SYNCHRONICITY AND SYNCRETIC SPIRITUAL SYSTEM IN YORUBA LAND
I met Ana Hupe, through Dunja Herzog, a Swiss artist, working between Lagos, Berlin and Basel. Herzog has spent the last few years understudying the work of Susanne Wenger, an Austrian born artist who was an Obatala initiate, who dedicated her life to Osun. Wengers’ work particularly her ‘archisculptures’ at the Osun Osogbo grove pushed the groves into international prominence, drawing thousands of Osun initiates and devotees from across the world to celebrate Orisha Osun associated with water, purity, fertility, sensuality and love.
The story of Wenger has challenged many, who on one hand are in awe of her life long dedication to preserving Yoruba culture and practices, for over 6-decades learning and immersing herself in Yoruba cosmology and traditional practices, but many question the motivations behind an Austrian woman, becoming the symbol of one of the sacred sites in Yorubaland. I sat next to Herzog at an art event in the city of Lagos, and shared my recent experiences of Osogbo, specifically my visit to Wenger's house and my encounter with Priestess Adedoyin Talabi Olosun Faniyi, popular known as Princess Adedoyin Olosun, one of Adunni Olorisha’s adopted children.
I went to Osogbo in the month of September of 2019, as one of the project coordinators for a digital conservation project at the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove; a well preserved 75 hectares of sacred land situated on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo and the first intangible cultural heritage site in Africa. After a 4-day workshop in the city of Lagos which introduced about 20 enthusiasts to fundamentals of digital conservation, select participants from the group proceeded onwards to Osogbo to conduct a practicalization exercise led by Kacey Hadick of CYARK and facilitated by Robin and Hugh Campbell of the Adunni Olorisa Trust, Judith Okonkwo of Imisi 3D and, National Commission of Museum and Monument (NCMM), Google Arts and Culture, and National Geographic.
In 2019, at Wenger's bougainvillea covered house, I met Princess Adedoyin Olosun who took us on a journey, spanning over 69 years, showcasing Wengers’ artistic practice, as well as that of members of the New Sacred Art Movement, name given by Wenger to describe the monumental shrines, decorative walls and sculptures located throughout the Osun Sacred Grooves. This visit provided me with the opportunity to meet the less prominent artists within the movement, recount theirs, and their forebears contributions to the preservation of the grove and provide a different entry point and gain a better understanding of the nuances of this movement, beyond the centrality of Wenger. I met the leader of the New Sacred Art Movement, Sangodara Gbadegesin Ajala, a septuagenarian Sango priest, textile artist, and the adopted son of Wenger. Ajala’s biological father, Sango the 14th, a royal Sango priest of Osogbo town, had given him up to Wenger for adoption sometime in the 50’s. Sangodara, the only male offspring of Sango the priest, was trained by his father in the traditional Sango belief system keeping with tradition. Over the years, Sangodara provided the much needed guidance to the New Sacred Art Movement, as well as direction to the artists involved in the preservation of ‘Igbo Osun’ [Forest of Osun}, now known as the Osun Osogbo Sacred grove. Others within the movement include Nurudeen, the son of Adebisi Akande, a local artisan, who worked extensively with Wenger on many of the sculptures at the sacred grove and Tunrayo Salami Ojewale, a sculptor and restoration artist, whose grandfather Raufu Amao Ojewale [alias Baba Oje} worked alongside Wenger to create the marketplace sculptures. The marketplace sculptures are installed at the site of the first market in Osogbo, depicting varied market scenes and the transcendental encounters between the living, the dead and the deities. Earlier expositions in my view, erased and somewhat diminished the lifelong work of these artists, who are often reduced to footnotes supporting Wenger’s larger than life persona and her practice.
The relevance of this site to Osun devotees on and off the continent cannot be overemphasized, and more so now, that the Osun Osogbo Grove is under the protection of UNESCO. Osun devotees meet annually in August at the river, during the Osun Osogbo festival, to pay obeisance to the river goddess of fertility, a practice that has been in existence for the last 600 years and have fast become the ‘symbol of identity’ for diasporic blacks, and a locus in broader local and global discourse on the preservation of traditional belief systems.
At a time when there is a huge clamouring for restitution of looted cultural artefacts from the continent, it is also important to engage the impact of spiritual hierarchies and the debasement of African indigenous traditional belief systems, it is also important to look at the long term effect of canonising a European such as Wenger, as a progenitor of a significant cultural and spiritual site as the Osun Osogbo grove. In 2004, I met Adunni Olorisa, on her 89th birthday at her house in Osogbo. During this visit, I visited Osun, the river, which flows southwards into the Lagos Lagoon, and then into the Atlantic ocean.
In Lagos, the ‘white skin’ privilege and elitism fuels the cultural ecosystem, apparent in the hierarchies of the peoples engagement of the physical and the social spaces in the city. The gap between the privileged eurocentric purveyors and the locals is as wide as the distance between the mainland and the island of Lagos where most cultural events take place. Geographically, the city of Lagos is divided into 5 administrative divisions: Ikeja, Badagry, Ikorodu, Eko and Epe.Revolving Art Incubator (RAI)’s entry into the art ecosystem in 2016, confronted the inherent elitism firsthand, as a spatial and cultural intervention, our entry point into the challenges of accessibility was by meeting the people where they are, the 'western‘ shopping malls, considered by many as the ‘new commons’ and town square or public space, in which all can come and be with 'community'. Our incubator provided a space for conceptual and experimental creatives and gave opportunities for interdisciplinary synergies, while introducing the artists to the transformation qualities of extended reality technologies. Prior to RAI’s entry into the creative ecosystem in 2016, Lagos, a city of over 21million by the last estimate, had less than 15 viable art organizations, 95% of which were located on the Island of Lagos, in elite neighbourhoods around Lagos Island, Ikoyi and Victoria Island, where consumption was majorly commercial, and engagements through invitation-only events attended mainly by the elite class of enthusiasts, and purveyors creating an artificial barrier between the audience and the creatives. The situation re-enforced social inequality, where exhibitions were often perceived as an ‘elite’s sport.
Locating the art incubator at the Silverbird Galleria, the 2nd oldest shopping Mall in the city of Lagos democratized the consumption of art and extended the audience beyond the closed circle of the artists community to the general public who frequent the mall. Spread across 3 floors on the mall's fire exit, RAI catered to the sensibilities of the everyday people by making our exhibitions commonplace, providing an alternative to elite spaces. To decentralize the Island as the cultural epicentre in the city, we extended outwards by establishing an offsite at the Jaekel House, Railway compound Yaba Lagos, between 2017-2018 engaging creatives on the mainland. A great number of artists in Lagos reside on the mainland, necessitating a need to jostle galleries and art dealers on the Island to showcase their works to art collectors who reside in elite communities on the Island. We conducted several studio visits to the artists who showcased under our platform, taking into cognisance their immediate localities and providing the necessary support for these artists to become rallying points in their local communities.
We worked with artists such as Babatunde Ogunlade, a member of the Ayobo artist colony, a network of 20+ artists living in the Ayobo community who periodically activate the community with their artist meetup event. Beyond this, RAI has worked directly with over 50 creatives in the last 5 years, and indirectly impacted over a thousand  creatives in Lagos across visual/performing arts, extended reality, architecture as well as the literary communities.
The lack of experimental spaces made it impossible for artists to explore themes outside of the pressures of commercial viability and to showcase their works to the public, without fear of offending the elite class who also happen to be the political / economic class.
Awá O Sòrò ilè wa o
Awá O Sòrò ilè wa o
3min 40s into the trailer of Ana Hupe’s video Footnotes to triangular cartographies, I heard one of the devotees at the Casa Branca (Ilé Àṣẹ Ìyá Nasò Ọka), sing a familiar tune, I remember this tune from childhood, my mother singing the tune from the Anglican church Yoruba hymnal ‘Iwe Orin Mimo’... ‘oro’ which translates to ‘traditions’, the rootedness of it, with the song, the devotee declares nothing will stop us from practicing our tradition. Hupe’s film reflects on the power of synchronicity, starting with her chance encounter with Princess Adedoyin Olosun in Bahia, and the subsequent visit to Osogbo, the source of Osun, the goddess and the river. The film reveals further that indeed nothing has stopped the worship of orishas in Salvador Bahia, in Havana and even in Osogbo in the last 6 centuries.
As I listened to the song, I deliberated upon my personal relationship with traditional yoruba cosmology. I start by considering my family’s relationship to Yoruba traditional spiritual belief system, what is our ‘Oro’ in the Sanwo family? I spent my formative years across three cities in the south western region of Nigeria Lagos, Owo and Ibadan, I was born in the city of Lagos in 1977, and by 1979 my father had become the area manager of the Nigerian Cocoa Board, one of the marketing boards considered to have and needed to travel across the western region of the country, to oversee the cocoa farmers in this region, so we moved, first to the ancient town of Owo in 1979, once the capital of the eastern Yoruba state and about 406km from Lagos and then to Ibadan, the third largest city in Nigeria and about 134km from the city of Lagos in 1980, where I lived until my parents separated in 1994. I moved back to Lagos with my mother, before going off to the University in Ile-Ife in 1995. This journey across these diverse socio-cultural landscapes, provided a first hand experience and understanding of the syncretic nature of spiritual systems in Yorubaland and the ever present conflict between traditional religious practice and the Abrahamic religion.
The tension started from my home, my father who was born catholic, left the ‘church’ shortly after he married my mother in 1960. It was a decision he took due to what he felt were unreasonable demands by the catholic church, which compelled my mother to go through catechism and the rites of baptism and confirmation, before she can be accepted into the catholic fold. My father was insistent, she had gone through similar rites as a protestant, prior to their marriage, the reality was the rites conducted in the anglican church was deemed inadmissible in the catholic church. As an act of resistance, my father left the church and became a ‘free thinker’, he became open to other doctrines, seeking, exploring alternative belief systems. From Yoruba traditional practice, to Hinduism and so on. It is important to note that during the period he sought alternative belief systems, he was still observing and practicing christianity, he never missed a prayer, nor a day of fasting during lent, his resistance stopped at not attending the physical church but he was still a practicing christian outside of the physical church. This act of abstaining from the church was quite radical at the time, especially in a highly religious society such as Nigeria. While in Owo he befriended Sir Olateru Olagbegi, the Olowo of Owo [King of Owo} who sharpened his interests in Yoruba Spirituality; this interest introduced him to divination, which satisfied his curiosity about the future. It was in Owo that I first experienced a performance by the Ifoyo masquerade, considered the king of festivals in Owo town, whose procession passed by our residence in Owo and left a great imprint on my young mind. This encounter with the Ifoyo masquerade inspired my recent collaboration with the artist Jelili Atiku, Dúna Dúrà, a spatial intervention and a documentary exploring the transcendentality of the night market in Yoruba culture. As an artist as well as cultural producer, I understand the interconnectedness between art and spirituality.
My mother, on the other hand, practiced christanity under the tenets of the Anglican church, but she also had to partake in traditional divination, whenever it was required by her family and especially to appease her mother, she would listen and take the necessary and as a seeker at some point in her life, she joined the Kerunbim and Serafim church and had relatives who were practicing Islam.
I grew up in a somewhat fluid spiritual environment and this openness set the pace for my seeking spiritually in later life. I learnt that Yoruba cosmology holds Olodumare as the supreme being, and other orisa such as Yemoja, Osun, and Oya, all female and deriving their names from divinities, as manifestations of Olodumare, and of ancestral spirits. In many quarters it is believed the orishas traveled with the enslaved Yoruba, forming the basis of Yoruba religious practices in the New World, Santería in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil are vivid examples. The Orishas of Santeria assume a position of kinship and familiarity, similarly to the Greek and the Roman pantheons, as cultures intertwined in the new world, due to the diverse background of the slaves, ‘priests were trained to work with multiple orishas instead of being dedicated exclusively to one’ (Beyer 2017). Candomble evolved in a similar vein, once practiced in secrecy and a syncretization of the Yoruba traditional religious practices and catholicism, the sacred festivals are a veneration of the orixas, spirit gods and ancestral spirits who possess the chosen among the faithful. Ana Hupes As noivas dos deuses sanguinários / The brides of the bloodthirsty gods, 2020 explores politics of traditional spiritual knowledge, what is admissible and what is shrouded in mystery through the experience of the Candomble initiates, using images and texts from the Brazilian Journal “O Cruzeiro”. Written by Arlindo Silva, with photos by José de Medeiros, published in 1951 as points of departure.
The goddess Osun is worshiped on and off the continent, in Osogbo, Bahia, and Havana. The first phase of forced migration out of the African continent, through the Atlantic, dispersed Yorubas into forced labour in cotton and sugar plantations in the Caribeans and the Americas. ‘After 1807, Cuba became the second largest destination for slaves leaving from West Africa (Ojo,) At the end of slave trade, over 12 million bodies, stripped of their dignity and way of life, left coasts of Africa with nothing, but the memories, a holding on to ‘history and memory scapes’, formed prior to the ‘African Transatlantic imaginaries' made this journey across the Atlantic. The long drawn oppression lasted over 400 years, many of these enslaved souls shared pre-slavery ties, such pre-slavery ties had implications for the formation of social affinities and identity formation’ (Ojo). History reveals many of these souls originated from conflicts within the Yoruba warring tribes; Oyo, Ibadan,Ijebu, Ijesha and Ekiti. These tribes, regarded captives as spoils of war, then sold into slavery, shipped off the continent, and across the Atlantic world, ‘the largest groups were found in Sierra Leone, Cuba, Brazil and Trinidad’.
The prevailing reality in Yorubaland, a geographical area that now spreads across 7-States in the south western region of Nigeria, Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara and Lagos bears the aftermath of the missionaries agenda to civilize the natives, ‘teaching medical and industrial techniques, and to help Africans improve their international status, raising the African in white estimation’ (Adjei 1944) while diminishing their interests in traditional rites and practices through a canonization of the Eurocentric culture of the new world. An example of how this was achieved was through a dislocation of the thought system, Ana Hupe’s piece triggered a recollection of my experience at Sacred Heart primary school, a catholic mission school in the city of Ibadan, where the teachers will select one of more students fluent in English language and instruct them to write out the names of those who conversed in ‘vernacular’, a term used to describe the mother-tongue, in this case Yoruba language. The erring students are punished in ingenious ways to drive home the point and dissuade the use of any other language other than the English Language in the classrooms. What this simple act did was to begin to shape our impressionable minds, establishing the mother tongue as inferior and unscholarly, and to aspire to becoming the ‘class monitor’, a term used to describe the preferred student who gets to name the offenders, a classic case of divide and rule.
Studying the English Language for my Bachelor degree at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, was an awakening to the notion of mental slavery, I became aware of the inherent power in language as a cognitive tool, used in shaping the thinking, learning and understanding of subjects, if we are not thinking in our local languages how then can we shape the development of our realities without the appropriate vocabulary to engage our expericing of the local in English Language? The thinking class in most colonized societies struggle with this reality of shaping their experience of the local language in their mother tongue, making them incapable of proffering any meaningful socio-economic development. Hupe in her discovery of a book used in teaching Yoruba to primary school children at a bookshop in Ejigbo, Osun State, during her visit which she later transformed into a monument for reading engages the inherent disconnect between language and thought in the Yoruba society. Ìgbáradì fun Ìwé kíkà (challenges for the reading), 2020 explores the approach to instructing Yoruba language and further highlights the disconnect between thought language and usage.
The imperialists project had many entry points to colonize the people, destabilizing indigenous culture,the language and spiritual systems were a few of their primary objectives towards achieving dominance. In propagating the gospel to the pagans, the schools as well as the churches were some of the avenues they achieved their end. Those who worshipped deities were perceived as weaklings and intellectually inferior, but as more Yoruba bodies traversed from Yorubaland to the new world spreading the traditional Yoruba practices, traditional priest-diviners and their devotes left behind were ‘engaged in polemical debates’ (Olupona 1993) by the missionaries, which introduced a ‘christian counter-position’. Another key element used in the ‘imperial project’ was music, popular song composition and lyrics used as tools to ‘destroy the entire basis for divination and sacrifice’ (Olupona 1993) in the Yoruba traditional religious practice. The Yoruba’s that left, after being dispossessed, held on to the heart of Yoruba spirituality, in their bodies, in old songs, providing a link between the people and the orisas they left behind, protecting and preserving these fading practices, as acts of resistance.
Mythology has it that Osun, one of 17, and the only female among the orisas, was sent to populate the earth by Olodumare. After all 16 other orisas failed to revive the earth, they persuaded Oshun, the giver and taker of life; to bring forth her sweet and powerful waters, which then brought life back to earth and humanity. The goddess Osun, the elegant deity of wealth, power and femininity, associated with water, purity, fertility, love and sensuality and considered one of the most important deities in Yoruba cosmology, controls water and in essence procreation. The conceptualization of the goddess Osun varies according to the context and the varied conditions and the meaning people have ascribed to her. ‘Consequently the ideas and imageries of Osun in Osogbo are different from those found in other Yoruba towns’, and that which is visible in Cuba and Brazil, what has remained constant across these three sites are the adherents of Osun, regalled in white or in yellow.
Nonetheless the essence of Osun the goddess, survived the several journeys across the Atlantic, embodied in memories and recollection of the enslaved, as well as on the continent, struggling to survive. In Bahia, the songs are old, Iba a, to Eledumare, Esu, and to Yeye Osun. Awa nsoro ile wa o.
¹ Mini-bio Jumoke Sanwo
² Susanne Wenger was also known as Adunni Olorisha.
³ New Sacred Art Movement - www.susannewenger-aot.org, access on 05. October 2021.