A memorable encounter with Adunni Olorisa

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Seven years ago, tomorrow, Susan Wenger, better known asAdunni Olorisa, joined her ancestors ‘in the land beyond’. For many traditionalists and lovers of traditional Yoruba culture, especially, the millions that throng Osogbo, in Osun State, for the yearly international Osun Osogbo festival, she was a beloved priestess, a sage, a mother and a mentor. More than anything, she was an artist, in every sense of the word. The late Adunni Olorisa, was the nonagenarian matriarch of the world renowned Osogbo Art School, from where she co-ordinated a closed circle named the Osun Sacred Art Cult. She was also a powerful force in the preservation, protection and global promotion of the Osun Grove, Osogbo.  As tomorrow marks  the seventh year of her ‘death’, , who had the last interview with her, recounts the encounter.
“…What about getting an interview with Susan Wenger?”  I suggested to my Editor at that time, during a Monday editorial meeting, who looked at me and quipped “You think it is easy? because, I know, she hardly grants press interviews’’.
His response stirred my interest, because, since I was a child, having heard so much about the Wenger myth, I felt this would be an opportunity to meet with the woman, no matter the cost. But to get the interview, one must have to travel to Osogbo, Osun State, her adopted home. So, I embarked on the journey, which appeared  like an excursion, because I was very anxious to return, not only with a story, but an interesting one.
Boarding a vehicle at Berger in Lagos was the first experience. As an adventurer, it was a unique assignment that welled up an unexplainable, but, nostalgic feeling in me. Although, a very easy journey, but intermittently, I was carried away by thoughts of what, possibly, could be the outcome of my journey. For in reality, how would I go about getting an exclusive interview with such a personality that I was told did not favour press interviews. Could my journey be a waste of time?
Eventually, Osogbo, about 80 kilometres from Lagos, welcomed me. The town is home to a sizeable number of prominent artists, who have their galleries in the city. Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, a retired Brigadier General, was the governor of the state as at the of my visit. In the ancient town, even to date, Wenger’s image looms large. Seeking her out in the town was not difficult, her name evoked familiarity, so much that the taxi driver would tell you about her curious art-choked two-floor house, and would be willing to take you there, for a fee, of course.  She was so popular that the indigenes knew her itinerary. Apart from that, the army of international and local art tourists that were regularly trooping in to visit her also made her home a Mecca of sort. She was a legend.
I, finally, arrived the great artist’s home on a motor bike popularly called okada, and the motor bike operator was my guide. “Oga abi this na your first time to come  Osogbo. Make I tell you, many many oyinbo people de come here. If you want her to talk, you go follow Nike Okundaye’’, he said with a smile. To this million-dollar advice I heeded, running back to Chief (Mrs.) Okundaye, who, coincidentally, was in Osogbo, is not only popular in the town, but, she was a confidant of Wenger, so with Mrs Okundaye as my link, the prospect of getting a good interview with Wenger, looked very bright.
Susan Wenger’s house, “Ile Abolude” at 41A, Ibokun Road, Osogbo, is one of the best Brazilian houses located on a narrow street on the mainland quarters of Osogbo. As  you climb the wooden staircase, an echoing silence would overwhelm you. Clustered around the dimly-lit living room, were wood carvings, metalworks, stone sculptures, paintings and hand-printed fabrics,adire. From a careful mind, it would be noticed that all must have been placed with care and have been there for a long time, judging by the dust that settled on them. Other household items were also placed in a way that suggested deep esoteric meaning. For the uninitiated, the images, works and their nature might be mistaken, but,  those familiar with her understood their interpretation.
Beautiful flowers covered part of the building to give it a shade, thus making the building cool.
As I entered the building, I noticed that the staircase, table and chairs were all made of artworks, some made of steel, stone, wood and oil paintings, while the walls were adorned with artworks. The special attraction here was the corner of the living room, where she regularly  consulted with the gods and every visitor to the living room, must go to the corner, where some ritual objects and clay pots were placed, to pay obeisance to the gods. One woman came and knelt down, bowed and gently touched the ground with her forehead while making some incantations.
Another close confidant of Wenger was her adopted daughter, Mrs. Doyin Faniyi, who always attended to those who had questions to ask.
My eventual encounter with Adunni Olorisa in her home, that was bereft of electricity, was nostalgic for me. For a 93-year old, she was very intelligent and witty, her articulation was striking. Although, not ready to engage the press, like my editor warned, she responded to my questions, sometimes, because of Mrs Okundaye’s intervention.
On her art in Osgbo for the past 39 years and what inspired it, she said it was to preserve a culture and history. It was not as if others did not see what she saw, but for her, it was like a typical calling to do that type of work.
Dedicating her life to the Osun goddess is one that people talk about, but, which she hardly responded to, so, she always had short responses to questions.
Doyin, one of her three adopted children, stepped in, dressed in a manner to tell you about her Osogbo roots, and she shed more light on the daily activities of her mother.  “All the works you see here are from different artists who want their works to be placed here. It is because they love what we are doing that they chose to preserve their works here,”  Doyin informed.  Like the other children, who, Wenger adopted at very young age, Doyin, in her 30s, then, had spent almost all their time  working in their mother’s art studio.
She noted that the legacy of her mother lies more in the contribution she had made over the years in preserving some works that, otherwise, would have been lost or destroyed. This, according to her, had not been an easy assignment. “For instance, it takes a great sacrifice to ensure that the works are intact”, she said heartily, disclosing that she had put in more than 20 years, then, in the studio.
Her main work now “is to assist Adunni in attending to her numerous visitors”. Given her age and the stress of  her work around Osogbo, especially, with the army of visitors to her home, Wenger could not talk much, rather, she referred inquiries to Doyin who took charge  on her behalf.
Doyin said that it is a daily ritual to preserve many of the works in the home/studio, so that nothing untoward  happens to the works. “This is not an easy work”, she noted.
Also, Mrs Okundaye describedWenger’s work as one that helped to ensure that artists in Osogbo and the country get global recognition.  “She had helped to ensure that artists in Osogbo and in Nigeria have international acceptance. She is a true mother to all artists”, Okundaye appraised. According to her, it was as a result of this that the late Ataoja  Osogbo has admitted Wenger in as a full citizen of Osogbo.
Wenger was an Austrian by birth, an explorer by temperament and Nigerian tradition, in its entirety, became her adopted culture since almost half a century, she came to Nigeria in the 1950s .Her huge inspiration to others was different. It was not like that of other Europeans visiting at that time. Originally, she came with a passion to study and know more about the African people, how they live and carry on with life. Before coming, she was already a professional painter, but, the love of Africa and, especially, her discoveries of the Osun goddess, led her to decide not to return to Europe, but, she chose to settle in Nigeria. She then gave her whole life and dedicated everything to the worship of Osun deity.
She started her romance with Yoruba deities in Ede, Osun State, through the building of shrines and befitting abodes for the gods in the late 1950s. Then, she was a partner of the late Prof. Ulli Bier, who, as at the time, was an extramural language teacher in the University of Ibadan. Before her death, she was an Obatalapriestess, resident in Osogbo. She committed much of her life, creativity and resources to the Osun Grove on the bank of Osun river. Her works and activism earned the Grove the honour of being one of the UNESCO recognised cultural reserves in the world, and this has put Osogbo on the world map forever.

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