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The statues of Susan Wenger, an Austrian woman who died this January aged 93, have become incorporated into the sacred groves area where devotees come to worship.
The statues of Susan Wenger, an Austrian woman who died this January aged 93, have become incorporated into the sacred groves area where devotees come to worship.

Sculptures in a sacred space in Nigeria

This spring Luke Jerod Kummer paid a visit to the shores of the Osun River in Nigeria where a festival occurs to renew a sacred pact.

I lie half-asleep in the saloon's back as it wends along an overgrown country road before stopping beside the fence surrounding the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove. I get out and stand before scores of Dubuffet-esque figures sculpted in low-relief in the concrete barrier like a fantastical parade turned to stone. I feel odd, embarrassed, as if I have awoken in a strange place and realised I am not properly dressed.

Indeed, I hired a driver to take me to these consecrated grounds, but for the past several days I have been trying to come to grips with the bungle that is Lagos and my head is a mess. Fascinated with West Africa, I have wanted to come to Nigeria since I was a kid. But Lagos, I decide after reporting for a magazine article here, seems emblematic of all the ills modernity has wrought on this continent, with the aftermath of slavery constantly on my mind while touring what was a port for the trade that sent at least 12 million captive Africans to foreign shores, such as those of my homeland, the US.

These days, however, overpopulation is at the forefront of Lagos' problems. The density of one of the world's fastest growing metropolises - with eight million people already crammed together like feeder fish - astounds. This, corruption and poverty make for an everyday chaos resembling during peacetime that of war. At night police wave down passing cars with machine guns in order to command bribes. Traffic during the day can make a few kilometres' drive last hours while child vendors beat on the vehicles' windows. Some drivers dislodge themselves from the tailbacks by crossing the central reservation and speeding head-on into oncoming traffic.

As I regain my wits I understand that in my journey 180km north-east from Lagos I have traversed from the realm of the profane to that of the revered, but that I am not ready for it. I instead feel born down upon by the weight of what some would term "white guilt". Though none of my ancestors were in the Americas during slavery, nor did they live in Portugal, which first set up colonies in today's Nigeria, I feel more than ever a sense of inherited responsibility.

Mostly I just want a pause from contemplating all this. Perhaps I could return to thinking about such a complicated narrative that continues to unfold after a break somewhere Nordic, where there will be little chance of someone addressing me, as they did the other day, as "master". When that was uttered I would have liked to have driven the wrong way into oncoming traffic. For good or bad, though, this will be the only respite I get from Lagos for a while longer, and so I begin recalling what I know about it and look to find solace in what I hope is a place where the continuity of life has been less interrupted by intruders like me.

Named by Unesco a world heritage site, the preserve is nestled in the heart of the land of the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnicities of West Africa. Osun, a river that runs along the provincial city of less than a million people, is a focal point for practitioners of Yoruba-influenced belief systems in Africa, Brazil, Cuba, the US and beyond. Soon I am trailing behind a wiry-limbed park guide draped in a knee-length gbariye robe. He leads me and Tunde, the driver I hired, along a footpath through one of Nigeria's last primal rainforests. The canopy traps a stew of moisture and chirring bugs. I cannot keep up with either the guide's long strides or his rapid-fire explanations of the pantheon of orisas, or deities; of the powerful but secretive cults whose divinations govern people's lives; or of a cosmology I am somewhat familiar with from studying African-based religions while I worked at an archive of African and African-American materials in New Orleans, but that is still difficult to comprehend. I try to incorporate his account with what I have already learnt.

Some centuries ago, I understand, there was a drought in the region and an elephant hunter named Olutimehin searched for water until he came across the Osun River, where he felled a tree. A voice cried out saying he had broken the pots she used for dyeing cloth. Olutimehin begged forgiveness and Osun, the river goddess, appeared to him and promised his people water and a peaceful home if they settled nearby, so long as they maintained this sacred land. Once a year his people would bring an offering to renew this contract.

And so the city of Osogbo was founded a few kilometres away, and presently every August people from around the world gather here for a 12-day festival that culminates in a young woman carrying on her head a calabash full of gifts for the river. In addition, the initiates of various cults dedicated to different orisas come year-round to this protected realm. Those groves had once been ornamented with wooden sculptures but as traditional religions declined in the 20th century they started to disappear. The entire site was in danger of being lost as land speculators encroached and people disavowed the old religion. Many practitioners feared the pact would be broken with disaster sure to follow.

Oddly enough, and intriguing to me, it was an Austrian artist arrived in the 1950s, Susan Wenger, who saved the groves and revitalised the bonds between people, land and ritual. Wenger came to Osogbo accompanying her German anthropologist husband but left him for a Yoruba priest. She joined the cults of the orisas and began using her artistic training to depict in clay and cement beings from the Yoruba sphere. For this she was accepted by locals who believed that if she had not been divinely ordained then she would have been smitten for such blasphemy.

As I ponder how it could be that an outsider was able to absorb this esoteric knowledge and translate it into visible forms that were not only allowed but venerated, the guide leads us across a dilapidated suspension bridge. During the festival the Osun River below is full of people. On its shores I again feel unprepared to walk on this hallowed ground, especially when I notice that Tunde is kneeling down and pouring the water over himself with cupped hands.

We continue along the path and I push aside creepers and dewy broadleaves while monkeys gather kola nuts in treetops above. More sculptures rise from the ground with features that seem part gargoyle and part lawn gnome. But they are nothing like the ones we come across beyond a narrow road bisecting our path where two stout men amble along with ancient flintlock rifles balanced on their shoulders. Behind them is the large courtyard where stand Wenger's most famous statues. The entrance is through the pelvic bone of a giant chameleon with an outstretched tail. Once inside, we stand among concrete giants rising more than 10m high, surrounding us like monsters in a dream.

One has insect eyes and forelegs reaching into the air. Swirling around it are twisted concrete strands that have ensnared grotesque creatures with miens like that of Munch's The Scream. The guide tells me that this is Soppona, the orisa of smallpox. Osun uses this consort to inflict pain on those who disobey her, he says. Another sculpture is of a mother figure with many outstretched arms, each I am told symbolising an aspect of the personality of Iya Moopo. Indeed, the guide explains that no attribute of the sculptures is random or merely an invention of Wenger's; each feature depicts and records a part of Yoruba lore.

After an hour or so I ask Tunde to drive me to the nearby Nike Centre for Art and Culture to learn more about what for years was the lifeblood of this community, and the thing Osun was busying herself with when she was stumbled upon by Olutimehin - the traditional craft of dyeing textiles. Nike Okundaye studied under Wenger and has, perhaps more than anyone from the region, kept alive creation and patronage of traditional arts. Her works hang in the White House and in museums throughout the world. She has channelled her success into funding a school to teach Nigerians sculpture, painting, beadwork and dyeing. Students study free of charge and Nike markets their work in Lagos and abroad.

When I arrive I meet a teacher perched on a stool in a tin-roofed shelter with axes, adzes and chisels piled at his feet. He holds a block of omo wood in one palm and is using the other hand to carve a scene portraying a woman returning from the riverside. "If you tell me a story I can put it into wood," he says. In addition a large portion of the school is dedicated to making adire, a form of tie-dyeing that was a major source of commerce for Osogbo in past times but whose secrets might have been forgotten if Nike, inspired by Wenger, had not worked to maintain them. Similar to Balinese batik, its crafters use cassava paste to mark intricate patterns that resist absorbing the colouring when the cloth is stained with indigo. The school's yard is lined with drums of dark blue dye and young men and women seated beneath canopies while applying designs on cloths.

Lawal Ganiyu, one of the adire instructors, explains to me how these designs are not just created for their shear intricate beauty. Each pattern, he says, represents one of the orisas. Eager to inform, Ganiyu offers to accompany me to a place he thinks will help me understand the Yoruba. Osogbo's centre is lined with ageing balustraded two- and three-storey buildings surrounded by simple tin roof settlements. In the middle is the court of the ataoja, or king. The royal grounds feature a modest palace and a connected structure, the likes of which I have never before seen. I step into the maze-like temple complex of corridors and chambers, each painted with the patterns I had seen on the textiles, but this time of alternating pink, black and white. To me the place resembles a funhouse whose hypnotic design seems created to unhinge the senses.

Ganiyu tells me to remove my shoes and I enter the central nave. On a riser against the back wall is a statue of a turbaned, ruddy faced being who stares at the back of the room with reptilian pupils. Three old women are perched on the platform's edge. When a stranger enters the room he prostrates himself at the women's feet and begs for advice. The women are diviners, one of the most important figures in traditional Yoruba religion. Orisas, it is believed, cannot be directly contacted by ordinary humans, but must be beseeched through an intermediary.

The women accept and the man crumples a few bills from his pocket into a fist and holds them to his mouth, whispering intently before placing the money into a dish of cowrie shells. The women toss a stash of kola nuts onto the ground and pick them up three times, in each instance studying how the fig-sized nuts land. In the Yoruba language they respond to the inquiry the man secretly posed to the money and they prescribe a course of action. Ganiyu explains that people consult the priestesses for any important matter, whether it be financial, marital, professional or spiritual.

I decide to explore for myself. I do what I saw the man do and Ganiyu translates. He doesn't, however, translate what questions I ask the bills in my hand. I say them in such a low tone no one can listen in. That the women could not possibly have heard me, let alone that they don't speak English, does not stop them from responding pitch perfectly. I have been disappointed by so-called sages all over the world. But this is quite different.

What I asked was for a recommendation for dealing with a specific series of events in my life that only my closest friends know about. And yet they responded as if they had been in my confidence for years. How to explain this? I can no more try than can I fully comprehend what is to follow. The women advise that I need to make offerings to Osun and Sango, the orisa of thunder, and Ogun, the one associated with iron. I am to arrive at the market tomorrow morning, and I take down a cell phone number written on the wall in case of emergencies.

That evening Tunde drives me to where Nike operates a guesthouse for friends, visiting artists and tourists. I eat pounded yam, grilled liver and stew with him on the house's roof and retire around 2am to the sounds of crickets meshing with all-night singing from a church nearby. In the morning I sit in Nike's misty garden while a 50kg tortoise nips at my shoe beneath the table like a beagle. A peacock - one of Osun's symbols - struts about the yard. Again, I feel as if I am in a dream.

By 10am I am at the market close to the temple, where women are bustling about while balancing on their heads wicker baskets full of such contents as two baby goats. Iya Osun, one of the priestesses, is there too, and so is Ganiyu from the arts school. Iya Osun negotiates with the chicken sellers who seem little inclined to drive a hard bargain with her. We stroll towards the temple with Iya Osun clenching in her thin hands the feet of two roosters and a hen along with a beat-up cell phone. She walks with a slight limp but appears elegant in her snug, bright yellow dress with bangles clanking together on her wrists and strung beads dangling from her neck. I mention Wenger and I notice she uses the English word "mama" for the white woman who died aged 93 years old this January. Somehow this seems to connote the opposite of the word "master" that had made me recoil earlier.

We arrive back at the temple and my priority is to do whatever I am told. Once again the women consult the kola nuts and I find out the first offering of a hen will be for Osun. They motion for me to raise my arms as they chant and I repeat their words. The flapping chicken is waved about me and rubbed on my face and shoulders. Libations are poured on the ground. One of the women disappears behind a curtain and returns with the chicken still twitching without its head. It is again shaken over me, red drops falling all around. Iya Osun grabs my right hand and dips my forefingers into the ooze from the chicken's neck and brings it to my lips. I am ashamed because I hesitate, and feel redeemed only when I suck the salty crimson from my skin.

A similar process happens at two more shrines in different chambers of the complex. Both times she grips the roosters' necks between her first and second toes and in front of me yanks their skulls from their spine. Now I am quick to put the blood in my mouth. She bites off a piece of kola nut, rubs it on the red ground and spits a swig of schnapps in its direction. She snatches it up and I chew it and thank her.

When the ceremony is over I again, like after my exit from Lagos, am left with too much to process. I chat with Iya Osun. I am mentally going over what just happened. Did I do that which my GP in the US would never condone out of white guilt? Maybe? Did it atone anything for the sins of my ancestors, or rather some Portuguese? Surely not. I feel an uneasiness edging back. But this is suddenly relieved when I ask Iya Osun what she thinks of Wenger's sculptures. For her, she says, the images of those creations have been the shapes of the orisas before she ever saw them standing in the groves. Wenger only made visible what was already there.

It is comforting to me that someone could come to Africa as a foreigner and ingest its mythos, its dreams, and in response craft art that edifies instead of destroys the culture. And then to be an inspiration so that this process of creation continues? After all the world's badness, when one encounters an other I think this is as much as she or he can hope to achieve. lkummer@thenational.ae

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