Osogbo is a Nigerian city 240km from Lagos, sometimes called “Ile Aro” (home of dyeing) and this traditional trade is one of its main industries. Osogbo is also the venue of the annual Osun-Osogbo festival along the River Osun. The festival celebrates the sacred Yoruba grove of the river and fertility goddess Ọsun. The Osun-Osogbo Grove is among the last of the sacred forests which usually adjoined the edges of most Yoruba cities before extensive urbanization. In recognition of its global significance and its cultural value, the Sacred Grove was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
The 1950s saw the desecration of the Osun-Osogbo Grove and prohibited actions like fishing, hunting and felling of trees in the grove took place until the abuse was stopped by Osogbo people with the participation of Susanne Wenger. They formed the New Sacred Art movement to challenge land speculators, repel poachers and re-establish the Grove as the sacred heart of Osogbo.
Susanne Wenger (1915 – 2009) was born to Swiss and Austrian parents, attended the School of Applied Arts in Graz and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. From 1946, Wenger worked with the communist children’s magazine “Our Newspaper”. In 1947 she co-founded the Vienna Art-Club. After living in Italy and Switzerland in 1949 she went to Paris, where she met her future husband, the linguist Ulli Beier. That same year Beier was offered a position in Ibadan, and the couple emigrated to Nigeria. Wenger and Beier ultimately divorced, and Wenger later married local drummer Ayansola Oniru in 1959. For her efforts on behalf of the Yoruba, she was given a chieftaincy title of the Osogbo community by the king, or Ataoja, of Osogbo.
We visited the Grove on a sunny afternoon, seeing not just the main sites, but also areas off the beaten track, getting lost in the forest and being guided by Osun. “Some of the sculptures have not been completed yet, or are set deep inside the leafy forest. Re-discovering those objects that have become one with the nature they honour is a true privilege”, says Bolaji Alonge.
We stayed at Nike Guest House, owned by Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye, Nigeria’s internationally known and renowned female designer and artist. The Guest House offers an oasis of tranquility in its beautiful garden, where sculptures live side by side with a 70 year old tortoise couple.
The interior of the house and rooms are filled with paintings and works of art. A mere three hours after leaving this small paradise we were back to the hustle and bustle of Lagos.
Sandra Vermuyten is an international labour lawyer and fashion designer, soon to be married to Bolaji Alonge.