Who was Susanne Wenger / Àdùnní Olórìṣà?

Meet the artist and priestess – embraced by the Yorùbá and the driving force behind saving the Sacred Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo Groves.

Susanne Wenger (1970s)Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Susanne Wenger – Artist and Priestess

Without any doubt, Austrian born Susanne Wenger was one of the most versatile and fascinating artists of the 20th century.

Susanne Wenger, Wole Soyinka and Wolfgang Denk (1991)Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Embraced by the Yorùbá: Poet Laureate Wole Soyinka on Wenger

'She was a very courageous person. The defence of the groves, from the loggers, the real estate, greed hungry, land hungry speculators [..] If they could have got away with it, they would have done so; but she had too strong a head. So she won, time again and again'.

Drawing: Landschaft mit Pferdewagen, Susanne Wenger, 2015, From the collection of: Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation
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Susanne Wenger in her studio in Vienna, 1940s, From the collection of: Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation
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The start of her artistic career was in Vienna, where she studied and then lived through the Nazi occupation. This was when she became part of a group of artists in the resistance and hid colleagues and fellow citizens from persecution.
Throughout this challenging time she carried on painting and also developed a keen interest in mythology, Tibetan-Buddhism, shamanism, philosophy and traditional, non-European art.

During the nights when the bombs fell on Vienna, she was haunted by images in her dreams, which she put on paper in the day, surreal picture-worlds born of fear and despair. These are now regarded as the first surreal works of art by an Austrian painter.

Drawing: Der rote Vogel (2015) by Susanne WengerOriginal Source: Susanne Wenger Foundation

Surrealistic drawings of 'Dream Faces'

She joined the ‘Vienna Art Club’ as a founding member. The Art Club was an international association of painters, sculptors, writers and musicians proclaiming ‘the right for artistic freedom’ after the suppressions of the Nazi regime.

Oilpainting: 'Das Liebespaar' (2015)Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Travels and a fateful encounter

After the war Susanne traveled to Rome, Sicily, Switzerland and ended up living in Paris, where she met Ulli Beier, who had accepted a posting to the University of Ìbàdàn. They got married in London and traveled over-land to Ìbàdàn, Nigeria.

Oilpainting 'The Lovers', 1947

Susanne Wenger and Ajagemo (1950s)Original Source: (c) Ulli Beier Photographic Estate. Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Oshogbo, Nigeria & Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

Another Fateful Encounter: Initiated as a Priestess

After living in Ìbàdàn for a few years and Susanne’s long illness (tuberculosis), the couple moved to Ẹdẹ, where she had her first contact with and initiation into the traditional Yorùbá religion by her spiritual mentor and dear friend, the blind Ọbàtálá priest Ajagẹmọ Láaró.

Susanne Wenger in Ilobu (1955)Original Source: (c) Ulli Beier Photographic Estate. Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Oshogbo, Nigeria & Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

Àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́kọ

The couple then moved from Ẹdẹ to Ìlóbùú, where Susanne learned the traditional technique of àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́kọ, a method where a plain piece of cloth is painted with a starchy paste in the places that are not supposed to absorb the indigo dye.

Chief Nike Okundaye (2021) by CyArkAdunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

'Mama Àdùnní', an early advocate for traditional values

Chief Nike Okundaye on Susanne Wenger

Susanne Wenger in front of one of her large batiks (1950s)Original Source: (c) Ulli Beier Photographic Estate. Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Oshogbo, Nigeria & Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

International exhibitions

Susanne Wenger created large monochrome canvases by stitching together several panels of fabric, depicting scenes of Yorùbá mythology. 

Exhibitions in Europe, Nigeria and Uganda presented this unique and novel form and method of art creation.

Wax batik with textile painting (2022) by Susanne WengerAdunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

'The Explosive Power of the Seed of Mercy'

In order to be able to use a variety of different colours rather than the just traditional indigo- or camwood dyes, Susanne Wenger switched to the method of wax batik and created even larger, more colourful textile paintings. This one measures 265cm x 640cm (104 x 252 inches)

Susanne Wenger: One of Her Paintings (1999) by Susanne WengerOriginal Source: Adunni Olorisha Trust/ Osun Foundation

Return to a more familiar medium

After a long pause of several years, Susanne Wenger took up painting in oil again and created some of her most impressive works in this medium.

Susanne Wenger painting in her studio (2009) by Pierre GuicheneyAdunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Art is Ritual

Excerpt from the film Osun Osogbo, 'La forêt et l'art sacrés des Yoruba' by Pierre Guicheney, 2009

Susanne Wenger: in front of Ìyá Mọòpó (1970s / 1980s)Original Source: Adunni Olorisha Trust/ Osun Foundation

A radical change in medium of art

Wenger's most impressive works of art stand in the Sacred Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo Groves – intricate shrines for and monumental sculptures of òrìṣà (the Yorùbá deities). 

According to the older generation of olórìṣà (one who is initiated in a Yorùbá divinity), Susanne Wenger was ‘called’ by the Yorùbá deities to rebuild their shrines and rescue their ‘homes’ in the groves from destruction.

And she did just that – together with a group of local artisans she started rebuilding shrines which had been destroyed by termites and were on the brink of collapse. These artisans evolved into artists and a new movement was formed: The New Sacred Art Movement.

Adebisi Akanji and Susanne Wenger (1970s)Original Source: (c) Ulli Beier Photographic Estate. Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Oshogbo, Nigeria & Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

A strong spiritual bond

Adebisi Akanji, a local bricklayer who had mastered the technique of cement sculpture passed this knowledge on to Susanne. Together they created most of the shrines and monumental sculptures for which the groves are now world famous.

Ojewale AmooAdunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Artistic talents awakened

Many more shrines, sculptures and structures were built over the following four decades with most of her co-workers developing their own artistic talents under her guidance and with her full support.

Ojewale Amoo on his most iconic creation – the Egúngún walls.

Ilédì Oǹtótóo: Ọbàtálá rising (1968) by Susanne Wenger and Adebisi AkanjiOriginal Source: Adunni Olorisha Trust/ Osun Foundation

New Sacred Art

Having developed a strong spiritual bond with nature as a youth in the mountains of her native Austria and having been initiated into the Yorùbá religion allowed her to create art in a ritual way, which was emulated by her group of local artists, evolving into ‘New Sacred Art'.

New Sacred Art Movement: some of the early members (1970s)Original Source: (c) Ulli Beier Photographic Estate. Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Oshogbo, Nigeria & Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

New Sacred Art Movement

Some of the members of the New Sacred Art Movement, who all contributed in their own way – carpenters turned wood carvers, bricklayers turned cement sculptors, blacksmiths, labourers, batik artists – united by their traditional belief in the reality of the òrìṣà.

Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo Sacred Grove MapOriginal Source: UNESCO

National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site

The art they created in the groves has served to protect the 75 hectares from the encroaching town dwellings, from hunting and poaching, fishing and other urban developments.
The area was declared a National Monument as early as 1965 and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.

Susanne Wenger HouseAdunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Susanne Wenger House

She lived in this large stone house, which looks rather grand  but she lived simply, like others, with no running water, no reliable electricity supply, certainly no air-conditioning and where meals were prepared on the balcony.

Susanne Wenger with some of her extended family (1980s)Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Extended Family

Susanne Wenger never had children herself. She adopted Sangodare Ajala and Doyin Faniyi but also had a very large and over the years ever growing extended family living with her. Friends and visitors were also always welcome.

Susanne Wenger working on her last sculpture, OduAdunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

A long and fulfilled life

Susanne Wenger carried on working on her last monumental sculpture until well into her 80s. 'After more than 30 years of working on this sculpture, the image of an ‘endless’ form became apparent with no intention of ever finishing it. It is like becoming and passing'. 

Susanne Wenger on the Arugba's path (1989)Adunni Olorisha Trust / Adunni Osun Foundation

Leaving a huge legacy

Susanne Wenger died on the 12th January 2009.
She touched many lives, inspired us, and has shown us what can be achieved with an ever present ability to learn, unshakeable integrity and the strong confidence in the 'sacred life-force'.

Credits: Story

VIDEO CLIPS
CyArk
Excerpt from the film Osun Osogbo'La forêt et l'art sacrés des Yoruba' by Pierre Guicheney, 2009

PHOTOGRAPHS
AOT/F Collection
Elisabeth Stolz
Gerhard Merzeder
Gert Chesi
Susanne Wenger Foundation, Krems, Austria
Ulli Beier *
Wolfgang Denk

* (c) Ulli Beier Photographic Estate. Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding (CBCIU). Oshogbo, Nigeria & Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth, Germany

Find out more about the AOT/F’s work by visiting our website  www.aot-aof.org

Your donations will support our continuing efforts to maintain and restore the works of art in the Sacred Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo Groves. Thank you.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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