June 18, 2013
Austrian Artist Becomes Nigerian Ancestor
Posted on May 21, 2009
Something in my head keeps fitting Suzanne Wenger into the last paragraph of Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Westminster College Cold War Memorial in 1990. While wishing for “an end to walls wherever they divide the human race” and “the day when all God’s children live in a world without walls,” Reagan had concluded: “Maybe one day boundaries all over the Earth will disappear as people cross boundaries and find out that, yes, there is a brotherhood of man in every corner.”
Wenger certainly crossed that boundary. A veritable bridge between two very different worlds and cultures, she left her native Austria as a young woman and found her place among the Yoruba of Nigeria. Dubbed “the white priestess of black magic” by the international media, Wenger rose from novice seeker to high priestess of Osun, the spirit-goddess of the waters of life, who represents love and maternity in Yoruba mythology. Affectionately renamed Adunni Olorisha (“the cherished one who is deeply committed to the gods”), she lived among her adopted people and served their gods faithfully for 58 years until she died recently at the age of 93.
As rituals in honor of her soul were conducted according to Orisha burial traditions after she was laid to rest in the sacred grove of Osun in Osogbo, the Yoruba town she made her home, gurus of Yoruba traditional religion agreed that she had earned her place among “the living dead” and was being heralded into the fold of Yoruba ancestors. This sentiment was strongly expressed in tributes that marked her passing.
“Her internment completes Susan Wenger’s transformation into a spirit, as devotees will henceforth make supplications to her, too.”
“She is not dead. She lives through her works. She only has become an Orisha. She only slept, she didn’t die.”
“She was well versed in the Yoruba pantheon of the gods with which she was actively engaged.”
“She was a significant member of the Yoruba cultural leaders.”
“She personified the spirit of the sacred grove, the river goddess to which she dedicated nearly her entire adult life, worshipping and adoring.”
Wenger was no ordinary adventurer/fun seeker who dazzled naïve Africans with her white skin and European accent. She worked her butt off, as Americans would say, to earn her ancestral stripes. Now, how did an Austrian girl who was born into a Christian family end up as high priestess and custodian-in-chief of the shrine of a Yoruba goddess?
Wenger was born during the First World War, in 1915, in the town of Graz, Austria. She studied art in Graz and Vienna, and was part of the famous Vienna “Art-Club.” She spent some time in Italy and Switzerland after World War II and had exhibitions with the most famous artists of the time in the gallery Des Eaux Vives in Zurich.
Wenger’s journey to Nigeria began in 1949 when she went to Paris, where she met Ulli Beier, a German linguist. They soon became an item. Beier accepted a posting as a phonetician at the University College, Ibadan (Nigeria) shortly after. However, he had to be married to take up the position, so the couple began to make wedding plans.
At the wedding in a registry office in London, the eclectic couple presented the registrar with a selection of curtain rings in place of the customary wedding rings. When the registrar protested, saying, “A wedding is not a silly joke,” they replied: “How do you know?”
They arrived in Ibadan in 1950 and settled into life there, Beier as a teacher and Wenger as an artist. From Ibadan they moved to Ede (another Yoruba town) to escape what Wenger called the “artificial university compound.” There, Beier continued to build his renown as a teacher, art/culture scholar and documentary expert and founded the Mbari Mbayo Cultural Movement, which was the precursor of modern Nigerian art and literature. Wenger, on the other hand, according to Beier, “quickly became part of the local culture.”
While this cultural integration was taking place, Wenger met Ajagemo, a powerful Obatala priest who became her guru and initiated her to traditional Yoruba religion and the world of Orishas. Wenger’s experience with Ajagemo was surreal. “He took me by the hand and led me into the spirit world,” she told a French documentary maker in 2005. “I did not speak Yoruba and he did not speak English. Our only intercourse was the language of the trees.”
Wenger was hooked. She was initiated as a priestess of Osun and Obatala. Beier said his wife found her ori inu (real essence) in the spirituality of Osun. When her transformation was complete, there was no going back. Nothing could take Wenger from her “Yoruba roots.” She resolved to stay in Oshogbo for the rest of her life. She and Beier separated and he returned to Europe. She stayed in Oshogbo and eventually married a traditional Yoruba drummer, Ayansola Oniru, who drummed the gods into frenzy for the acolyte.
Wenger went on to adopt 15 children whom she nurtured in the traditional Yoruba way. She breathed her last in their warm embrace even as she was properly heralded into “the other side” by the elements. According to accounts of her death, a sudden rain started around midday and ended abruptly in Oshogbo, the Yoruba town that was home to Wenger. Remarkably, this was in the middle of the dry season (Nigeria has two main seasons; the dry season and the rainy season). Immediately after the rain, Wenger asked, “What day of the week is it?” “What time of the day is it?” When she got the answers, she said, “It’s time to go. It’s good. It’s OK,” and took her last breath.
Wenger could not have departed in a different way. In one of her many interviews on spirituality, she had said, “All human activity is spiritual. You cannot do even an office job without its being spiritual activity. The spiritual aspect of life is the net of life. Life and spirituality are one.”
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