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Susanne Wenger: 10 years after

Published by The Nation on Mon, 14 Jan 2019


When I asked Susanne Wenger how she wished to be remembered, her response was completely unexpected. You can forget me, she answered. I cannot advise you what you want to remember about me.Ten years after her death, Wenger remains unforgettable. Wengers exit on January 12, 2009, at the age of 93, was as newsy as her life. She had arrived in Nigeria in 1950 and died in the country nearly 60 years later. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, in a tribute, described her as a questing stranger who came, saw and was conquered. What conquered Wenger'The first of my memorable interviews with Wenger started dramatically. Youve come from Lagos to tell me that I will die' What nonsense! That was Wengers rattling reaction when I observed that she was at a transitional stage, suggesting she was close to her end.My last conversation with Wenger took place in her artistic house in Osogbo, Osun State. When I asked her a question about the Susanne Wenger Foundation, Krems, Austria, she told me: I have agreed with Krems. They have collected all they can get hold of, what I did and what is said about me. They have better reasons to be interested than our people here. Our people here have nothing against me, but they have no reason why they should back what I do, what I say. Imagine my shock!Wenger was Austrian. It was incredible that despite her self-described complete immersion in Yoruba religion and culture, and having lived in Nigeria for almost 60 years, she was still an outsider of sorts. While it may be heart-warming that Wengers spiritual sculptures can still be seen in the Osun-Osogbo Grove, the disappearance of her important paintings and batiks is sobering. Her range of artistic expression was fundamentally influenced by Yoruba cultural context and traditional worldview, and she made enduring contributions to the local culture.Despite her Austrian roots, there is a profound sense in which she could be regarded as having been culturally defined by her Yoruba experience. In the end, it is tragic that her movable body of work and her essence were better appreciated by foreigners than the local people whose culture and tradition largely informed her creative vitality, and who provided the ambience for her spiritual expression. The loss of her works has negative implications for cultural tourism in Nigeria.Long before it became correct to be environment-friendly, Wenger had championed a crusade for the conservation of nature in the Osun-Osogbo Grove, albeit based on a religious premise and her conviction that deities dwelled there. It is to her credit that after her long battle with various interest groups that failed to see the need to guard the grove, the political authorities in Nigeria eventually saw her point and stepped in to protect it; and then, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) followed.The Osun-Osogbo Grove is the site of Nigerias star tourist attraction, the Osun-Osogbo Festival, possibly the countrys pre-eminent traditional religious festival, which draws yearly a high number of visitors from within Nigeria as well as from the wider Yoruba Diaspora and beyond.I became a pilgrim to the mystical grove right from my first visit as a journalist over two decades ago to see the spectacular festival. I had eagerly looked out for Wenger in the grove but didnt see her. It was, therefore, a magical moment for me when I eventually came face to face with her in her Osogbo home on a different occasion while trying to get her to grant me an interview.I found out, during my research for the interview, that there was no book on her written by a Nigerian, although she was a cultural celebrity and had at the time lived in Nigeria for nearly 50 years. It was unbelievable! This was when the idea struck me to do a book on her.At the time I informed Wenger of my plan to write a book on her, she responded positively, saying, I bless your work and your good intentions. She was an engaging personality well known for her remarkable devotion to Yoruba traditional gods (which earned her the Yoruba name Adunni Olorisa as a mark of her acceptance in the traditional society).She was also famous for her innovative New Sacred Art group and for her selfless dedication to the preservation of the sacred Osun-Osogbo Grove, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO shortly after her 90thbirthday in 2005- this was an interesting coincidence and the icing on the cake for Wenger.Despite Wengers exit, the book project remained on course. This unique well- researched Wenger portrait offers a fresh experience of her; it consists of an extensive up-to-date close-up profile of her, and exclusive interviews that I had with her, which not only explored her extraordinary life but also yielded further insights into her thoughts and ideas on Yoruba culture and tradition at the advanced stage of her life.What I set out to do is unprecedented. In concept and execution, this new book on Susanne Wenger is unparalleled. For the first time, the captivating story of the phenomenal Austrian artist who became an unapologetic populariser of Yoruba traditional religion and attracted global attention to Osogbo is presented from a Nigerian perspective and with a Nigerian flavour.The book is enriched with expressive pictures of Wenger and some of her eye-catching sculptures in the grove; and other important images related to her gripping story. It is a tribute to a loyal vessel of Yoruba divinities; her legacy is undeniable. The book also beams the spotlight on the Osun-Osogbo Grove and the Osun-Osogbo Festival.As much as possible in this book, Wenger is made to tell her intriguing story in her own inimitable style. This approach was made possible by various sources, which I gratefully acknowledge. However, the beauty of this book lies particularly in its liberal use of narratives by Nigerian journalists to paint a picture of this enigmatic celebrity known for her self-effacing modesty. It represents, therefore, a very Nigerian treatment of the subject.Furthermore, this is the most up-to-date book on the life and times of Susanne Wenger; it includes material on the celebration of her 100thbirth anniversary in 2015 as well as the celebration of the 10thanniversary of the Osun-Osogbo Grove as a World Heritage Site in the same year. I welcome culture-friendly support towards the release of my book to mark the 10thanniversary of Susanne Wengers death.
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