Adunni Olorisha: The Last Interview

Shortly before the Austrian-born mother-protector of the Osun Sacred Grove, Susanne Wenger, breasted the tape of her 93rd year, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke visited her in her Osogbo-based residence. Here are excerpts of the encounter

Here She comes – yes, with the first letter in the upper case.  Here comes “Adunni Olorisha”, the favoured one of the gods. Her gait might not exactly be upright but – believe me – she doesn’t need a walking stick. Doyin accompanies her, watching over her with so much solicitude. Yes, she gropes around for something to support her decrepit frame as she lowers herself on a seat. This comes after she has offered me her hand for a handshake. I am fascinated. So this is the famous Susanne Wenger! She is not unexpectedly sporting a loose-fitting pant and a local print shirt as well as a hand-knitted woolen cap. Around her neck hangs a black bead necklace with cowries as pendants…

True, I’m here to interview her since she turns 93. But, pray, what questions do I ask this woman I have read and heard so much about? What should my opening conversational gambit be? Shortly after my arrival from Lagos, I stopped over at the famous Sacred Grove of Osogbo. I saw her efforts at recreating the mystical ambience of the 75-hectare land. Yes, I should begin the conversation with that… My first faux pas:

I tell her I have been to the shrine rather than the grove. “Shrine?” She seems genuinely puzzled. “There are many shrines. You mean the grove!”
Now, this forms the subject of my next question. But no, it must be quiet from that end now UNESCO has taken it over. Or isn’t it? “I don’t know what to answer to this question,” she says. My heart sinks. Another faux pas? Not really. “A grove which is not a real sacred grove cannot exist… It has to have a self-conscious nature.”
She pauses to ask if I grasp the words “self-conscious nature.” I assure her that I do.

It is in this case sacred, she resumes. “What do you think is ‘sacred nature’?” Sacred nature? Now, I’m unprepared for definition of concepts. Sacred has to do with something that must be preserved for purposes of worship.

“Humanity has to have places to take life sacred. What do you think is ‘sacred life’?” I stare at her, not knowing exactly what to answer.
“What do you think is ‘sacred life’?” she repeats. Now, am I a student or what? I rattle off something to the effect that it is life dedicated to doing something one is convinced about. Just the way I would have done it years back as a university undergraduate.

My answer seems to satisfy her. I’m relieved like a student that has proffered the correct answer to a tricky question. “Religious [too],” she adds as though to complement my effort. “Not just practical but religious…We all have accepted from tradition that religion is part of life. But life, only if it is God’s own secret…” I momentarily succumb to the embrace of my reverie. But am brusquely wrenched back to the present reality when she begins to protest to Doyin: “If he doesn’t want to make notes of what I say…” She resumes her monologue, for that it what it is turning to. I am watching her rather than saying anything. Thoughts of different kinds vie for prominence in my brain. She must have noticed for she says suddenly: “If you don’t ask me questions, I’m not prepared to make a speech.” I start almost like a child caught sleeping during his lessons. Now is the time to talk about her works. She is internationally renowned for her oil paintings, batiks and drawings as well as for her sculptures. The bulk of her works, alongside those of her Nigerian colleagues, constitute the “New Sacred Art” collection. It only heightens my angst when I realise that there little about her art practice that is yet to come to my awareness.

“The works have to be strong enough to establish themselves,” she says in answer to my circumspect question. Doyin complements her response by informing me of the existence of a Susanne Wenger Archives in her home country, Austria. There are, of course, a lot of her works in private collection. Together with her former husband Ulli Beier, she had organised the famous Osogbo workshops of the 1960s. But she refuses to see Chief (Mrs) Nike Davies-Okundaye or any of the then workshop participants as her student. “Nike has her own personality… This is why I am interested in Nike because she is a kind of co-worker.” But I am mentally scouring the art landscape for her influences. As an art writer, I have become a captive of the words “devotees”, “students” or “acolytes”. But these words do not exist in Susanne Wenger’s lexicon. “Mama sees nobody as a student,” Doyin sums it all up in a sentence. If I am looking for drama, I am in for some disappointment. She’s going to be 93 on Friday. Does she feel different? “I’m not interested about what people say.” I discern no hint of arrogance in her voice. “My main interest is to honour the truth about art because art is a great secret about humanity.” So what does she think about the so-called “commercial art”? “It’s a part of life,” comes her reply. There is some kind of cooperation. Duality, if you wish. Just as in religion. “Art is not religion. But it has its connections with life similar to religion. But religion is deep in the human åmind…God means to communicate through art…Art is culture. Culture as such is for human beings.” Does she believe that the level of a people’s development can be discerned through their art? “I don’t know what you mean,” she rejoins. I offer a somewhat lengthy explanation of how art reflects the makers. But I falter when I let the word “progress” slip from my mouth. It’s not really a Freudian slip. Just one of those conventional catch-words. “Progress?” She obviously does not like my use of the word. “There are people for whom art is the only real world. Study is not necessary to know it. Art is not an intellectual endeavour.” I nod my agreement. But she has misunderstood my question. I capitulate nevertheless. Her typical day might be interesting to know. What percentage of her time does she devote to her studio work? She looks genuinely mystified. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” she says.

Even Doyin cannot hide her impatience with my question. Art is not an intellectual endeavour. It is no office work. With each day, it is bound to be different. No typical days. So much for what I imagined might be interesting to the readers. I venture into the domain of preserving her works for posterity.

“I don’t want to preserve. I want to keep doing something that is a part of life.” She must have sensed that I am angling for the dramatic slant of the interview, for she adds: “I cannot help you... I cannot help you…I cannot speak to you about something you want to hear. That does not interest me.” She has heard about a recent documentary film about her. “But that’s your work!” Over half-a-century after, does she still maintain links with her homeland? “Why that?” That’s Doyin. She looks genuinely puzzled. Well, if I must know, I was there at her 90th birthday and saw not only the Austrian ambassador but also some Austrian journalists. It is remarkable that of all the Yoruba sacred groves, only the one in Osogbo still exists thanks to her. But even this does not move her. She is not interested in pushing people to preserve their culture. “Culture must be living. If one has to push then it is useless. We want to have culture alive.” I have been groping for some kind of comic relief to ease the seriousness of this encounter. Does she still speak German?

Doyin laughs. “Mama speaks German, English and Yoruba. How can it go away just like that?” The Caucasian priestess of Yoruba traditional religion might want to share my sense of humour, but she reminds me that a dog will always be a dog, a cat a cat and a human being a human being. She, in other words, hasn’t forgotten that all said and done she remains an “oyinbo” (white man in Yoruba). Did she have a Picasso-like kind of fascination for African art when she first set her feet on these shores in 1950 at the age of 35? Nothing like that. Of course, there is something right of adventure books about her rushing to a marriage with an equally starry-eyed art enthusiast. Beier had applied for and was accepted for the post of lecturer in phonetics in Nigeria premier university, then called University College, in Ibadan.  One condition to fully qualify was that he had to be married. But fate had other plans for the couple when they settled in Nigeria. While Beier later married Georgina, she tied the nuptials with a local priest. This was her first step towards integration with the Yoruba traditional religion. Now, she has made this Brazilian-style two-storey building along Ibokun Road in Osogbo her home. “If I’m here, I’m here. That’s life,” she says with finality.