Between the Sweet Water and the Swarm of Bees: Works by Susanne Wenger, on view through May 15 at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum, is the illustrative title of a show of nine screenprints and one wax batik depicting the myths of Wenger’s adopted Yoruba culture.
The works were given to the museum in 2014 by Graham and Maryagnes Kerr who purchased them from the artist at her Nigerian home of Osogbo between 1962 and 1967. Wall text in the gallery makes an already lovely title even more compelling and is a must-read for appreciating the narrative tension in the prints.
In 1960, at the dawn of Nigerian independence from Britain, Osogbu was a quiet town along the Osun River, a sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Osun for whom the river was named, when it unexpectedly became a hub for modern Yoruba art and culture largely due to Susanne Wenger‘s (1915-2009) efforts to redevelop the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove into a sculpture garden, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Austrian-born, Vienna-trained painter had accompanied her husband Ulli Beier to Nigeria in 1950 when he accepted a teaching position at a university there. She contracted tuberculosis six months after her arrival and recovered a year later only due to efforts by medicine men associated with Obàtálá, the Yoruba god, or Orisha of all Orishas, who forms every human being.
Here’s where both the story and her works get interesting: Despite, or maybe in addition to, her efforts to honor Osun’s sacred grove, Wenger became a priestess to Obàtálá, an opposing force to Osun. This tension between place, as manifested in her dedication to the home of Osun, and religion, in her dedication to Osun’s opposing god, Obàtálá, figures loudly in her work. The screen prints, in black and ivory or muddy colors of mustard, teal, plum and olive, all from the 1960s and all untitled, “express her ideas,” according to wall text, “about her complex relationship with the god who saved her.” In them all, Wenger blended her illustration of oriki, Yoruban praise poetry about orishi (gods) such as Osun and Obàtálá, with the European mythology she grew up with, to illustrate the tensions of her own blended culture.
Dancing, wide-eyed figures, energetic and powerful, are depicted in relation to significant, and perhaps, ritual objects, snakes and other animals, but without titles or an intimate knowledge of Yoruba deities, it is difficult to decipher their meanings.
Accompanying the screenprints and batik are poetic works from Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library — poetry by Ulli Beier and by Nigerian poets who were contemporaries of Wenger and Beier. These lend a quiet counterpoint to Wenger’s depictions. Other oriki appear alongside the prints, and in one of them, “Oriki Obàtálá” we find the other half of the show’s title: “Ohoho — the father of laughter./His eye is full of joy,/He rests in the sky like a swarm of bees.”
Though the praise poems were illuminating, it was unclear whether each related directly to the untitled print.
Wenger’s story is so compelling that the prints could almost serve as mere accompaniments to the narrative. Though they would be far less interesting without that historical reference, they are strong enough to hold their own thanks to her bold use of color, her expressive lines and oversized near-graffiti-like forms, and the sheer enthusiasm with which she seemed to bring to life myths that had deeply impacted and informed her own life — a life lived out in Nigeria until the age of 93 in her adopted culture somewhere between the sweet waters of the Osun and Obàtálá, the father of all Orishas, who “rests in the sky like a swarm of bees.”
Between the Sweet Water and the Swarm of Bees: Works by Susanne Wenger will be on view through May 15 at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.