Tuesday 30 July 2013

o : Ouagadougou

The Amphitheatre
Musee National
Burkina Faso

Dear o,

I write to you from the stepping-up stone seats of the outdoor amphitheatre at Burkina Faso's national museum in Ouagadougou.  It's a beautiful day and the sun is out, and we have the entire outdoor acreage of museum all to ourselves.  We came here after tiring ourselves out yesterday with Ouagadougou's vast Grand Marché.  Rebuilt in 2003 after a devastating fire, this place is a multi-level, stadium-sized maze of stalls with every trinket you can imagine.  But after a little time there, it felt too much like an onion (thanks, Peer Gynt).  We wanted to peel away the layers of hustlers, of made in China 'tribal' figures and necklaces, of the men with carts who carried this merchandise and dumped it off, stall by stall, out of cheap plastic bags, straight from whatever foreign factory does a better, faster, cheaper job than the villages of West Africa.  There was no centre, no core, no seed.  The market is but a series of layers, peeled away until nothing is left.

There is no show being acted out in front of me, but I still like to make my theatrical pilgrimages wherever I can.  Below the Pantheon in Athens, built into Palatine Hill in Rome, or dug out from the earth in Chester, England: at these sites I can imagine what once was performed, what will be again, and perhaps another story of the place and its people.  This amphitheatre is, of course, not an ancient archaeological site, but a recent development project, slapped onto a this walled-in park of dirt, grass and future plans.

The show I see in my head is composed of the characters who made this site: the funder, the designer, the shoveler, the concrete-pourer, the electrician.  I wonder about their motivation, about why they built this place, what it means to them, what it is trying to say, and what the story is.  I imagine these things because, for whatever fault of my own, I can't seem to divine it from this place.  I can't find the narrative here, and the only characters I have seen are the staff who look they want to bang their heads against the wall when we interrupt their day of doing nothing.

In front of me is patchy grass, a few trees, a tin-roofed, half-contained hut, and a wall separating this place from the traffic and and the people it purports to represent.  The wall is quite fascinating: red, brown and yellow paints over an intricate, swerving design on both sides, a trick to the eye and to the mind to deceive what is within.

The museum is composed of about ten stand-alone buildings, pavilions that thrust out from the ground and partly dome up towards the sky.  They are not unlike the traditional thatch huts that pervade the sub-Saharan landscape, but bigger, oddly coloured pink and brown, and always alone.  The huts, the real things, are much more fascinating, much more original, and they are never by themselves.  But maybe that wasn't the intent here.  I wouldn't know.

When we entered the gate we found the administration building to buy our CFA 1,000 tickets, a transaction made outside the door.  I could see that inside was a small foyer with a glass-topped model of the museum.  I asked to step inside.  Why? she demanded.  I pointed to the model.  She looked at me like I had asked her to pull eleven hairs out of her head, one by one, and then waved me on without emotion or kindness.

The model is a not so much a 3-dimensional snapshot of the museum, as a plan for its future.  The pavilions are all there, more darkly and naturally coloured, still separate but somehow extensions of the landscape instead of adjuncts to an architect's mind.  The grounds, though, are completely different: the walls are no longer the monolithic, inescapable feature of the museum, but a short, stout and thin borderline; there are trails carved out of gardens, forest, wilderness; the whole thing appears as a single, connected village, and you can see the way its people would network, move, circle and play.

We left the foyer and began our tour, pointed on by the ticket-seller who seemed at once relieved she was done with us, and nervous that we were about to whip out our spray paint to graffiti the buildings.

Only three pavilions were open to us.  Two were collections of masks and statues, the other an exhibit on the importance of cotton to Burkina Faso's history.  The masks and statues, mostly made of wood, were remarkable in and of themselves.  A glaring, cavernous-eyed, jagged face next to a sweet rounded, almost clownish mask.  A two-foot high statue, upright on both legs instead of a platform, pulling all the world to his chest, and laughing about it.  There were a few plaques with French descriptions here and there, but their words were cold and distant, as if inconvenienced by being read.  At the centre of one of the pavilions was a collection of virility and fertility statues, puffing out long-pointed breasts or holding long penises pointed up and down.  The figures were arranged face-out of a tall metal cage: a boxing ring.  I am still at odds with myself over whether or not this was intentional.  I hope it was.

The cotton exhibit pavilion was a collection of reconstructed artefacts and baskets of unused cotton, all thrown together into a motley assortment of, well, cotton.  The single staff member stalked the room after we walked in and stared as if we were going to pocket some of the cotton.  There were no plaques, descriptions, aids, anything.  Not being an historical specialist on the economic and cultural significance of sheep to the history and sociology of Burkina Faso, I felt woefully ignorant in this room, and though I appreciated what its arrangement, selection and presence might have meant, it didn't take me long to leave.

Both the cotton exhibit and the artefact pavilions contained interesting pieces to themselves, but the sum was far greater than the whole of the experience, and each time I left a pavilion, I felt nothing new, nothing changed, nothing moved.  The most lasting feature of all was the television in the first pavilion, in front of which the two staff sat and watched the Hajj in Mecca, live.  Thousands of people circled the great black cube on elevated platforms, pouring out through archways and building that beautiful momentum of a crowd with one focus.  There was a story there, and it wasn't trying to hide itself.  I wanted to sit and watch.

"Should we get a guide?" I asked Al before writing you.  Though we didn't speak about it upon entering, we knew what each other was thinking: we didn't want a guide for any number of reasons.  Paying however much, maybe even more in cadeaux, being awkwardly alone, still seeing the same small set of things, and above all, having to ask one of the miserable, offended-by-us staff to show us around. "No," she said, and that was it: we both knew why.

Are we just here at the wrong time of year?  Are the main exhibits shut, or being moved or renovated?  Are we missing the key ingredient of a guide or a performance in this amphitheatre?  Or have I just been to too many other museums to resist throwing up my oh-so-sophisticated judgment against this place?  I'm reminded of New Zealand's Te Papa in Wellington, Canada's Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, and Paris's Musee Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower: all with powerful narrative, a substance beyond, under, through the pieces, and in the case of the Quai Branly, an astonishing collection of artefacts from Burkina Faso itself.

And, I know, those museums have a lot of money.  Maybe this one isn't finished yet, behind schedule or forever delayed?  But I have to wonder where they money came from to build this place, and if it was from some of the same pockets.  This doesn't feel like a grassroots idea, but a thoroughly foreign cultural concept imposed on the bare ground within a high wall in Ouagadougou, trying the nominal amount to accommodate the local taste: dome shapes and wall designs, and let's throw in a few masks and some cotton as well.  As people, as architecture, as history, as space, as even the grounds, this does not feel at all like the little of Burkina Faso I've seen.  I am somewhere else.

I am completely ready to admit my ignorance, stupidity and closed-mindedness in the heart of this place, here on a seat of the amphitheatre.  I am willing to be admonished for being shallow and impatient, for not spending enough time by the penis vs. breast fighting ring, for not being a spectator to my own assumptions.  Even that I'm always looking for conflict in my life and travels, for a problem or an issue at which to flail out and whine (would you rather I just listed all the lovely flowers that make me feel fuzzy inside?).  But the Musee National de Burkina Faso isn't trying very hard to convince me.

As far as I can tell, I'm digging my way through the layers of another onion.  Forgive me for not going all the way to the centre, and let me know if I keep missing a harder core.



The Grand Marché, Ouagadougou
The National Museum, Pavilion No. 2
The National Museum,
with the administration pavilion to the left
The Fertility Ring