Magdalena Frey on Susanne Wenger

by Wolfgang Denk


"I was born," said Susanne Wenger, 1984 in her Atelier on Ibokun Road in Oshogbo, in the heart of Yoruba land in Nigeria, where she has been living for the last fifty years, " in Graz, in the Nernstgasse, then rural and suburban, in 1915. It was in a villa with a garden in which stood a group of monumental fir trees, gloriously red in the morning sun. Squirrels, the inhabitants of these trees, moved swiftly through the branches of the old conifers, from tip to tip. Those firs and a mighty linden tree," says Susanne Wenger, "were my first university. Every afternoon my cradle stood under the canopy of the immense linden. I could hardly percieve the rest of the world around me, but above me the multifold interwoven diagrams formed by the branches of the ancient tree unfolded in the changing back light – a memory and at the same time projected into the future, that is, to now, the motifs, veined like arteries, of the coordinates in my textile batik work, my painting and also the sculptures in the "Sacred Groves Oshogbo". Huge sculptures and architectures that formally began to appear already in her work in Vienna and Graz in 1947.

Susanne Wenger: "My projects are perhaps ... tiny leaves on the tree of life – dedicated to logos – which is the sacred centre of the universe and the source of all life."

Susanne Wenger also played an important role in the liberation of Nigeria from colonial rule and particularly in conserving the traditional Yoruba religion. She is highly esteemed in Africa for her dedication. The fight to conserve the giant trees of the rainforest and the religious tradition of the Yoruba was difficult and is difficult to win. Susanne Wenger was initiated as an Olorisha from 1950-1956 by one of the last old high priests of the Yoruba religions, the Ajagemo of Ede. Olorishas are initiated priests and mytho-poets in the Yoruba Orisha religions.

Thanks to her activities she was and is in friendly contact with many leading African intellectuals and artists such as the literature nobel laureate of 1986, Wole Soyinka, or the Jazz musician and provocateur Fela Kuti.

Her work was classified as degenerate in the Third Reich. In Africa, she becomes the world-wise artist of an immense Gesamtkunstwerk, which, just as in the dramatic times in Austria, has always stood in opposition to the normality of what was established.

Although Susanne Wenger left Graz "for always" as a "degenerate" after 1940 at the very last moment – friends in the resistence movement were brutally massacred by the Nazis – in her heart, she says, she has "never really left Styria."

Magdalena Frey also comes from the capital of Styria, Graz. As she was born almost fifty years and one world war later than Susanne Wenger, biographical common ground could lead to parallel life myths only via subconscious conceptual gates.

In any case, Magdalena Frey was in my travel group when we went to visit the grand traditional celebrations on the occasion of Adunni Olorisha Susanne Wenger's ninetieth birthday at the palace of King Ataoja of Oshogbo.

Not only did Magdalena Frey treat one of the highest initiated priests and famous "doctor" of "native medicine" of the Yoruba culture group, Chiefpriest Shangodare Gabdegesin Ajala, the adoptive son of Susanne Wenger, with healing massages, she also did what she has long been known for, she made photographs.

Intuition and imagination, keen observation, sensitive "meditation into" and artistic curiosity are Magdalena Frey's tools which she uses to make certain phenomena visible, often focussing on women's fates. Magdalena Frey's conviction of a "mythical" connection of all phenomena in life allows her to find dynamic energy fields in her computer generated image combinations in the Susanne Wenger cycle, interpretationally merging her and Susanne Wenger's living cosmos in a very individual way.

Magdalena Frey took the normality and secrets of Susanne Wenger's art, her obsession for the culture of the Yoruba and for the holy river Oshun through a process of illumination, exposure and examination without banalising and thus destroying the secrets by revealing them. The contrast between the exotic parallel worlds and the "true existence" of the european contemporary artist is, so to speak, made liquid by Magdalena Frey's Susanne Wenger cycle.

(Translated from German by Ann Cotten)