Friday 2 September 2011

Susanne Wenger's tourism legacy

How Wenger's work connects Africa, Europe in tourism

Although Canadian expatriates in Nigeria, Hugh and Robin Campbell’s visit to Osogbo was in continuation of their exploration of nature’s wonders, Robin tells TAJUDEEN SOWOLE, eight years after, the couple's plan to turn the legacy of late Susanne Wenger into a tour destination and cultural bridge between Nigeria and Europe.
THE Campbells are members of an 80 years-old-Lagos-based group known as Nigerian Field Society, which was set up, specifically, to explore the cultural environment of the country and West Africa in general. Made up of expatriates in Nigeria, the group has a self-imposed mandate: to promote the country to the rest of the world, through traveling.
As part of this mission, Robin and Hugh had traveled to Osogbo. The cultural environment, she says, was the first attraction. And through an Austrian expatriate, Gusti Merzeder-Taylor, Robin met Wenger.
The Adunni Olorisa Trust (AOT)
Obatala shrine, Osun Groves
Merzeder-Taylor has known Suzanne for 25 years. When she and her husband decided to move to the U.K., she said: ‘would you help out with the AOT? Also, go to Osogbo every month to give Susanne her father’s pension.’
Susanne holds two passports: Austrian and Swiss. Although she never lived in Switzerland, she is eligible for pension of her father. So, Hugh and I were going to Osogbo every month, just to deliver the pension. In the process, we got to know more of Susanne. Even though we would not want to get involved into more voluntary activities, we got involved in the AOT. And it’s so important such that we could not stop. The trust has been founded in 2003. Susanne set up two trusts: one in Nigeria and the other in Austria. In Nigeria, it’s the AOT. For the Austria, it’s called The Susanne Wenger Stiftung (Foundation). And she took some of her works she considered less important to Austria.

In Nigeria, the leg-walk is being handled by John Adeleke. John’s father (Chief Adeleke), had been a friend and patron of Susanne. When he passed on, John took up that support. John founded the AOT.  He chose to build an organization so as to broaden the base of support and ensure the preservation of the remarkable work, and now legacy of Susanne Wenger and the New Sacred Art Movement. The trust was formed, first and foremost to hold lease on Susanne’s house. John’s father has been paying the rent of the house. Secondly, to collect the works of Susanne and the New Sacred Art Movement – a group of artists who worked with her. The first challenge was to extend the lease, ensure repair of the house, take care of Susanne and restoration of the works of the sacred grove.
Challenges of restoration of Wenger’s works.

So far, we have done two major restorations:  the Obatala complex, which was done with fund from the Austrian government; the restoration is phenomenon for just 22, 000 Euros. It’s just for four buildings in the grove. Then in 2010, the Austrian government gave another 10, 000 Euro. And with that small amount of money, the artists of New Sacred Grove Art Movement did another phenomenon restoration in the Idi-Aba building. Though many of the artists are old, they brought in younger artists, who are mostly their children. The project management was done by Susanne’s adopted son, Sangodare Ajala, who, like other artists were highly committed. When we talk about restoration, it’s not about restoring a damaged bridge or building; it requires a very high artistic details and quality. So delicate that some of the big works could be damaged or crumble if you tap it too much. With the aid of old photographs, brilliant artists such as Adebisi Akanji, Nurudeen (Akanji’s son, an excellent artist) and others who have the right motivation, the restorations were done. You can’t do such work without the right attitude.

Wenger’s inspiration
Susanne used to say: you need to be inspired by nature. And if you look at these sculptures carefully, they are really interpreting the trees, birds, the monkeys (laughter).
Wenger working in the Groves
And very deeply rooted in mythology of the Yoruba tradition. Just like Buddhism, Christian mythology etc. For example, if you go to the grove during the harmattan, you feel differently when you visit in the raining reason.
So, with a huge garden, Susanne creates her artistic phenomenon. One of the reasons she did that was that she had a great fear that gradually, the town would encroach into the forest and be sold to building developments. So, she thought, ‘we have to create something fantastic here; if you like sculptures more than just a forest, that would give reason for maintaining it.
How Wenger bridged Osogbo and Europe
She was a prolific writer and stopped exhibiting in Europe at her 70th birthday. In 1985, there was a big exhibition in Austria, dedicated to her. Then, she began to gather works, not just hers, but that of the Sacred Arts Movement. Then there was series of exhibition in Germany, England and the U.S. During these exhibitions, she decided that it would be good to leave works in Europe, so people there will have the opportunity of seeing her works. And, more importantly understand what inspires her work
Though she actually did not belief in selling her works, she sold some to keep body and soul together. Sometimes, I asked myself ‘why didn’t she sell her works and use the money to maintain the grove, at least for 50 years?’ and now that she has passed on, the works cannot be sold; they are for the benefit of the public.
About 100 pieces important works held in perpetuity for the public.
In Austria, the government has provided the fund to create a Suzanne Wenger Centre: a museum, part of a larger art centre with about four wings. And as part of a roving exhibition, there would be a show in Paris, Smithsonian, Washington D.C., and hopefully in Nigeria. The idea she had was that there should be opportunity to create an artistic and cultural bridge between Nigeria and Europe. So, there is a body of work in Europe and major ones in Nigeria in perpetuity. It’s therefore an obligation on Nigeria to ensure the preservation of these national treasures. It’s incredible cross culture between Nigeria and the west through this unusual human being.
Misunderstood Wenger
Susanne was driven by eccentricity, just like most great artists. For her, it’s more eccentric. Sometimes this attitude, which she transmits into other aspects of her life in relating with people, was misunderstood as being rude. However, Susanne was very generous, particularly to nature and her sacred grove artists. You know she is an environmentalist, who, during a lone-protest told the people that  “you would have to get rid of me first to cut down the trees.”
On the sacred art movement, she always said: “don’t focus on me, the works were done together with the members.” She pushed everybody up, talked about others, and less of herself. For example, three is a book she put together, which we want to reprint. And somebody suggested that if we must reprint, we have to re-write it because when Susanne wrote that book, she pushed everybody and talked less of herself. Though we have to debate that, but personally, I would prefer to reprint it as it is because that’s the way she wanted; that was her life.
Treasure of tourism in Osogbo
The Susanne Wenger Stiftung (Foundation), in Austria has two formal ambassadors to Nigeria in the 70s and 80s and other Austrians, including Gutsy as members of the board of trustee.
The house Susanne lived is owned by the Gbadamosi family, which happens to be the family of one of the artists of the movement.  She started renting the house in the 1950s– about 60 years now. As you know, it’s very complicating to buy a family house in Nigeria but there is a strong relationship based on track records. Importantly, we see that there are many factors to make the place a destination for tourists in Nigeria and overseas in general. Domestic tourism is our focus, through the foreigners here. Also through visiting from the U.S. and Brasil, of people who believe that Osogbo and Ife are important in the ancestral link of their race.
You know that Yoruba culture is becoming very popular in Europe. I liken this to what happened in Europe in the 1960s to 70s when The Beatles became interested in eastern religions, India meditation particularly. And more Europeans became interested in Buddhism. Culture can be very fascinating. Currently, similar thing is happening in Europe about Yoruba culture. We hope to meet with the Governor of Osun State, Rauf Aregbesola, whom I was told is interested in new ideas. When we meet, we hope to tell him: Osogbo is really the positive face of Nigerian culture abroad, so let’s work together and make the place a destination. The grove, Susanne’s house, Osogbo art movement, a quiet place like Iragbiji, hometown of Muraina Oyelami, e t c… We are seating on treasure; lets promote it.

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