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New Sculptures Save Ancient Art

Even a Caterpillar could not stop an Austrian artist from rescuing a grove of Nigerian statues

DEEP within a sacred grove near this central Nigerian town are two clusters of religious sculptures: one very old and one relatively new.

Thousands of Nigerians and others flock here for an annual festival, usually in late August. Some come out of curiosity. But many come because of the spiritual importance the grove and sculptures have for them as part of the traditional religion of the Yoruba, one of Nigeria's largest tribes.

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About two decades ago, the festival had nearly died out in the face of the growth of Islam and Christianity. The beautiful grove, its old shrine, and the sculptures were in danger of being destroyed.

The government was planning to construct a road through the grove; wood cutters and farmers were eyeing the area. Muslims were planning a burial ground in the heart of the grove. The expanding town of Oshogbo was encroaching. And land speculators wanted to carve up the area.

But an Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger, came to the rescue with a novel idea. ``We fought the land speculators with good art,'' she says.

Miss Wenger, a potter and sculptor, had moved to Nigeria in 1950 and developed a strong interest in Yoruba culture, even becoming initiated into the Yoruba priesthood. She marshaled a team of Nigerian artists to carve new sacred sculptures rooted in the Yoruba traditional religion. They were constructed in the grove near the old ones.

This New Sacred Art, as it came to be called, would, she thought, make it harder for the land to be used for another purpose. Her idea worked. In 1976, boundaries of the grove were marked for its protection by the Department of Antiquities of the National Museum of Nigeria.

But the sculpting took time. Meanwhile, ``progress'' almost wiped out the grove and carvings.

``The government wanted to knock down some sculptures to make a highway,'' Wenger recalled in an interview in her home here. One day she got word that a Caterpillar tractor was near the shrine. She dashed to the scene.

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``I jumped out [of a taxi] and sat in front of the Caterpillar,'' she says. The tactic stalled the project long enough for her to rally support to halt the road-building altogether. ``We saved the trees, and saved the shrine,'' Wenger says.

In the Yoruba tradition, the groves and small rivers that flow through them are also considered sacred, she says. Each floor in her multistoried house is overflowing with wooden statues. Wenger is wearing a Yoruba cap, a brown gown with black and brown stripes, and black stockings. Her eyebrows are heavily blackened.

Although it has lost much ground in the last 50 years or so, Yoruba traditional religion is still followed by about 60 percent of the tribal members, many of whom are also Christian or Muslims, according to Wande Abimbola, a Yoruba culture specialist.

``Foreign religious and modern trends have not been able to relegate traditional religion to the status of a thing of the past,'' he writes in ``African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society'' (Paragon House, New York, 1991).

In that book, Rosalind Hackett credits Wenger for ``revitalizing the worship of the Orisa [Yoruba gods], notably the river goddess Osun in Western Nigeria ... [and] turning the virtually extinct annual Osun festival [in Oshogbo] into a popular festival of almost `national' proportions.''

Many Yoruba communities have sacred groves, but the one here is one of the best known. Oshogbo itself is a crowded town of many tin-roofed buildings and some ornate balconies, home to many Nigerian artists: carvers, batik artists, drummakers, painters, and others.

The sacred grove is only a short taxi ride from town. A guide walks visitors through, and a booklet by Wenger giving details of the sculptures can be purchased.

In the grove, I felt as though a window had suddenly opened on some of Africa's oldest spiritual beliefs. In the Yoruba traditional religion, sculptures are physical representations of gods and their characteristics. It's part of what Wenger calls ``a living culture, a living religion.''

Walking down to the river's edge, near the shrine, a visitor sees the sculpture depicting the goddess Osun, its body and outstretched arms covered in green moss.

Nearby, in a more open area, one is struck by the size of some of the New Sacred Art - several stories high. One of the largest is a giant mother figure with many arms. Sculpted by Wenger and Adebisi Akanji, it is a shrine of the goddess Iya Moopo, patroness of all women's occupations as well as childbirth.

A tall, slender sculpture of the god of divination, Ela, as a youth, standing with arms up stretched, is also by Wenger and Mr. Akanji.

Walking down a dirt path, you feel you have suddenly interrupted a meeting of two-armed creatures roughly resembling people. This is Oja Ontotoo, described by Wenger as a ``market for spirits and gods.'' The artist is Saka, who uses only one name. According to Wenger, after completing the work, Saka became ``frightened by the forces of his own creativity,'' moved to Saudia Arabia, and may have became a Moslem.

Wenger continues to create sculptures in the grove, paint, write, and make batiks and pottery. ``I meditate with my hands,'' she says quietly. ``I'm quite happy.''

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