Susanne Wenger 1915 – 2009

SUSANNE WENGER 4th July1915 - 12th January 2009

4th July 1915 born in Graz in southern Austria and educated at Lichtenfelsgymnasium (high school) in Graz.

1927 - 1930 attends the School of Applied Arts and Crafts in Graz, Austria together with her childhood friend Maria Biljan-Bilger, under the tutelage of Professor Adametz.

1932 attends the Graphic and Experimental Institute (Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt) in Vienna.

1933 - 1935 Visual Art Academy in Vienna where she studies under Fedinand Andri; sets up a studio together with Maria Biljan-Bilger

1936 - 1937 studies painting under Herbert Böckl

1938 Austria is officially annexed to Germany under the Third Reich

1938 - 1945 Susanne lives through the Nazi occupation in Graz and Vienna. She retreats for months into the Hochschwab mountains and is actively engaged in The Resistance. They succeed in hiding and rescuing persecuted people including Wander Bertoni and Ernst Fuchs.

1945 her studio is bombed and a fall down a lift-shaft results in a serious fracture of her pelvis.

At this time she is writing for the literary and cultural magazine 'Plan', published by the playwright Otto Basil. The Plan was influential in familiarising the Austrian public with art movements that were prohibited under the Nazis, especially surrealism.

During and as a consequence of the bombing of Vienna, Susanne becomes the first Austrian artist to create surreal and hyperreal drawings of her disturbing dreams and fears.

The third issue of the art magazine Plan publishes a few of her 'surreal' drawings as well as the lead pencil drawing 'The Dead Hamster'. These drawings greatly influence students including Ernst Fuchs, Wolfgang Hutter and Anton Lehmden in the class taught by Albert Paris Gütersloh.

She also designs the cover for the first issue of the communist newspaper 'Unsere Zeitung' (Our Newspaper)

Declaration of Independence and the implementation of a provisional government is made in Vienna under the State Chancellor Renner.

1946 - 1947 co-founds the 'Art Club' in Vienna, a platform for painters, sculptors, writers and musicians including Maria Biljan-Bilger, Heinz Leinfellner, Wander Bertoni, Albert Paris Gütersloh and Alfred Schmeller.

1947 Susanne draws a series of animal cartoons 'Stefan and Burgerl - Two Styrian Dackels (Dachshund)' in the children’s paper of the publishing house Globus and also creates 'Jumping Jacks' as a means of income. Oil paintings of the so called 'Grey Period' such as 'The Birds are not Invited' evolve.

1947 - 1950 participation in international exhibitions of the Art Club.

Together with Maria Biljan-Bilger she creates an installation with grass, earth and willow branches in Graz and participates in an Art Club presentation in the recently reopened Secession in Vienna.

1948 Susanne wins a poster competition of the Italian Art Club and she travels to Rome and Sicily. She then spends time in Berne, Switzerland “to eat well for a month”. Looking for fellow modern artists, she moves to Zurich where the gallery Des Eaux Vives, owned by Johann Egger (better known as ‘Hansegger') exhibits Susanne’s paintings as the youngest member of the artist group ‘abstrakt-konkret' together with Paul Klee, Mondrian, Jean Arp and Sophie Täuber-Arp.

1949 following Hansegger’s advise, Susanne moves to Paris where she meets fellow artists such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger but much rather prefers to spend time with clochards and drop outs

1949 exhibition in the gallery 'Faubourg Saint-Honoré', Paris

1949/50 Susanne meets Ulli Beier - a German-Jewish linguist on holiday in Paris, who was working as a teacher of handicapped children in London - they get married and she moves with him to Nigeria where he had accepted a post at the University of Ibadan in the Department of Phonetics. They travel widely throughout the country but Susanne contracts Tuberculosis and is seriously ill for 14 months. She recovers after receiving a trial drug from America and subsequently calls this her 'initiation illness'.

1951 Ulli and Susanne move to the small town of Ede where she has her first contact with and initiation into Yoruba Religion - aided by the priestess Iya Shango and her 'guru', the blind Obatala priest Ajagemo - which will last for four very intensive years.

1953 Susanne publishes the first ever ABC spelling book for Yoruba children

1954 exhibitions in Paris, London, Frankfurt, Zurich and Breda (Netherlands)

1955 - 1956 together with Ulli Beier, Susanne Wenger moves to Ilobu to recover after her arduous initiations. She still visits Ede to participate in Obatala Rituals and to rebuild the shrine for Obatala at Ede until the death of Ajagemo.

In Ilobu he learns the ancient technique of Cassava batik called 'Adire' and starts on her large batiks which are later exhibited in London. She combines the 'cubistic contemporary' style of her Paris art experience with the storytelling traditional Yoruba patterns.

1956 - 1957 the couple move to Oshogbo and Susanne is initiated as priestess of the Shonponna Cult. She is asked to lead a group of devotees of Shonponna and Obatala by an Ifa priest and starts hosting regular rituals at home.

1958 Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger officially divorce, a consequence to the separate paths taken, one into intellectual research and development of the arts in Nigeria and the other into a personal journey to the depths of Yoruba religion.

1958 - 1959 restoration of the derelict 'Idi Baba' shrine and the start of works in the Sacred Groves of Oshogbo. Initially with the friends and artisans Adebisi Akanji and Buraimoh Gbadamosi and then with a growing number of craftsmen.

Alongside the restoration and reconstruction of existing structures in the groves, her own artistic sculptures and architectures develop. Susanne starts building wall-sculptures, statues, ritual gates and shrines.

Over the next decades more and more structures are added: the Obatala shrine complex, various statues of Alajere and Ela, the huge statue of Iya Moopo, the Iledi Ontotoo shrine, the river shrines Oshun Busseyin and Lakokon to name just a few. She then starts with the 'infinite' monumental sculpture 'Odu' at her favourite spot on the river Oshun.

1959 marries Ayonsola, the drummer of the Shonponna priestess (Iya Peyu) in a native wedding ceremony.

1960 Nigeria gains independence from Great Britain after Alhaji Tafewa Balewa forms the first all Nigerian Federal Executive Council.

1960 - 1963 joins the 'Ogboni secret society'; she sympathises with anti-colonial circles and joins activities to preserve the traditional Yoruba culture and religion. Susanne 'adopts' children of important Yoruba priests to protect them from missionary influences. She lives in a large 'Brazilian' style stone house with her extended family and is deeply involved in the Yoruba religion.

1965 the group of Nigerian artisans and craftsmen working with her in the Sacred Groves of Oshogbo develop into the 'New Sacred Art' group. Susanne also starts working on extremely large textile batiks using her own technique of 'spontaneous flow'.

1965 The Federal Government of Nigeria declare the Oshun Groves a National Monument.

1967 The Nigerian Civil War (Biafra War) breaks out and continues until January 1970

1969 Exhibition 'Contemporary African Art', Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, California.

1970 after a break of 10 years Susanne starts painting in oil again

1980 Exhibition 'Neue Kunst in Afrika', Mittelrheinisches Landesmuseum, Mainz, Germany

1984 publication of the book 'A life with the Gods' with Gert Chesi

1984 Exhibition: 'Susanne Wenger: Batiks and Oil Paintings', Goethe Institue Lagos

1985 Susanne Wenger celebrates her 70th birthday with a large solo exhibition (curated by Wolfgang Denk) in the Künstlerhaus after 35 years of absence from Vienna. She is awarded the Silver Award for Sciences and Art of the Republic of Austria.

More exhibitions in Europe and Africa follow:

1985 City Musem Graz

1989 Goethe Institute, Lagos

1990 'Susanne Wenger Retrospektive 1950 - 1990' Iwalewa Haus, Bayreuth, Germany

1990 publication of the book 'The Sacred Groves of Oshogbo' by Susanne Wenger.

1993 Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art in Prague

1994 'Susanne Wenger: A New Sacred Art Exhibition', Muson Centre, Lagos

1995 A “biographical collage” and large retrospective on the occasion of her 80th birthday in the Kunsthalle Krems, Minoritenkirche Stein

1997/98 Participation in the exhibition 'Kulte, Künstler, Könige in Afrika, Tradition und Moderne in Südnigeria' Schlossmuseum Linz, Upper Austria

2000 Participation in the exhibition 'A concrete Vision: Oshogbo Art from the 1960s', National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA

2001 Exhibition 'Along the banks of a Sacred African River', Galerie 422, Gmunden, Austria

2001 participation in the exhibition 'Moderne in dunkler Zeit' (Modern art in dark times) in the Neue Galerie Graz

Susanne is awarded the Silver Honorary Cross for Science and Art of the County of Lower Austria.

2001 - 2002 participation in the exhibitions 'The short century - Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa' in Munich, Berlin, Chicago and New York, curated by Nigerian Okuwi Envezor (who also curated Documenta XI)

2003 participation in the exhibition 'Mythos Art Club' in the Kunsthalle Krems (Wolfgang Denk)

2004 Retrospective 'Susanne Wenger - Artist, Olorisha and Activist in Africa', Landesmuseum Joanneum, Künstlerhaus Graz (Wolfgang Denk)

Award of the Highest Order of the County of Styria, Austria.

2004 Exhibition 'Susanne Wenger. On the Banks of a Sacred River in Africa', Kunsthalle Krems

Award of the Great Golden Honorary Order for Science and Art of the Republic of Austria.

2005 extensive festivities on the occasion of Susanne Wenger’s 90th Birthday at the Austrian Embassy in Lagos and the King’s Palace in Oshogbo. Large reception hosted by the Governor of Oshun State in Oshogbo with international guests - all of which were widely covered by the Nigerian press and TV.

2005 The Sacred Groves of Oshogbo are designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO

2005 participation in the exhibition 'Ars Pingendi - Masterpieces of Austrian Paintings since 1900’ from the collection of the Neue Galerie, Graz

2008 participation in the exhibition '10 years of Galerie 422', Gmunden, Austria

2008 declared a Member of the Order of The Federal Republic by the Nigerian Government

Susanne carries on working as an artist, philosopher and seeker until 2008. She dies on 12th January 2009 at the age of 93.

2009 Exhibition Iwalewa Bayreuth, Susanne Wenger stations of life

2011 Krems: Opening of SUSANNE WENGER FOUNDATION in Kunstmeile Krems, Austria  

2013-2014 Exhibition Landesmuseum Niederösterreich, St. Pölten, Lower Austria, Ausnahmefrauen - Christa Hauer, Hildegard Joos, Susanne Wenger,

2015 100th anniversary of Susanne Wenger at Susanne Wenger Foundation Krems and other venues