Saturday, February 7, 2015

On "Going Fantee"





Around the year 1900, literate Englishmen expressed anxieties about their empire in the expression "going Fantee." To "go Fantee" meant a "lapse from a later and higher to an earlier and lower state" -- at least as defined by an anonymous 1897 entry in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The essay which I have quoted provides an example to make this clear: a Christian convert in Africa who reverts to "superstition and cannibalism" is said to have "gone Fantee." The Spectator, an English periodical, in an essay published December 1, 1900 remarks:

The civilising of the dark races, of which work so much now falls to the lot of the Englishmen, would be an easier as well as more satisfactory task if it were certain that they would always stay civilized.
The essay, entitled "Going Fantee," tells its readers about a certain "Zulu girl" who was taught speak and write Dutch perfectly, could play the accordion, and studied her Bible with great assiduity. This young woman sang in the "sweetest voice" and had the "prettiest manners possible." However, upon returning to the bush, the young woman reverted to savagery, broke the leg of her sister in a brawl over some trinkets using the skull of an ox as a bludgeon, and appearing before her former benefactors, "clad in an old sack and with necklace of wild animals’ teeth" proudly announced that "she had just been married with cows" – meaning, I think, that a bride-price had been paid for her in cattle.

The two sources that I have cited, although disturbing in their diction, are more nuanced than their overtly racist theme suggests. In "Going Fantee," the writer observes that it took hundreds of years to convert "Anglo-saxon(s) or Wend(s) or Hun(s)" into Christian gentlemen and that those hoping the civilize the "dark races" must "be patient for generations." The author of the note in the Journal of the American Medical Association, after some preliminary remarks about Africa and India, then, uses the phrase "going fantee" to describe white men who backslide into bad habits: for instance, a drunkard who has remained sober for many years and, then, relapses might be said to have "gone Fantee."

And, indeed, the earliest applications of the phrase "going Fantee" were in connection with white men who abandoned their European customs to adopt native mores. Kipling uses the phrase in exactly that meaning in a short story in 1888, describing a white man "who was always going Fantee..." Although Joseph Conrad doesn’t use the term, The Heart of Darkness is about a white man, Mr. Kurtz, who "goes Fantee." In this connection, it is well to note that Conrad’s novella was published in 1902 – around the time of the two citations with which I have initiated this essay. A central anxiety intrinsic to the colonialist enterprise was that the natives encountered by their white benefactors would corrupt Europeans, exploiting some "heart of darkness," apparently, existing in all human beings, to cause them to adopt savage beliefs and customs. A white man in the tropics was always in danger of "going Fantee."

The phrase "going Fantee" seems to refer to the "Fante" language, a tongue spoken by tribal people in the region of Ghana. (Kofi Annan’s native language was Fante.) Some researchers believe that the expression was originally a term of derogation applied to educated Africans and creoles living near Lagos who rejected European colonialist policies. In Brazil, the African diaspora, largely slaves from the west coast of Africa, celebrated annually something called the "Fanti Festival." In 1880, a number of these Brazilian Africans returned to Lagos island. In Lagos, the educated Brazilian Africans made common cause with the freed slaves who had founded Freetown in what is now Sierra Leone. When these educated Africans and freed slaves had the temerity to challenge British colonial rule, they were denounced for having "gone Fantee" – that is, reverted to their savage state as evidenced by their political opposition to European civilization.

In a curious development, the Brazilian ex-slaves who returned to Lagos contributed to a renaissance of Yoruba culture. The Yoruba had been a powerful and highly developed city-state civilization located in what is present-day Nigeria and Togo, with Yoruba-speaking colonies in Ghana and other locations around the Bight of Benin. This part of Africa was called the "Slave Coast" because the Yoruba economy was itself based on slave-trading. Yoruba-speaking princes dominated the area in the 12th century, building fortified palaces and trading with the Saharan Africans to their northeast. The Atlantic slave-trade wrecked the Yoruban principalities, already in decline in the 17th century. The return to Ghana and Nigeria of freed slaves, however, revitalized the region. Bibles were published in Yoruba, newspapers and other books were published in that languge, and an intellectual elite sought to restore Yoruba culture to its former prestige. This renascent culture in Lagos was neither completely European nor African – rather, it was a synthesis of the two civilizations and, therefore, disturbing to colonial authorities. The returning Brazilian and American slaves was said to have "gone Fantee" – that is, reverted to pagan customs and traditions.

The most remarkable example of someone "going Fantee" is that of Susanne Wenger also known as Adunni Olurissa. This Austrian woman re-established the Yoruba religion as integral to Nigerian culture and society. In effect, Wenger restored to east Africa something that it was on the verge of losing forever. It is curious that the foremost Yoruba priestess in 20th century Africa was a woman born in Graz, Austria to Swiss-Austrian parents.

Susanne Wenger was born in 1915 into an intellectual, politically liberal family. She was interested in art and attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna as a student, associating with avant-garde elements in the contemporary art scene during the thirties. Wenger opposed Hitler’s

Anschluss with Austria and, according to her biographer, ging nach dem Einmarsch deutscher Truppen in die innere Emigration – that is, "after German troops marched into Austria, she embarked on an ‘inner emigration’." "Inner emigration" is a phrase used in German to express that a person had radically disengaged with the ruling Nazi regime. Although the details are unclear, Wenger seems to have sheltered enemies of the regime and, even, assisted them in reaching Switzerland. Wenger was partially protected against reprisal because of her dual citizenship – she was part Swiss and Switzerland, of course, was a neutral country during the War.

After the war, Wenger was active in re-establishing the arts in the rubble of Vienna. With Communist backing, she edited and published an arts newsletter called PLAN, a periodical that focused on the works of artists whose work had been declared "entartet" ("degenerate") by the Nazi censors. When PLAN folded in 1948, Wenger dedicated herself to work with a communist children’s periodical, Unsere Zeitung ("Our Magazine"). During this period, Wenger traveled to Italy and Switzerland where she sent letters back to the magazine that were published as journalism from its foreign correspondent. Wenger illustrated articles and stories that appeared in UZ – her pictures are slightly sinister, macabre, and drawn in a nervous, spidery style that resembles that sketches of Alfred Kubin and, to a lesser extent, Odilon Redon. Some critics have wondered how the child-readers of UZ responded to these frightening cartoon-like pictures, particularly in light of the recent trauma that subscribers had suffered during the war. (Probably, the children were indifferent – parents subscribe to magazines for their children and the concerns and subject matter of those periodicals reflect the predilections of the adults not the children.)

In 1949, Susanne Wenger lived in Paris where she became acquainted with the linguist Ulii Beier. Wenger married Beier and traveled with him to Nigeria in 1950 when her husband was engaged to teach English literature to African students as part of an exchange program. Photographs of her taken at this time show a woman with a prominent nose and enormous sad eyes, the eyes of a Kaethe Koellwitz madonna; she has thin lips and her hair is styled in a practical Bauhaus bob. By this time, Wenger was seriously ill, suffering from chronic respiratory problems diagnosed as tuberculosis. She was only 35.

In Lagos, Wenger’s tuberculosis worsened. She was treated by European-trained physicians who determined that her case was hopeless. In desperation, Wenger turned to a traditional Yoruba healer, a so-called Babalawo witch-doctor. According to the legend, Wenger was healed by the Babalawo, gradually recovering her health and, then, her creativity. From that point forward, Susanne Wenger was an adherent to the Yoruba belief system, studied the religion’s tenets, and, ultimately, became a leading priestess in the faith. Although she periodically returned briefly to Europe and Austria, Wenger spent the rest of her long life in Nigeria among the Yoruba people.

In the fifties, Wenger found that the Yoruba religion was in a state of decay. Practitioners of the faith were demoralized and its priests and priestesses rejected in favor of Christian missionaries. Yoruba is a religion integrally associated with the Yoruba people – indeed, the belief system, the tribal culture, and the language all form an indistinguishable whole. The religion is animistic and involves belief in reincarnation within blood-lines. The aim of human life is to achieve joy by prayer-communion with the divine, each person seeking to achieve his or her unique and transcendent spiritual destiny. Yoruba beliefs involve many gods, goddesses, as well as lesser spirits and some of the faith’s rites were celebrated in sacred groves. In the mid-fifties, these groves were largely abandoned and had been desecrated by hunting, logging, and trapping in the sacred forests. The most important sacred grove in Nigeria was near the city of Osunogbo, an ancient old-growth forest towering over the Osun River. Yoruba, like most religions is syncretic – by the middle of the 20th century, it had absorbed certain aspects of Christianity and one of its principal gods, Osun, was affiliated with both the river, the trees growing around the stream, and John the Baptist, another religious figure associated with flowing water. (John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the sacred River Jordan.) Wenger was appalled to find the sacred grove on the Osun River shattered, many of its trees cut down, and, in fact, threatened by development in the adjacent city. So the Austrian-Nigerian high-priestess devoted her life to saving the sacred grove on the Osun River, establishing it as a holy place apart from the rest of the terrain, and decorating the forest with objects of art.

By the year 2005, Wenger’s work at the sacred grove in Osunogbo was recognized by UNESCO as a culturally significant place worthy of international protection. Before Wenger’s intervention, most Yoruba altars and ritual objects were small, readily portable, and, therefore, easily stolen. The Yoruba produce carvers and woodworkers of magisterial genius and their work is highly collectible. Indeed, Wenger’s husband, Ulii Beier, whom she divorced a few years after arriving in Nigeria, was a major collector of Yoruba and other tribal art, and, with his second wife, established one of Europe’s major museums devoted to African art and culture, the Iwalewa-Haus in Bayreuth, Germany. Presumably, Beier, and collectors like him, were part of the threat eating away at the fabric of Yoruba faith – no sooner did an artisan carve a totem or an idol than some other enterprising Nigerian snatched the work for sale to European galleries. Wenger put an end to this practice by a simple measure: she constructed Yoruba images on a monumental scale, idols as large as houses made from reinforced concrete or sculpted from enormous logs. These works, created in the sacred grove at the Osun river, were site-specific in the most dramatic way, expressions of the holy spirits animating the green and shadowy grove far too large to be carted away. Over the years, Wenger supervised the construction of high walls around the sacred grove, limited access to the holy place by restricting entry to a single, small and crooked gate, clearly designed to keep art thieves from purloining the holy sculptures inside the enclosure.

In effect, Wenger’s efforts renewed the Yoruba faith, won it credibility and adherents, and established the work of Yoruba artists as significant and highly prized commodities in European and New York art galleries. Wenger, who was known simply as "Mama," in Osunogbo where she lived, adopted more than a dozen local orphans and raised them in a sort of commune. Her eldest adopted daughter, Nike Okundaye is Nigeria’s most well-known contemporary painter and operates lucrative galleries both in Europe and Lagos. For Wenger, it is apparent that there was no distinction between high art, the sort of Art Brut that she had championed as a young woman in Vienna, and the sacred sculpture in the holy grove at Osunogbo. Further, under Wenger’s guidance, ancient Yoruba festivals that had long been abandoned were revived. Wenger was instrumental in establishing the Osunogbo pilgrimage, an eight-day festival that involves massive and terrifying fire rituals as well enormous processions from the center of the city to the sacred grove. In the last decade, millions of people from all around the world have participated in this festival – in effect, through Wenger’s efforts, Yoruba has become a world-religion with faithful living in all major communities of the East African diaspora. Of course, there is some question as to whether Susanne Wenger’s version of Yoruba is truly authentic – was the sacred grove on the Osun River central to Yoruba faith before Wenger adopted it as a massive art project? After all, the German-speaking people are also forest-folk and, once, worshiped in sacred groves. (We have Christmas trees in our homes as evidence of this ancient Teutonic religion.) Certainly, the Osunogbo festival seems primarily to be a celebration devised by Wenger and her supporters as well as the city fathers (and civic boosters) of the town where the event occurs. But religions evolve and Yoruba has revived and is significant in the lives of many millions of people, at least, in part through the efforts of this Swiss-Austrian artist.

What is the Wenger’s Sacred Grove like? Photographs of the Grove show bug-eyed monoliths scattered among enormous, shaggy trees. The river is unprepossessing, a turbid, elongated lagoon overhung by vines. The appearance of the place is midway between a modernist sculpture garden in the shadow of an urban museum and a concrete Eden built by an eccentric, outsider artist. Irregularly sculpted huts contain altars and there are pitchers of goat blood amid garlands of flowers and fresh fruit on the stone thresholds to the shrines. Votive offerings dangle from trees and the shadows hold strange apparitions: man-sized pillars with stubby, flipper-like arms, spirit-forms wearing mantis-masks or displaying blunt knuckle-shaped horns. Many of the structures take the disarming form of female genitalia. Worshipers enter the enclosure of the Sacred Grove through a grotto of vulvar folds and wrinkles equipped with a clitoral protuberance above the entry. What the place would be like in the humid heat and crush of a Yoruba procession of masked priests and priestesses, stilt-walkers, and whirling worshipers complete with drums and cymbals and clouds of incense is hard to imagine. Certainly, on the evidence of film that I have seen, the Grove seems more than a bit menacing, uncanny, astonishing.

Susanne Wenger died in 2009 at the age of 94. On the morning of her death, Wenger rose early and went to the grove to bathe in the holy river. She ate some fruit and, then, asked that a piece of paper be brought to her. She wrote some lines on the paper and, then, died. According to her wishes, her body was washed again, wrapped in a shroud, and buried that afternoon without elaborate rituals or any funeral procession. Her mourners did not report what she wrote on the sheet of paper. Her words were written in German and there was no one to translate them.

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