Saturday, October 24, 2009

The 189th good thing about Lagos: The chance to visit a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nigeria!

At the beginning of October, on the National Day holiday, we had the opportunity to go on a Nigerian Field Society trip to Osogbo -- the site of the Sacred Groves of Osogbo, one of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Nigeria. It was a great opportunity to see this city, which is the home of a couple of art movements within Nigeria and is still a very "artsy" place. It was about a 4 hour drive from Lagos on this holiday Thursday morning. The drive took us through Ibadan, which was my first look at this city. We went through the market, which was jam packed on the holiday. After we got into Osogbo, checked into our guest house and had a bite to eat, we headed over to the Sacred Groves. I thought this sign by the entrance was kind of amusing -- welcoming us to the "Sacred Grooves." I since have seen them named as the "grooves" other places and I don't know if that's a different rendition of the Yoruba name or what. But if I were seeing them around the time the art in the groves was starting in the 60's, I would have definitely declared them "groovy."

We were greeted by a bunch of monkeys, as well as chickens, who were going after the grain that someone was tossing out to lure them there.
First, some background on the Sacred Groves of Osogbo, which is one of the most important religious sites for the Yoruba people worshipping the traditional religion. The name "Osogbo" comes from Oso Igbo -- "spirit of the forest." From our Field Society trip information: "It encompasses 75 hectares of land on the banks of the Osun River. The reason these Groves still exist is because of Susanne Wenger. Susanne, who recently passed away at the age of 93, was an Austrian artist who moved to Nigeria in the 50's and was initiated as a Yoruba Priest of the Obatala (God the Creator) Cult. She is known in Osogbo by her Yoruba Priest name: Adunni Olorisha, and lived in the house that she moved into more than 50 years ago. She, along with the local artists- called the Sacred Art Movement by Susanne, rebuilt existing Shrines in the Sacred Groves, as well as creating new ones. From a purely artistic perspective the Groves are a grand sculpture garden. These extraordinary works of art will take your breath away!! But this is not a tourist site. It is a place of worship for the Yoruba people and every " 5/5 days" the necessary rituals are done in each Shrine. Within the Yoruba tradition, Orissa's or the Gods of the Yoruba, are worshipped in outdoor places, called Sacred Groves. In all but Osogbo, these traditional Groves have been sold off for commercial purposes by the local Oba, who retains ownership of community land, leaving only small spaces where ritual ceremonies take place. When Susanne was asked by the Priests of Osogbo to rebuild the Shrines, she did so because she believed that this was the only way to protect this place of worship."
Wenger was one very odd lady, as extremely creative people often are. You'll see when I show you pictures of her house. We were led around the groves by her adopted son, Shangodare, a priest of the Shango, or God of Thunder cult, a traditional herbalist and very talented batik artist.
The scope of this "grand sculpture garden" was pretty incredible. There were buildings, which were shrines.

They were made of a concrete mixed with mud, which was added to make a more aesthetically pleasing color. The mud has made them quite unstable, and conservation work is constant and extensively needed.

The shrines that we could enter were a maze of skinny and strange passageways, leading to more sculpture or places where offerings could be made.

Outside, along the paths through the woods are strange, alien-like sculptures of many varying sizes and varieties. Some were made by Wenger, but also many by the local craftspeople who she mentored and helped shape into creative artists.

Here each August is the Osun festival, which has a long history and is a huge event in Osogbo. One young virgin has been chosen and reigns as the "Arugba" until she decides to marry, at which time a new one will be chosen. A news article about last August's festival says this: "The Arugba, a virgin maiden ...serves as mediator between the people and their god, the Osun deity. To be qualified to play the role of Arugba,... the maiden must be born into a royal family and a descendant of the first Ataoja of Osogbo, Larooye. She is saddled with the task of carrying the ritual calabash containing the sacred brass figures and other symbols of Osun in procession from the king's palace at Oja Oba to the Osun Grove. According to Osogbo traditional belief, if she trips on her way to the river, it is seen as a bad omen for herself and Osun River faithful, hence a ring of guards surround her on her journey to the Osun River, mostly armed with long whips to drive back the surging crowd around the Arugba. All through the four kilometre journey to the grove, she neither spoke nor communed with any one, only looking ahead, sometimes falling into trance but catching on again as the journey continued until she got to the Osun River, where she offered sacrifices to appease the River goddess....To the people, her role is also instructive as it serves as an endorsement of morality as many other young girls who envy the position of the Arugba would strive to lead a morally upright life." I've heard the festival itself is hugely crowded, so it's a difficult thing to attend. But I liked the picture our guide painted of a procession of virgins, dressed in white, each with a calabash of offerings on her head, walking along the path through the woods toward the river.

These gates seemed like ceremonial gates -- they led down to the main shrine by the river.

The painting on the walls of the shrines reminded me of Aboriginal art from Australia. Shangodare told of painting the walls of shrines in the groves when he was a young boy -- they would use a stick dipped in cotton to paint the dots. All the paintings tell a story.

We couldn't take pictures inside, but we were allowed to go in, after removing our shoes. We met the current Arugba, who I think they said had been serving for 7 years. She still looked quite young.

The water of the Osun river is said to have many powers, medicinal and otherwise, among them the power to make barren women fertile. Several of the Nigerians along with us, security men and drivers, went down to the river and ritually washed their hands, feet and faces, even drinking some of the water.
The sculpture in the water with arms outstretched represents Osun, the river goddess.

We took a little side trip away from the art and religion to walk across the first suspension bridge in Nigeria. I think they said it was built in 1921, long before there were any cars here. It was on the road between Ibadan and Osogbo. It wasn't even wide enough for a carriage, just a horse or walkers.

The art in the groves covers an extensive area. Here's kind of a gate into another part of the groves.

This was a huge sculpture -- they mostly didn't really explain what they meant.

But this one they said represented a nursing mother. It shows a baby at the breast. I liked the many hands -- very useful for a mother!

This one had a circular stair and a shrine inside, but we weren't allowed in.

This large sculpture was left unfinished by Wenger. She was working on it at the age of 90 when she fell off a ladder and broke her leg.

All along the paths through the woods we found many sculptural groupings.

This was a large clearing of figural sculptures. This grouping was not done by Wenger, but by one of the New Sacred Artists that she mentored.

We were allowed to go to some sites not open to the public.

This shrine was incredible, with so many interesting totems inside and out.

I took tons of pictures on this outing -- there's only a small portion here. I really would have loved to have a great camera and knowledge about photography. The lines and light and shadow were so interesting and beautiful.

And we didn't even see everything in the Groves. I hope I have another opportunity to return there -- I thought it was a fascinating place!


Donnie Patriarca said...

What a lovely way to remember such a memorable trip. It makes me want to go even more. Thank you for sharing.

Erin Cox said...

I loved these pictures! For some reason, it totally reminded me of Gaudi...all those curves. Really fun to look at.

dylan avery said...

Thank you very much for the pictures!