The story of an Austrian artist who became an Osun priestess
And while Ulli Beier relocated to Europe, Susanne remained in Oshogbo engaging herself in the activities of Yoruba Religion.
For when it comes to spirituality, which is the sole purpose of every religion, the depth and wisdom of African spirituality supersede all others.
Yet, through distorted concept, we’ve been made to believe that the deities of our ancestries are demonic. And living in the faith of such beliefs, we grope in ignorance with less regard to value and cultural heritage.
“Creative thinking and art are not measurable since they’re testimony of the truth and inherent in all that exists. And this truth, the only truth, has many faces.
Who can count the faces of truth? All religion are ultimately the religion of mankind. Art is ritual.”
Born on July 4, 1915, Susanne Wenger attended the School of Applied Arts in Graz and the Higher Graphical Federal Education and Research Institute. She also studied, alongside, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
From 1946, Susanne Wenger was an employee of the communist children’s magazine “Our Newspaper,” of which she designed the cover of the first edition.
She would co-find the Vienna Art-Club the following year and after living in Italy and Switzerland in 1949, she moved to Paris.
It was there she met the world-renowned Ulli Beier, a German researcher, and linguist who had just accepted an offer to teach phonetics at the University of Ibadan.
They married in London and migrated to Nigeria.
After spending a couple of years in the university compound, Ulli Beier shifted his work to promoting art, drama, and music in the University’s Extramural Department.
They would move from Ibadan to Ede (a village near Oshogbo) the following year.
It was here in Ede, continuing her artwork, that Susan Wenger became friends with Ajagemo, one of the very last priests of Obatala, who became her mentor and a great friend.
And although not a single word of Yoruba she understood at the time, she took a magnetic interest in the activities and rituals of the priest.
However, Susanne and her husband would move again from Ede to Oshogbo. But it didn’t take long before their union came to an end.
And while Ulli Beier relocated to Europe, Susanne remained in Oshogbo engaging herself in the activities of Yoruba Religion as well as Yoruba arts like ”Adire making.”
Being a lover of nature, she soon found out that the Yoruba culture and art aligns with her interest. And as a result, she converted to the Yoruba traditional religion.
But the turning point of Susanne Wenger’s life came when she was seriously ill of tuberculosis. It is said that science couldn’t help the situation at the time and she was left to die of the disease. However, she was given herbal mixtures provided by Yoruba medicine men and in no time, she became well.
Upon recovery, the white artist from Austria dedicated her life to the worship of Orisha whom she believed had saved her from death.
She was initiated and later became a priestess of Osun, after going through spiritual training.
And as a priestess, Susanne Wenger tried to interpret the mysteries and truth of Yoruba traditional religion through her art: She would make countless murals and a series of sculptures and carvings in the process.
Along with local artists like Adebisi Akanji, Kasali Akangbe and Buraimoh Gbadamosi, Susanne Wenger built phenomenal shrines and dotted the forest of the Sacred Groves with works of art creating a new art Movement known as “New Sacred Art” for over 40 years.
During this time, Adunni Olorisa as she also known, became the leading advocate to protect the sanctity of the Sacred Groves from contamination.
She ensured that the pristine rainforest was preserved by stopping loggers and farmers from felling trees.
And apart from the Osun Sacred Groves, Susanne Wenger alongside other local artists helped restore many shrines in need of repair as a result of disuse.
“The groves of Oshogbo were doomed to death, but my conviction of the Yoruba religion’s inner truth was so strong that I, as a lively and modern person not subordinate to traditions, felt that I had to build a power centre to protect these groves.
“I was able to achieve this just by means of my expression because I was so deeply involved. After all, I was not an employee, a construction worker or architect; my devotion to this philosophy was not subject to any question; it was a fact for me and others.” (Chesi, p. 20 f.)
Unarguably, it was her dauntless effort, in preserving the sacred forest, that made it possible for Osun grove to be declared a national monument 1965 and recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a world heritage site in 2005.
As a result, the annual Osun festival has become not only a very popular event, it has also become a world-renowned festival; with many Africans in the Diaspora and other people from all parts of the world undertake a pilgrimage to Osogbo every August.
However, Susanne Wenger did marry a local drummer, late Chief Ayansola Oniru Alarape, in 1959, but later divorced him because of his attitude.
Decided to live alone for the rest of her life, she adopted over 12 Yoruba kids of which one of them is the well-known Yinka Davies-Okundaye.
It is important to note that Susanne Wenger was constantly faced with endless criticism by Christians and Muslims in the name of promoting idolatry, Susanne Wenger did say:
“Orisha (spirit or deity) is merely a name which represents the supernatural forces which are basic expressions of life.
“It does not matter what you call it. It is a sacred force that represents the experience of life that informs human beingness.
“And as with all religions, there is no true way to explain it along rational lines without leeching it of its meaning and intensely personal quality.
You are a part of it and it is a part of you. You may, as so many have done, push it aside, but it remains in you…in all of us.”
Adunni Olorisa tried as much as she could to make people understand this truth until she passed away on January 12, 2009, at the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Hospital, Osogbo.
And upon her instruction, Susanne Wenger was buried quietly at the Osun Oshogbo Sacred Groves that same day.
Ore yeye, ooh!!!