The Osun-Osogbo Festival is an annual celebration that takes place in Osogbo, the capital of Osun state in southwestern Nigeria. It’s centered on the reverence of a sacred grove in the town on the bank of the Osun River that runs past the city.

Among the Yorubas (and many other ethnic groups in Nigeria) most towns, villages and quarters traditionally had their sacred forests or groves, where the people communed with nature. The case of the Osun grove, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was no different.

However, in the 1960s Susanne Wenger, an Austrian who was resident in the city of Ibadan, took an interest in the place then largely neglected under the influence of Islam, Christianity and accompanying Europeanization. With the support of the traditional ruler of Osogbo, she rehabilitated the place and became its chief priestess until her death in 2009 at the age of 93.

Susanne Wenger

The Osun shrine subsequently became the centre of a sacred art movement involving Wenger and several Nigerian artists, who undertook works of sculpture, painting and mixed media forms of expression largely drawn from traditional art.

The emergence of this art movement can be traced to Ulli Bier, a German Jew and then husband of Susan Wenger, who had been part of the Mbari House in the southwest Nigerian city of Ibadan, named after the traditional Igbo Mbari spiritual art, in loving budding writers and poets including China Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J. P. Cark and Christopher Okigbo, among others.

Around the same period, Bier along with playwright and actor, Duro Ladipo, started a parallel Mbari-Mbayo (which translates as “That I may see and love what I see” from Yorubas. The movement, that was influence by traditional Yoruba spirituality and culture. From this was born the Oshogbo school of art that su sequently produced artists including Wenger, Muraina Oyelami, Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Nike Okundaye, Yinka Adeyemi, Ashiru Olatunde, Buraimoh Gbadamosi, Adebisi Fabunmi, Adebisi Akande. The works of these artists adorn the Osun grove.

With the restoration of the shrine the annual celebration of the Osun-Osogbo festival returned. Today, it’s one of Nigeria’s biggest traditional festivals. Currently, the festival annually draws thousands of visitors from both within and outside Nigeria.

Celebrants at the Osun river.

The Festival

The period of the festival coincides with the time of farm harvests, when the people give thanks for the bounties offered by Mother Nature. It’s a time of cleansing rituals to ensure that the people are sync with nature, make amends for any transgressions and appease the ancestors in order to be deserving of more favors.

The two weeks of celebrations begin with cleansing rituals, or Iwopopo. This is then followed three days later by the 500-year-old practice of lighting a 16-point lamp.

The festival lamp or ina oloju merindinlogun

Afterward, the crowns worn by a succession of the town’s rulers, or Ataojas, are assembled for blessings, a rite known as Iboriade presided over by the sitting ruler.

Then comes the pomp and pageantry of the festival, featuring music and drumming, processions of dancing and merriment featuring revelers in colorful costumes, masked performers and chants by traditional poets. In between the celebrations, the indigenes of Oshogbo make our time to visit the Osun grove to pay homage.