Class Trip 2014 Our destination was the famous Osun-Osogbo grove; base of the famous Osun-Osogbo festival (the annual celebration of the goddess Osun: custodian of the Osun river). We arrived at the grove after a long but interesting journey. On arrival, one could sense the difference in the aura of the environment. A rainforest exuding the compelling presence of the shrines, the grove was alive. We passed through a black gate with metal sculpts of local huntsmen, of motherhood and of womanhood too. The carvings breathed, I could feel their gaze following me everywhere. Sculptures bore the strength of their creators. The harmony of the stillness of the forest enchanted by the intermittent chirpings of birds and insects gave the towering Iroko trees the ominous feel of giant sentinels on guard. Monkeys jumped down into our midst as if to welcome us. It was the only frenzy in an atmosphere of sacredness. With over two hundred gods having their separate shrines (some outdoors, some indoors) the grove is the envy of Olympus. The floor of the shrines was a mixture of palm kernels, stones, seeds and beads. Walking on them was quite soothing partly because of the mix of sensations I felt and also because my feet were starting to ache from walking the undulating ground of the forest. I looked intensely on the carvings made on the trees. I was drawn to them, to touch them, to feel the markings at my fingertips, to bask in their aura but I was stopped, they said it might anger the gods so I didn’t. But at that moment I knew deep down in me that artworks have feelings and that they communicate it to the observer in unspoken expressions. Next we were headed to the Osun river, famed for its supernatural abilities to heal and to make fertile. Legend has it the goddess became the river and therefore many offered prayers at the bank, others drank of the water offering promises on the premise of answered prayers. I enjoyed the whirring sound of the flowing river as it bent around a huge rock. Even though I felt the urge to lift the hem of my dress and wade into the river to savor the cool waters, the thought of drowning resident at the edge of my consciousness wouldn’t allow me to dare.
In the end, I ran off to join my colleagues who were already in a room staring at the big ancient white calabash (Every year at the celebration of the Osun-Osogbo festival, a votary virgin ‘the Arugba’ is required to dance around the town bearing the sacrifice to be presented to the gods in the calabash on her head. The ‘Arugba’ walk is central to the festival and without which the festival is fruitless). Afterwards we made our way to an old unsteady bridge that shook like we were the last intruders the forest would welcome. My heart was caught in my throat throughout the crossing. We were led to a shed with huge trees providing shade and sat on benches made of bamboo to relax. We took some pictures and made some memories there.
At the grove, I was surprised to find sculptures of naked men similar to Greek and Roman styles which is a rarity in African arts as at the time, while women were portrayed with big breasts and large bosoms (symbols of fertility in some cultures), coming across a naked sculpture of a man with oversized phallus was not a common African theme. We were told by our guide that Susanne Wenger…an Austrian born artist, who relocated to Nigeria with her husband… had been riled by the fact that women were sculpted naked while men are not and so she decided to hit back…sounds like the easiest conception of gender equality to the townfolk back then.
Our final stop was the residence of the late Susanne Wenger (Adunni Olorisha). A beautiful, artistic, vintage storey-building. It was a house inhabited with feelings and memories. The stairs made of wood (most likely from the Irokos in the forest) creaked as they bore our weights, year in year out they are required to withstand the tramplings of hundreds or thousands of tourist and many more years to come they will still keep on bearing those with little or no complaints. There was a plethora of sculptures, an abundance of beautiful beads, locally made textiles, earrings and bangles. I didn’t want to leave. I could just live here… forever.
Anecdotally, she was captivated by the enamoring scenes of the grove during her visit of the festival in the 1950s, there and then she knew she was meant to stay. She was quite an intriguing personality, she fought for the restoration of the shrine, sculpted many of the gods and brought the festival to the level of international recognition it has now. Eventually, she was named ‘Guardian of the sacred grove’. She’s also arguably the first feminist witnessed by the grove…. this is the birth of my love for arts.