The town of Osogbo is believed to have been founded around 400 years ago. It is part of the wider Yoruba community, divided into 16 kingdoms, which legend says were ruled by the children of Oduduwa, the mythic founder, whose abode at Ile-Ife, south-east of Osogbo, is still regarded as the spiritual home of the Yoruba people.
The earliest settlement seems to have been in the Osogbo Grove and included palaces and a market. When the population expanded the community moved outside the Grove and created a new town, which reflected spatially the arrangements within the Grove.
In the 1840s Osogbo became a refugee town for people fleeing the Fulani Jihad, as it moved south from what is now northern Nigeria. The Yorubas retreated further south into the forests and Osogbo, right at the northern edge of the forest, became an important centre for northern Yorubaland.
The Fulani attacks on Osogbo were repelled and, as a result, Osogbo has become a symbol of pride for all the Yorubas.
During the first half of the 20th century, the town of Osogbo expanded considerably. In 1914 British colonial rule begun. As it was delivered under a system of indirect rule through traditional rulers, the authority of the Oba and priests were sustained. A greater change was brought about from the middle of the 19th century through the introduction of both Islam and Christianity. Islam became the religion of traders and ruling houses – as it gave contacts to northern trade routes and links to returning enslaves from Central and South America. For a while all three religions co-existed but as time went by it became less fashionable to be identified with the Ogboni and Osun cults.
By the 1950s the combined political and religious changes were having a marked detrimental effect on the Grove: customary responsibilities and sanctions were weakening, shrines were becoming neglected and traditional priests began to disappear. All this was exacerbated by a rise in the looting of statues and movable sculptures to feed an antiquities market. At around this time part of the Grove was acquired by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry for agricultural experiments. Trees were felled and teak plantations established; sculptures were reportedly stolen and hunting and fishing begun to be recorded – previously forbidden in the sacred Grove.
It was at this crucial point in the history of the Grove that Austrian born Suzanne Wenger moved to Osogbo and, with the encouragement of the Oba and the support from local people, formed the New Sacred Art movement to challenge land speculators, repel poachers, protect shrines and begin the long process of bringing the sacred place back to life through once again establishing it as the sacred heart of Osogbo.
The artists deliberately created large, heavy and fixed sculptures in iron cement and mud, as opposed to the smaller traditional wooden ones, in order that their intimidatory architectural forms would help to protect the Grove and stop thefts. All the sculptures have been done in full respect for the spirit of the place, with inspiration from Yoruba mythology and in consultations with the gods in a traditional context.
The new work has made the Grove a symbol of identity for the Yoruba people. Many from the African Diaspora now undertake a pilgrimage to the annual festival.
In 1965 part of the Grove was declared a national monument. This was extended in 1992 so that now the whole 75 hectares are protected.