Datum: 14.01.09 11:49
Kategorie: Kultur-Kunst

Von: S. Okwunodu Ogbechie

Susanne Wenger, Künstlerin und Hohe Priesterin der Yoruba ist tot

Susanne Wenger

God of Small Pox. Clay sculpture, The Sacred Forest. Oshogbo, Nigeria (photograph by Sughra Raza, June 22, 2008 - aachronym.blogspot.com


In Nigeria kannte man Susanne Wenger konsequenterweise eher unter ihrem Yoruba-Namen: Adunni Olurisa.

Als junge Künstlerin kam sie aus Österreich nach Nigeria, um dort zur Hohepriesterin der Yoruba Religion aufzusteigen - und schließlich ein Kunstwerk zu schaffen, das selbst die Unesco ehrte. Jetzt ist Susanne Wenger im Alter von 93 Jahren verstorben. Wenger wurde 1915 in Graz geboren. In ihrer Heimatstadt und in der Hauptstadt Wien studierte sie Kunst, dort begründete sie 1947 auch den Wiener Art-Club mit. So weit, so üblich. Doch von nun an glich ihr Leben einem Roman. 1949 zog Wenger mit ihrem damaligen Ehemann, dem Künstlerkollegen und Linguisten Ulli Beier nach Nigeria - eine Entscheidung, die ihr ganzes Leben verändern sollte. Okwunodu Ogbechie nigerianischer Kunsthistoriker und Social Entrepreneur, erinnert sich.(Der Spiegel)


Obituary: Adunni-Olorisa, Suzanne Wenger (1916-2009)




“The great Elephant has fallen”. So said Oloye Oyelami, announcing the death and burial of Suzanne Wenger who passed to the realms of the incarnate dead on Monday after spending six decades living and working in Osogbo, in the heart of Yoruba country. The announcement is topical because it presents in clearest terms the formations of honor necessary to accommodate her passing. You see, Suzanne Wenger was a Yoruba priestess and one of the few people who truly understood what it meant to live out one’s beliefs. Adunni-Olorisa was her name and to the myriad of people who grew up and prospered under her tutelage, she was a mother. Let it be said that she gave freely of herself and that she worked hard to earn her place in the pantheon of ancestors who gaze on the benevolent face of the Orisa.  

I last saw Suzanne Wenger in 1991. At that time, I was a graduate student at the University of Nigeria with a lucrative sideline—I served as guide to several American and European scholars who came to do research in Nigeria. I traveled with them to various locations of interest and arranged to make their trips problems free while assisting with matters of language translation and negotiations for access to relevant research data. Because of a special relationships built up through his professional practice, many of these scholars usually visited Obiora Udechukwu, who at that time was my tutor and mentor. Udechukwu’s house was an oasis of calm logic in the unruly landscape of a Nigeria fragmenting under major economic problems. He provided free lodging to many of these foreign scholars and managed their logistics. Since he also had a significant professional presence in Germany, we had many Germans come through. That was how I met Norbert Aas from Bayreuth, who published the poetry and art of Nsukka artists like Obiora and Ada Udechukwu, and Olu Oguibe. Norbert was interested in research on Osogbo and Obiora arranged for me to travel with him as a guide. I was born in Ibadan and I speak fluent Ibadan-Yoruba, which is one of the principal dialects. I had also grown up in Western Nigeria and was familiar with the terrain: the trip was thus very interesting to me. Norbert and I set out to Osogbo and arrived late at night. We had a link to Nike, a renowned batik artist who gave us lodgings for the night and provided someone to take us to Suzanne Wenger’s house. When we got there, she received us warmly and seemed glad to find someone with whom she could speak German. Wenger and Norbert spoke for a while in German and gradually, the conversation reverted to English as the hostess, in impeccable manners, sought to include the rest of us in the room in her conversation. And she said volumes…

It was impossible to grow up in Yorubaland in the 1970s and not be aware of Suzanne Wenger. She and Ulli Beier had founded the most significant workshop institution for arrt and cultural education in Nigeria in the post-independence era. But while Uli eventually left the country, Wenger remained in Osogbo for the rest of her life in the house she and Uli built, with very brief visits out of the country for the purposes of producing and managing art exhibitions of artists from Osogbo. In 1991 when I met her, I was aware of meeting with a legend. As usual, legends differ from the actual nature of the person or event that becomes legendary. The Suzanne Wenger I met was a small old woman already frail, who spoke a heavily Austrian-inflected but fluent Yoruba, and who looked at you with light-green eyes sharp as glass, highlighted by bold Egyptian style dark outlines. She spoke about her adopted children in Osogbo, about efforts to secure UNESCO protection for her work with the sacred grove and her struggle for continued relevance in a changing world. But surprisingly for me, after an hour of conversation, she spoke to Norbert of her visit to Austria the previous year, and how out of place she felt. “I did not fit in,” she said, noting that Europe had become for her a very strange place. She said then she had returned to Osogbo knowing that she would die there and that when her time eventually came, she hoped to be buried in the sacred grove of Osun, somewhere among the sculptures that were her life’s work. Afterwards, she took us on a tour of the sacred grove. While Uli Beier was busy creating the Osogbo school of artists, Wenger turned her attention to the Sacred Grove of Osun, the Goddess of the Waters. Her focus was astute—the deity was particularly favored by local women, and this gave her a chance to work on issues of importance to women, in a context where Beier’s experiments sold a parochial idea of male supremacy in cultural practice (review the bitter experiences of Nike as a female artist in the Osogbo group, and the irony of her emerging as one of the few artists from that period with an independent reputation and success). Wenger devoted the next six decades to reactivating several aspects of Osun worship, transforming Osun’s grove into a sculpture garden filled with her own art, modernist sculptures inflected by the Gesamtkuntwerk aesthetics of late-modern Viennesse art, most famously concretized by the visionary artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It is hard to explain the overall impact of these sculptures—they have to be seen to be understood. And many have come to see them: the Osun festival is now on the international circuit of global festivals, and it delivers to Osogbo one of the few self-sustaining cultural tourism sites in Nigeria.

I remembered sitting with Norbert that night at Nike’s house, listening to her bata drummers perform for us, and discussing the meaning of our conversation with Wenger. I  was touched by her account of how she’d become a stranger in Europe, warm with the knowledge of being a stranger in my own cultures—an Igbo in Yorubaland, a Yoruba in Igboland. It seemed to me we don’t choose where we come from but we definitely have the power to choose where we end up. Wenger had resolutely chosen to become Yoruba, and she is the only white artist that I can comfortably define as an African artist. For me, her Yoruba heritage is quite notable: afterall, she spent more time in Osogbo than in her country of birth. I know of her birthplace, Graz in Austria. It couldn’t be more different from Osogbo, and Wenger’s choice certainly came with a prize. After the initial flush of foreigners into Nigeria in the post-independence period, almost all of them left as Nigeria began the long struggle towards becoming a viable nation. Wenger stayed on when everyone left. Over the years, she remained devoted to her original intention—to understand Yoruba culture and thereby help her Osogbo hosts sustain aspects of their indigenous culture in the contemporary era.  

That day, as she spoke to us about her work and showed us around her house, I listened keenly to the ambient conversations around us. In a place where most people assume you don’t speak the language, they will usually speak freely and you can get a sense of how they perceive your presence. No one I heard spoke ill of Wenger; if anything, they spoke of her with great praise. Yet that too can be seen as part of a carefully orchestrated process of presentation, the protocols of appearance. There has been much criticism of the Osogbo initiative of Beier, which Wenger sustained in some manner for years after Beier left. Beier subscribed to the ideal that true African art must be unmediated by exposure to the external world in any form, and Wenger must have believed this too at some point: they both made great effort to shield their students from eternal influences to the extent of minimizing the need for Western-style education. In stating this fact, we must not assume that the students were thereby illiterate: Yoruba educational protocols are equally formal and take a substantial investment in time to master (try learning 1000 proverbs and tell me how easy you find it: then try to master the 256 Odu of the Ifa oracle, among other bodies of knowledge). There has been much criticism of this attitude of Beier, and Wenger got her share of blame. Many accused her of setting herself up as a principal arbiter among Osogbo people and their gods. In fact, there were times when it seemed that Wenger had become a spokesperson for Osun worship in general. Some of these accusations point to the errors of an acolyte in earlier stages of her education. In her old age, she had become wise and less assuming. Some of the blame also lay with Western scholars who are interested in Africa art only if they can find a Western interlocutor to explain it to them. The Osogbo experiment gained immense critical validation in Germany and Austria: it was inevitable that Beier and Wenger would emerge as primary interlocutors for these initiatives. When Beier left, Wenger continued to manage the exposure of the Osogbo artists. In time this led to conflict with some of the artists who wanted greater control over their own creativity and professional reputations. Wenger can be indicted for attempting to hold on for too long but what mother doesn’t want to hold on to her children for far longer than is appropriate? The grown up children left, and Wenger turned her attention to a younger generation. She has nurtured at least three generations of artists during the six decades she spent in Osogbo. She did much good and should be highly commended for her devotion.

As I listened to Wenger talk wistfully about her life in the sacred grove, it occurred to me she was in a manner of speaking, a lost soul, wandering the edge of memory where intentions are subsumed into the reality of old age, wondering if her devotion to the deity guaranteed her a place among the ancestors. I have to say it does: a lifetime of devotion is its own reward. Oloye Oyelami—her student and one of her “sons”—states clearly that Adunni-Olorisa was buried according to Orisa burial customs. I am sure they sang her oriki (praisesongs) and that her name was incorporated into the oriki of the Olosun lineage in Osogbo—the revered priestesses of the goddess of the waters. I am sure she was sent off to the afterlife with the formal admonitions: “Ti e ba d’orun, e ma je’kolo; oun to won ba nje nibe ni k’e ba won je” (when you get to heaven, do not eat earthworms; whatever they eat there you should partake with them). In time, her memory will pass into myth, to be shaped (by those who knew her and those who didn’t) into accounts of her legendary acts. She has ascended into the realms of the ancestors: she will be reborn into the lineage, and in the future, they will speak of the reincarnation of Adunni-Olorisa, of a newborn child with diamantine eyes who gazes at the world with the wisdom of the great elders. Osun will be here waiting for her, and Adunni-Olorisa’s ancestral spirit will be here, waiting as well. May her soul rest in peace.

Blog of S. Okwunodu Ogbechie



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Donnerstag, 15-01-09 20:08

This is an excellent piece on Suzanne Wenger,a great
African,painter,prieste[..] and religious thinker of the highest level. In her total commitment to her work and to her adopted culture,Yoruba culture and religion,there are not many comparable examples. I can only think of Pierre Verger.
It is important to emphasize the achievements of Adunni-Olorisa especially at our times when some people,even intelligent Africans, seem to think we are condemned to follow Europeans in everything and to adopt the so-called universal religions as if our forebears had invented nothing,not even a religion and a culture. Suzanne Wenger came from Graz,Austria
and found amongst the Yoruba,a vibrant culture and religion which she embraced wholeheartedly
and practiced for some fifty-years until the end of her life in her chosen home. How many of us can ever dream of emulating such a lofty example?

To the extent that we praise our forbears and contemplate their achievements,to the same extent are we bound to reflect on our own ideals and practice.The life of Adunni-Olorisa,Suzanne Wenger,is a rich one which will occupy us for a long time and would certainly assist us in finding the right path,at least in the area of culture.
Kwame Opoku


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Donnerstag, 15-01-09 20:08


This is an excellent piece on Suzanne Wenger,a [...]

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