New Sculptures Save Ancient Art Even a Caterpillar Could Not Stop an Austrian Artist from Rescuing a Grove of Nigerian Statues

Article excerpt

DEEP within a sacred grove near this central Nigerian town are two clusters of religious sculptures: one very old and one relatively new.

Thousands of Nigerians and others flock here for an annual festival, usually in late August. Some come out of curiosity. But many come because of the spiritual importance the grove and sculptures have for them as part of the traditional religion of the Yoruba, one of Nigeria's largest tribes.

About two decades ago, the festival had nearly died out in the face of the growth of Islam and Christianity. The beautiful grove, its old shrine, and the sculptures were in danger of being destroyed.

The government was planning to construct a road through the grove; wood cutters and farmers were eyeing the area. Muslims were planning a burial ground in the heart of the grove. The expanding town of Oshogbo was encroaching. And land speculators wanted to carve up the area.

But an Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger, came to the rescue with a novel idea. "We fought the land speculators with good art," she says.

Miss Wenger, a potter and sculptor, had moved to Nigeria in 1950 and developed a strong interest in Yoruba culture, even becoming initiated into the Yoruba priesthood. She marshaled a team of Nigerian artists to carve new sacred sculptures rooted in the Yoruba traditional religion. They were constructed in the grove near the old ones.

This New Sacred Art, as it came to be called, would, she thought, make it harder for the land to be used for another purpose. Her idea worked. In 1976, boundaries of the grove were marked for its protection by the Department of Antiquities of the National Museum of Nigeria.

But the sculpting took time. Meanwhile, "progress" almost wiped out the grove and carvings.

"The government wanted to knock down some sculptures to make a highway," Wenger recalled in an interview in her home here. One day she got word that a Caterpillar tractor was near the shrine. She dashed to the scene.

"I jumped out {of a taxi} and sat in front of the Caterpillar," she says. The tactic stalled the project long enough for her to rally support to halt the road-building altogether. "We saved the trees, and saved the shrine," Wenger says.

In the Yoruba tradition, the groves and small rivers that flow through them are also considered sacred, she says. Each floor in her multistoried house is overflowing with wooden statues. Wenger is wearing a Yoruba cap, a brown gown with black and brown stripes, and black stockings. Her eyebrows are heavily blackened.

Although it has lost much ground in the last 50 years or so, Yoruba traditional religion is still followed by about 60 percent of the tribal members, many of whom are also Christian or Muslims, according to Wande Abimbola, a Yoruba culture specialist. …


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