In a small village outside Ouagadougou, art is life.
Creativity hums throughout western Africa, flowing from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and charging the arid landscape with life. The city, known as Ouaga for those who call it home, has been courting the arts for quite some time.
Dubbed a major African cultural hub, Ouagadougou biennially hosts both the continent’s largest film festival — the FESPACO — and the SIAO international arts-and-crafts fair. But about 40 kilometers away from this artistic epicenter, art is developing in a new way, alongside a village.
Since 2009, creativity has sparked new life in a little town called Laongo. Already home to a sculpture garden of granite carvings that narrate its history of art, Laongo is further maturing artistically through a project called Operndorf Afrika.
The project — German for “African Opera Village” — began as an idea for a collaborative arts initiative. Over the past five years, however, that seed has grown from mere abstract plans into a full-fledged community that includes sustainable homes, education, health care as well as a framework for Laongo to develop its unique artistic expression.
The German connection comes from the late actor and director Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010), who was initially drawn to Burkina Faso through a connection with the FESPACO film festival. Here, he envisioned creating an international meeting place for the arts — a center where ideas could be cultivated and exchanged as artists from across the globe merged in one location.
Believing that art could help awaken a group’s cultural identity and even contribute to a country’s development as a whole, Schlingensief set out on a mission of transformation and convinced award-winning Burkinabé architect Francis Kéré to join him. Together, the pair drew up plans for an opera house — or festspielhaus (German for “festival theater”) — that would serve as the ideal center for artistic exchange.
Floods in late August 2009, however, altered these original plans. As the site they had chosen for the festspeilhaus was nearly washed away, Schlingensief and Kéré realized their project needed to take a backseat to first helping rebuild the surrounding village. Kéré and local villagers constructed new homes from local materials such as clay, using a sophisticated mixing technique that allows it to withstand the annual rainfall. And so from catastrophe came the Opera Village, which today thrives not only as a cluster of sustainable homes but also as a rising cultural center.
Three stages of building spun off from this initial phase, including plans for a school, a medical unit and, of course, the building that started it all: the festspielhaus.
The school, completed in fall 2011, plans for a total of 300 pupils by the 2016–2017 academic year. Already boasting learning results and attendance rates above the national average, the school has been highlighted by the Burkinabe Ministry for Education as a model to be replicated throughout the country. Its extracurricular activities push students, as well as other children from the surrounding areas, toward the arts — film, theater, music and dance.
The recently completed medical unit offers convenient health care for the village, from general practice and maternity care to dentistry, as well as education on nutrition and malaria.
Construction on the village’s crowning festspielhaus will ideally begin at the end of 2014. The structure will serve as the crux of the community, physically residing at the center of a spiral-shaped village design. It will provide a platform for local residents to continue developing their own art identity, pulling them together for formal workshops, dance shows and concerts — all to complement the storytelling, theater performances and film events that are already taking shape throughout the village.
And as new needs have arisen, the village has responded, remaining flexible with its developing identity as a cultural center. So far, additional projects have included a cinema, a recording studio, guesthouses, a sports area and a restaurant. In the future, the Operndorf Afrika team plans to create an artist-in-residence program, inviting African and European artists to speak their voices into the community and likewise learn from local artists.
For Ouagadougou’s Opera Village, art is the avenue to a thriving community — shaking awake the beautiful identity of a town and ringing hopeful chords far beyond its borders.