Obituary: Susanne Wenger

by Wolfgang Denk, English version by Gusti Merzeder-Taylor

The world famous artist and Yoruba priestess Susanne Wenger died on the 12th January 2009 at the age of 93 in her adopted hometown of Oshogbo, Nigeria.

Susanne Wenger, born in 1915 in Graz, Austria, was an active founding member of the Vienna Art-Club in 1947. This and sixty years of art and life in Africa have earned her a world wide reputation as an accomplished artist with a personality to match. She was the subject of many TV-programmes and despite some colourful articles in various magazines reporting “a white goddess on a river in deepest Africa” – Susanne Wenger was first and foremost one of the most important modern Artists in post 1945 Austria. Because of her quite exposed position as an outsider (both to the Nigerians as well as the Europeans) the view of her artistic achievements was sometimes obscured by exotic and misleading media reports.

During the nights of Vienna’s bombardment in 1943-44, she was the first Austrian artist to draw surreal paintings, which in turn had a great influence on the young Viennese generation of artists after the war (Fuchs, Brauer, Lehmden, Bertoni, etc.) Her rebellion against the Nazi terror was well documented in the exhibition “Moderne in dunkler Zeit” (Modern art in dark times) at the “Neue Galerie Graz” in 2001.

After a brief stay in Paris in 1949, where she met and married Ulli Beier (at the time a teacher for handicapped children in London and who had just accepted a posting at the University of Ibadan) she arrived in West Africa in 1950. As a result of the great Art-Club exhibitions, Wenger was already an established artist by this time. From 1954 she had exhibitions in Paris, London, Frankfurt, Zurich and Breda.

Susanne Wenger and Ulli Beier first lived in Ibadan, then moved to Epe and finally to Oshgobo in 1960. This is where she immersed herself into Yoruba poetry, mythology and religion and was initiated as a priestess without ever forsaking her existence as a modern artist. From this time she dedicated her efforts to the restoration and re-creation of derelict shrines of the Yoruba religion and did not have any further exhibitions for 25 years.

In the rainforest along the Oshun River, at the edge of the town of Oshogbo (approx. pop. 500,000), this great artist has almost single-handedly protected – through her art - one of the most important spiritual centres of Yoruba Culture from destruction together with the last of the giant rainforest trees in the area.
In 2005, the Sacred Groves of Oshogbo, Susanne Wenger’s main architectural and sculptural work, was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is described on its homepage as follows: “The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove, on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo, is one of the last remnants of primary high forest in southern Nigeria. Regarded as the abode of the goddess of fertility Osun, one of the pantheon of Yoruba gods, the landscape of the grove and its meandering river is dotted with sanctuaries and shrines, sculptures and art works in honour of Osun and other deities. The sacred grove, which is now seen as a symbol of identity for all Yoruba people, is probably the last in Yoruba culture. It testifies to the once widespread practice of establishing sacred groves outside all settlements.”

The cement sculptures, ranging from relatively small to some up to 10 metres high, architectural and artistically daring shrines, meditation chambers and hundreds of metres of sculpted walls depicting scenes of ritual life have, over the years, been created by Susanne Wenger together with a group of Yoruba artists, artisans and priests – members of the New Sacred Art movement – and which now form a monumental and impressive ensemble of modern art.

Susanne Wenger’s art has been described as “the coalescence of great myths of all time into an epos of creation, death, sacrifice and reincarnation”.
Some of her most famous and intriguing works of art are her batiks. Since 1970 she developed a technique she called textile cloth painting, which is technically a mixture of batik, textile painting and indigo dyeing. Some of these very large batiks express the whole philosophical-artistic cosmos of the artist. The clear and transcendent language of these works is religiously motivated in the universal sense, but still spontaneous and free in the sense of the perception of art. The wide span of themes in her oil paintings reveals the tradition of European Modern Art. She incorporates themes from the history of mankind, the Bible, world literature and from the Yoruba cultural circle. During the last years of her life further drawings and books evolved which she called “osmotic”. Susanne Wenger referred to these drawings as her “hour-books” into which she actually wrote of her state-of-awareness and affirmations of her beliefs.

In 1985 Wolfgang Denk, a curator and artist-colleague, organised the first of her many large exhibitions dedicated to her work in Europe (“Künstlerhaus” Vienna, “Stadtmuseum” Graz, Museum of Modern Art, Prague, “Iwalewa-Haus” in Bayreuth 1993, “Kunsthalle” Krems 1995 and others). Susanne Wenger took part in the exhibitions of “The Short Century – Independence and Liberation movements in Africa 1945-1994“ (Okwui Envezor) which was shown in Munich, Berlin, Chicago, New York 2001 and the New Gallery in Graz.
In 1995 Susanne Wenger herself initiated the foundation of the “Susanne Wenger Stiftung” in Austria, which has the responsibility of safeguarding her graphic works, paitings and batics and the creation of the Susanne Wenger Archive in Krems, Lower Austria. This was followed by the foundation of the AOT, the “Adunni Olorisha Trust” in Lagos in 1998, which for the past ten years has ensured that Susanne could continue to live and work in Oshogbo without financial worries and is now preserving her legacy.

The great appreciation shown to Susanne Wenger in the last decades of her life can also be measured by a national award from the Federal Government of Nigeria and numerous major awards she received from Austria.
On the occasion of her 90th birthday both the Ataoja of Oshogbo (the town’s traditional ruler) and the Governor of Osun State hosted large celebrations where representatives of the ancient traditions as well as modern day artists and performers mingled with visitors from all over the world.

Susanne will be greatly missed but will also be remembered for her humour and her words of wisdom:

"The creation of the world happens continuously. There is neither beginning nor end, everything dies into a new birth, forms of culture grow like grass, life and its meaning does not repeat itself. Everything is born into a death. A good picture paints itself. And man creates his world himself."

Wolfgang Denk
Born in 1947 in Seitenstetten, Lower Austria. Since 1969 independent artist. 1968 – 2004 numerous exhibitions and awards. 1990 - 1997 founding-director and art director of the  „Kunsthalle Krems“. 1998–2000 member of the advisory council of the Federal Ministry for Art and Education,  2001 establishment of the Susanne Wenger Archive. Since 2005 founding-director of the Hermann Nitsch Museum in Mistelbach, Lower Austria.

Gert Chesi / Susanne Wenger: A Life with the Gods, 1984.
Wolfgang Denk: Susanne Wenger, Ausstellungskatalog, Wien, 1985.
Susanne Wenger: The Sacred Groves of Oshogbo, 1990.
Lusia Francia / Ulli Beier: Susanne Wenger, Kunstforum Bd.122, 1993.
Rolf Brockmann/Gerd Hötter: Adunni, A portrait of Susanne Wenger, 1994.
Wolfgang Denk: Buch zur Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle Krems, 1995.
Günter Eisenhut: Moderne in dunkler Zeit, 2001.
Okwui Envezor / Ulli Beier: The short century, 2001.
Wolfgang Denk: Mythos Art Club, Kunsthalle Krems, 2003.
Adunni Olorisha Trust: Susanne Wenger, her house and her art collection, 2006.