We had the honor of speaking to Professor Wolfgang Denk, the founding director of the Susanne Wenger Foundation in Austria, an archive and exhibition space dedicated to the work of the Austrian artist. Together with his wife Martha he accompanied Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger over decades as an artist, close friend and curator and supported her work. He organized her major international exhibitions and published several books about her artwork. As a frequent traveler to Òṣogbo he became an expert for Yorùbá art and philosophy. Wolfgang Denk gives us a unique insight on the life of Susanne Wenger from his professional perspective of someone being involved with the contemporary art scene and at the same time being part of Wenger's family. We are very happy that he shared some of his beautiful, unpublished photos from his personal archive with us!
Moussa: Wolfgang, how and when did you first come into contact with Wenger’s work?
Wolfgang Denk: It was a series of coincidences that brought me to Òṣogbo. As an artist I was fascinated by shamanism, archaic cultures and the monolithic sculptures. Beuys, Kirkeby and Long were a major inspiration. A friend of mine became commercial counsellor in Lagos and told me of an Austrian artist living there, she was going to exhibit her artwork at the Goethe Institute in Lagos in 1984. I became interested and applied for a travel grant at the Ministry of Arts, where I already had gained reputation as a member of some juries. Wenger left Austria in 1949 and - to be honest - among us young artists her name was not known at all. To my surprise I quickly got the funding and could fly to Nigeria, what was very adventurous at that time! I wanted to stay for three weeks. Then I met Susanne – and finally returned after four intense months in Òṣogbo.
In 1985 you curated the first solo exhibition of her artwork in Vienna.
When I came back, the minister of culture called me to meet him. In 1983 Wenger was invited to the European Forum Alpbach as a speaker, where she met politicians from Austria. During the Second World War Susanne Wenger was in the resistance movement against the National Socialist terror. With a group of friends, they were hiding Jews in their studios. Among them was a young boy who became a famous painter, Ernst Fuchs. He told the former Austrian ambassador in Israel about his story and mentioned the “Susanne lost somewhere in Africa”. Among a certain group of people in the ministry plans emerged to organize an exhibition for her, she was already 69 years old at that time. As I had just spent some months in Òṣogbo I was asked if I could organize it. There was no one who knew her work. I was an artist, not a curator, so I needed some days to think about it. But then I organized this exhibition, after she had been absent for a long time in the Western art world. It was held at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, just opposite her former artist studio.
Not many people know this story about Susanne Wenger being in the Nazi resistance. How was your first encounter with Wenger in person?
Susanne Wenger was known to be kind of, let’s say, difficult. I have heard stories of TV crews from BBC visiting her at her house and being rejected, because she did not want to receive visitors. I was lucky. I came there as a young artist from her home country Austria and she was very happy about having someone to discuss on art in German language, on the same level, from artist to artist, without having to explain the basics. She was curious to hear about Vienna. We got along very well right from the beginning. I was someone who understood her, or at least that’s what she thought about me. I had her respect and vice-versa.
In the following 26 years, until her death, you kept on travelling to Òṣogbo regularly?
Yes, I have been there almost every year, often together with my wife Martha. We enjoyed it a lot. We were living surrounded by the art, the sacred forces of the Òrìṣà, the Yorùbá spirituality and philosophy. We found many friends among the artists from the Sacred Art movement and Wenger’s extended family at the Ibokún road and her children. I remember wild motorcycle trips with her son Ṣàngódáre Gbádégeṣin Àjàlá around the town, looking for fresh medicinal plants, or walking through the quiet Ọ̀ṣun Grove at night under moonlight, with her daughter Adédoyin Fáníyi Ọlọ́ṣun. Susanne and her family visited us often in Austria, her grandson Tòkunbọ even was born here on a visit. She was already an elderly lady and she needed medical treatments. We organized this together with friends of her from Nigeria and Austria, the embassy, the local government of Lower Austria, her spiritual followers, artists and art collectors. She did not have a health insurance, what meant some work in getting the funding. Over the years we became one family.
The first Susanne Wenger exhibition was also the starting point of your career as an exhibition maker. You contributed a lot to the image of Wenger’s art in Europe.
This was not planned, but this first Wenger exhibition marked the beginning of my work as a curator. I later became founding director of the museum Kunsthalle Krems, organized various exhibitions on contemporary art, among them all the major shows of Susanne, continued my work as an artist and organized other institutions like the Nitsch Museum or the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. My mission was to bring Susanne Wenger back into the European art world, to make her work more visible, create attention for her work and this woman’s extraordinary life. In the new book I published in 2015 there is a huge and very important chapter on her life in Vienna during World War II, before she moved to Nigeria, that also helps to understand the artwork she is generally known for. In the press she was long labelled a “white priestess on a river deep in Africa”, her significance as one of Austria’s most important artists after 1945 was overshadowed. She was a founding member of the Austrian Art Club, a loose group of artists who were very influential after the Second World War, and her drawings highly inspired the Vienna Surrealist movement. In 1995, at her 80th birthday, I curated her solo exhibition in the Kunsthalle Krems. Two thousand people came for the opening and a big delegation of artists and musicians from Nigeria! Also ten years later, when she received a medal of honor in Austria, we could open an exhibition together. I published several catalogues on her work and established the Susanne Wenger Foundation in Austria, the biggest permanent collection of her artwork today.
I remember you telling me a story: you said you often had to restore her artwork prior to exhibiting?
When Susanne had finished an oil painting, she lost interest into it. Even after working on it every day for several months, applying layers and layers of pigments and paint. She put it aside and in the humid climate it started to decay soon. She used wooden boards, that were quickly mounted together and she hated all kinds of frames. The painting should radiate its energy into the universe – there was no space for an artificial border around the artwork! But together we developed an iron frame that became typical for her paintings. When she had one of her first exhibitions in Austria as a young artist, she and her artist colleague Maria Biljan-Bilger were braiding willow branches into frames. She had a special relationship to trees and the world of plants throughout all her life. With this story in mind I could convince her to use frames modeled after branches from a tree. I was happy, because finally I could preserve her artwork, it became easier to handle. One could say I also was her personal conservator...
When you arrived for the first time in Òṣogbo she must have already been working on her last big Odù sculpture complex in the Sacred Grove, right?
She never declared this art work behind Ẹbu Iyá Mọòpó to be finished. Odù has an endless form. The working process, which always was a form of “inward-outward meditation” to Susanne, is more important than the final result. I spent lots of time at the Odù sculpture together with her. I remember visiting her after her 80th birthday in Òṣogbo. I realized she was hobbling a bit, when Ṣàngódáre told me she fell off the scaffold in the Sacred Grove, from a height of several meters! That’s how Susanne was. Eighty years old and still climbing around like one of her beloved ẹdun monkeys! She just could not be stopped. From her point of view, the sculptures in the Sacred Grove were formed like pottery, layer by layer. Before she studied Fine Arts she attended the School of Applied Arts, where she received a training in ceramics. The sculptures in the Grove are pots and vessels, that are charged and filled with the divine energy of the Òrìṣà. She used lots of clay directly from the site to build a sculpture that matches the energy of the distinct place, all according to the divination and sacrifices done before. Nothing was ever touched in the Grove without asking the Òrìṣà. I remember when she told us how the aggressive alkaline cement affected the skin of her hands when she started to work with this material. She had to eat the spicy Yorùbá food with her bare hands, and the pepper burnt the rest of her aching skin off. Susanne fought all her life to preserve the Sacred Grove and put all her efforts into the artwork, devoted to the sacred forces of nature. To her, art was ritual. She believed in the power of art, and today we can be happy that she was there at that time to preserve the Sacred Grove of Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo.
You have also been initiated into Òrìṣà in Òṣogbo?
I have learnt a lot about Òrìṣà during all this time I have spent in Yorùbáland, always close to Susanne Wenger and the religious community of the town. They all have a huge wisdom and were very eager to raise their children in the traditional Yorùbá way of life. We participated in many rituals. At that time Olórìṣà children often have not been allowed to attend public school! It was just a very natural step for me that during one of my journeys the young Ifáyẹmí Ẹlẹ́buìbọn, who is now the Àràbà of Òṣogbo, initiated me into Òrìṣà Ògún.
What does the Susanne Wenger Foundation in Austria do?
It was the wish of Susanne that her artwork, especially her oil paintings, should be preserved in a foundation in Austria. This is the reason why we have established this structure with the support of the State of Lower Austria. Our exhibition space is part of an art center in Krems, a beautiful, picturesque and lively baroque city, around one hundred kilometers from Vienna. It is situated on the river Danube in Lower Austria. There are many other contemporary art institutions around, a new public museum is being built right now, just next to us. The Susanne Wenger Foundation has the biggest collection of her artwork and many items are permanently on display: huge batiks, oil paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and her writings. We try to keep alive the artist’s heritage: her art and the philosophy of life. We exhibit photos from the Grove made by well-known artists and have a collection of documentaries in our archive, with all her publications and books about her. We own sculptures from other Òṣogbo artists, like Kasali Akangbe and Buraimon Gbadamosi. Regularly we organize events around the life of Àdùnní. In the past we had e.g. an evening with a lecture on Cuban Orisha dance, batá drumming, lectures by art historians, video screenings with film makers who have been to Òṣogbo, or batik workshops with Ṣàngódáre and Doyin or visiting Olórìṣà and Babaláwo. We cooperate with other art institutions that need pieces from our collection for exhibitions worldwide and we are in contact with researchers and artists. We have no fixed opening hours, but one can visit us on appointment. We often receive small groups for guided tours. On our website www.susannewengerfoundation.at we share many stories and lots of images of her artworks. Susanne keeps on inspiring many people around the globe.
The batik art works you are showing at the Foundation are incredibly huge, they are over six meters (seven yards) long. What technique is it exactly?
They are one of the highlights of our collection. Susanne developed a special technique that is based on the traditional art form of Yorùbá Àdìrẹ. She combined wax batik with textile painting and indigo dye and integrated certain elements of Yorùbá patterns, while on the whole remaining faithful to her expressionist-cubist Modern European design language. The monumental works are multi-colored, while the older ones often were only made with the typical indigo dye. In terms of narrative she exclusively dealt with mythological Yorùbá themes. She traces them back to personal and individual self-awareness, or in her words those batiks are metaphysical spontaneous imagery, waving and floating energy in subtle rhythms, showing an individual experience, a deeper reality. Different levels of consciousness are merged trans-dimensionally, time conveys the knowledge that all is connected and that the Self shapes through expansion. Susanne developed her own vocabulary, that can be read in her intrinsically beautiful sketchbooks and drawings on paper, which are full of poems and philosophy. Contemporary artist Dunja Herzog recently integrated some of them into her exhibition project and for this purpose she made videos browsing through those sketchbooks. We are lucky to have them in our archive, one example can be seen in this Youtube video (see below). It is a very unique and intimate opportunity to get to know another side of the artwork of Susanne Wenger.
In 2005 the Sacred Grove of Ọ̀ṣun became UNESCO world heritage for its religious importance and the re-vitalization of the Yorùbá traditions. What was Susanne’s opinion on it?
Susanne was involved in the re-vitalization right from the beginning, since she began to restore the central shrine for Ọ̀ṣun in the 1950s with the help of local craftsmen. It was a tremendous work to save the Grove. Trees had been cut and Susanne raised funds to reforest. All the monkeys were eaten up, efforts had to be taken to prevent the townspeople from fishing and hunting. The booming town needed space to develop, people moved into the sacred areas and they tried to stop her from preserving the forest. Sculptures were destroyed on purpose by fanatic Christians or Muslims, a road built right through it. In 1965 it became a national monument, in the 1970s with the pan-African movement a festival committee was established. Of course the UNESCO declaration was a welcomed recognition of all this work and fight that was going on since decades. As the Ọ̀ṣun festival started to become bigger and bigger, commercial interests arose. For Susanne the Ọ̀ṣun river is sacred, the whole site of the Grove, spiritually important for every individual in its presence. She was concerned about the festival becoming a folklore show for tourists. It is the worship of Òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun, a festival for the community of spiritual people following the traditional Yorùbá way of life.
Since Wenger’s death, how are your connections today to Òṣogbo?
They are as intense as they have ever been. In 2015 Adédoyin Fáníyi Ọlọ́ṣun and her son Tòkunbọ and Ṣàngódáre Àjàlá and his son Ṣàngóṣakin visited us for several weeks. We celebrated the 100th birthday of Àdùnní Olórìṣà with a new exhibition in the foundation and offered workshops for people interested into the traditional art techniques and Yorùbá culture. I edited a new and very complete publication on her life and artwork, with lots of images and new texts by art historians. The book is in German and English language and available online (see below). Susanne’s granddaughter, Tótoọ̀la Ẹgbẹ́bí Ọlọ́ṣun Ifáṣeésìn, recently moved with her husband Moses Ẹgbẹ́bí Oluwabunmi and their son Wolfy to Austria to study. So today we have family members from Òṣogbo living near Graz, what was Susanne’s hometown. We cooperate intensely with the Susanne Wenger Adunni Olorisha Trust in Lagos, which is operating within Nigeria. The trust is our most important partner to preserve the legacy of Susanne Wenger and we work on many projects together.
Thank you very much, Wolfgang, for this interview!
(Note: This interview was translated from German language).
Wolfgang Denk: Susanne Wenger. Künstlerin, Olorisha und Aktivistin Afrika. Landesmuseum Joanneum, 2004.
Wolfgang Denk, In: Mythos Art Club. Der Aufbruch nach 1945. Kunsthalle Krems, 2003.
Wolfgang Denk: Susanne Wenger. Eine biographische Collage. Kunsthalle Krems, 1995.
Wolfgang Denk: Susanne Wenger. Niederösterreich-Gesellschaft für Kunst und Kultur, Wien, 1985.