, practices and injunctions of the religion are proclaimed and appreciated.
The fusion of art and religion is at the core of Wenger’s art and the singular purpose of her work is to protect the sacredness of nature. Her works present to us a mixture of architecture and sculpture.
The shrines of the gods are for them a ceremonial home while the sculptures embody their myths. Embedded in these myths are characteristics and taboos of each god. Susanne Wenger sought to reflect these features as much as possible in her sculptures of and for the gods.
According to Wenger, “the life of an artist is beyond time, devoted to one single and complex work into which every change simply brings rebirth in the same circle of being.”
Her training in Europe and involvement in religious art among the Yoruba confirm this submission of hers. Every change in her location, experience and production of art has simply brought rebirth unto her and those who encountered her in Yoruba religion. Before coming to Nigeria she had exhibited her works in Paris, Zurich, Austria and other parts of Europe.
Most of her artistic efforts before arriving Nigeria in 1950 were paintings done on canvas. Because she is interested in the primary concern of all religions to effect communication between the divine and humans, it was not out of place for her to fit in so naturally into Yoruba religion. Her main work over the years was the constant reconstruction, renovation and preservation of the shrines and grooves in the Osun Osogbo grooves.
She produced works of art that protects the grooves from intrusion and decay. Examples include sculptured walls and added strikingly eclectic structures, which are as tall as trees in the groove. For her, art cannot be disconnected from its religious functions because creativity is part of ritual life.
Who was Susanne Wenger?
Susanne Wenger was born on July 4, 1915 in Graz, Austria and died in Osogbo, Nigeria on January 12, 2009. She arrived in Nigeria in 1950 and this marked the beginning of her involvement with Yoruba religion. Prior to this, however, she has always been strongly attracted by nature, especially the divine nature of trees.
She solitude in nature while growing up and this has remained an indispensable source of energy for her throughout her life. She is interested mainly in the primary concern of all religions to ensure communication between the divine and humans. Ajagemo, a high priest of Obatala, introduced her to Orisa religion in Ede and it was at Ede that she began her artistic works for the gods. She was subsequently initiated into some Yoruba religious groups, including Osun and Ogboni.
Susanne Wenger’s interest in sculpture pre-dates her visit to Nigeria in 1950. She did sculptured pots in the school of art where she trained in Graz, Austria. Her interest in sculpture arose alongside her impatience with the stiffness of the canvass, which somehow offended life’s naturally flowing spirituality.
Sculptures by Wenger in Nigeria began as shrine repair efforts in Yoruba religion. Many of these sculptures and architectural works can be found in Osun grooves depicting various myths about different gods/goddesses in an aesthetic manner. Her sculptures within the Osun grooves deserve our special attention.
Her first cement sculpture was not done within the precinct of the Osun groove; it was done at Ede. This was the new shrine of Obaluaye, known as Idi Baba (At the feet of the Father). In response to the cry of help from the priests of the sacred Osun River, Susanne left Ede and began her sculptural and architectural work in the Osun groove at Osogbo.
It is pertinent to state at this juncture that she works sometimes with assistants in the restoration of these shrines within the groove. Most of these assistants are artists and adherents of Yoruba religion.
Together with Susanne they started the new sacred art which is modern art in the ritual service of Yoruba religion and philosophy. Though these artists are traditionally cultured men and women with no exposure to exhibitions or books of art from overseas, their arts like the gods/goddesses are alive to the circumstances of the present time.
Some of the sculptures produced by Susanne Wenger and her assistants in the Osun grove at Osogbo include:
Ontotoo means Onto, or totofun, which refers to a kind of frog and a respectful greeting to the deities. Before the Yoruba immigration, ontotoo was the goddess of the original inhabitants and represented her person in the trinity of Earth, Air and water. She is presently one of the tutelary internal guardian deities in the palaces of the Ooni (the king of Ile-Ife) and the Ataoja (the king of Osogbo).
In the Ogboni cult, she is a very senior deity in the heavenly abode (orun) and with the Iya mi in her entourage she represents the paradox in the sacred psychoid of Oro. She is known in Osogbo as the protector of the para-human inhabitants (Oro) in traditional population. But in many Yoruba towns she is not publicly known. Curses change to prayers and prayers to curses in the vicinity of her shrine. This explains why devotees going to river Osun or the farm but passing through the vicinity of her shrine must not nurse their babies nor soothe the weeping child. These value reversions on behalf of this powerful goddess, hint at her implicit importance.
Susanne’s sculpture for this goddess is overwhelmingly concerned with the Iledi Ogboni, which is approached through gates with totemic posts, carved of wood showing different figures. Common to the figures are bulging eyes, which is symbolic of realities within an archaic but continuous perspective. The sculptured walls enclose conical shaped entrances on both sides, which conveys to one a feeling of rapture and mystery. At the entrance three roofs representing archaic kinds of lizards associated with the ideology of primordial ancestry is to be found. Pillars that are actually the robust legs of the elephant representing Obatala’s animal aspect support the entrance. The inner sanctuary of the Ogboni shrine portrays vividly the fecundities of the earth goddess as Susanne depicts this in form of a womb with inbuilt seats.
Obatala is the god of purity representing the ethical dimensions of reality hence he is called the god of whiteness; white here being the summation of all colors in light. It was to Obatala that Olodumare, the Supreme Being delegated the duty of forming the solid earth and the physical features of human beings as is reflected in some Yoruba cosmic myths.
The Obatala shrine is made up of conically shaped huts on the walls of which are symbolic representations. Such include bulging eyes, spiral vegetative forms and interwoven forms. Natural vegetation could be seen clinging to the shrine while monkeys, birds and other animals visit at their pleasure. A three-metre high sculpture of Obatala in an atonement posture is to be found in the shrine. His bulging eyes signify knowledge, wisdom and creativity. The shrine also accommodates the egbe cult room made up of vegetation forms presented as arch curves over an open tray like area where offerings are made. The egbe phenomenon is to be closely linked with the Abiku syndrome i. e. born to die children who are strongly attached to their otherworldly playmates.
This goddess is in her domestic role the protector of all women’s crafts and trade, but she is a potter woman. Her ancient image is an edon (sacred bronze casting) where she holds one child clinging to her breast upright, and the other strapped to her back with his/her head downward, feet pointing up. She also represents the ancient trinity of the female. Areas under her jurisdiction also include childbearing and care.
For this goddess who manifest different dimensions of reality all in unison has been produced a sculpture called Ebu Iya Moopo. Ebu Iya Moopo is really a shrine, which houses the magically potent symbols of the goddess. The sculpture comprises of delicate forms and outlines, depicting the mystical virginity of the goddess, which remains unsolved.
There is an inner room inside her matrix with the form of a snail shell, and a stair leads upward in a spiral. We find a pair of birds sitting on her bosom and hanging head down on her back. The sculpture has three pairs of slender outstretched arms, the first, to receive, the second, to give out sacred fecundates and the third is the Ogboni fist- over-fist-symbol gesture implying sacred togetherness.
Noticeable on the sculpture are three bulging eyes placed on a bird like figure presented in a ready to fly state. On the backside of this large sculpture is a curved arm reaching into the ground like a tentacle, which may symbolize nourishment and stability all linked to the earth and by implication the ogboni, which is the earth cult. At the base of the sculpture are wave like patterns that could be likened to the river movements, hence a link to Osun. There are other alters on the sacred pottery – field.
One of which is consecrated to Ela who is Ifa’s sacred principle of clairvoyance in his pubescent phase. The sculpture of Iya Moopo by Susanne could be described as an embodiment of myths and identities.
Documentation, preservation and the proclamation of Yoruba religion are strongly embedded in her sculptures of/for the gods/goddesses, and this necessarily expounds the honor and reverence due to these deities. The result of this is a daily ‘aliveness’ of the religion among its adherents who are Yoruba, other Nigerians, and Non Nigerians.
It has been possible due to this ‘aliveness’ of Yoruba religion to hand over the religion to coming generations despite their exposure to western education and civilization. Hence today, among practitioners of Yoruba religion we find lawyers, doctors, academicians, architects and engineers to mention but a few.
The resilience of Yoruba religion is being manifested more and more by the day as confirmed by the presence of non-Nigerians practitioners. As has been noted, the sacred groove of Osogbo is a big monument where the intertwining of the flora and fauna with the aesthetic presence of the artwork co-exists. In addition, the apparent diligent care with which the sacredness of the grooves is protected makes it neat, serene and expansive. Nigeria has got in the Osun Osogbo grooves a ‘holy land’ that also serves as a preservation matrix; the question is what guarantees are there for the future of these monuments?
Efforts At Preserving Her Legacy To Date
Wenger’s legacies could be categorized broadly into two classifications: spiritual and artistic, both of which are being sustained by many individuals and groups, within and outside Nigeria. Her adopted children, friends and fellow artist in Osogbo Nigeria are at the forefront of maintaining her spiritual legacies.
These include efforts to maintain the regular ritual activities required in daily, weekly and annual worship sessions of different deities such as Obatala, Osun, Ifa, Ogun and Sango. These ritual activities include singing, offerings, drumming, recitations of diverse kinds, dances, and feasting.
Mama Adunni was actively perpetuating these activities before she joined the ancestors and her adopted children have continued in accordance with Yoruba conviction that ’Bi ina ba ku a fi eru bo ju, ogede ku f’omo e ropo’.
In addition, the yearly Osun Osogbo Festival continue to attract thousands of visitors from many countries worldwide who subscribe to Yoruba Religious traditions as admirers, friends or adherents with different levels of commitments.
Similarly, the preservation of the artistic legacies of Adunni Oloosa is on course through efforts by National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Osogbo Cultural Heritage Council, Osun Groves Support Group and the Adunni Olorisa Trust.
The National Commission for Museums and Monument has put in place conservation management plan in five-year phases, the latest concerns 2015-2019, for sustenance of restoration and conservation at the Osun Osogbo groove.
Between 1998 and 2014, Adunni Olorisa Trust has been constantly involved in the restoration of sculptures and structures erected by Susan Wenger. Records of restored structures at the groove during the conservation management plan for 2010-2014 include:
• 2012-restoration of the Masquerade (Egungun) decorative walls by the entrance to the second palace.
• 2013-2014 restoration in the first palace
• 2014-sculptures at the traditional market (Oja-Ontoto) close to the second palace were restored by Adunni Olorisa Trust
• 2014-the sculpture of the chameleon gate and traditional wall fence at Iya Maapo courtyard were restored by Adunni Olorisa Trust
• 2014-the wall at the main entrance was resigned with traditional motifs to conform to the environment and other traditional fences were restored by Osun State Government and NCMM.
• 2014-the traditional tortoise gate was fully restored by Adunni Olorisa Trust.
This paper has highlighted the close affinity between art and religion in society as means of communication, entertainment and documentation. These attributes of arts manifest clearly in the works of Susan Wenger, Iya Adunni Oloosa while she was alive and after her death. It came to fore that Mama Adunni’s legacies are being sustained at the spiritual and artistic dimensions by collective efforts of her friends, children, groups of admirers, students and government agencies in Nigeria and abroad. Wenger’s legacies have implications for individuals, and government, especially concerning the need to appreciate Yoruba culture and religion, and utilize the values embedded in same for national development.
• Prof. Olademo, Department of Religions, University of Ilorin, presented this paper during 2019 Susanne Memorial Lecture held at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, Osogbo, Osun State.
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