Text Adam Levin Photographs Marcella Echavarría
I love it when no one knows where I’m going. Ouagadougou, deep in the heart of West Africa, generally does the trick. Rarely visited, the capital of landlocked, oft-forgotten Burkina Faso has long held an allure for me – less for its legendary biennial film festival, Fespaco, and more for the SIAO, or Salon International de l‘Artisanat de Ouagadougou. This huge crafts fair has been held every second November since 1988, just as the dusty Harmattan winds gust down from the Sahara, rendering the sun a glowing, hazy blot and turning your throat to sandpaper.
Quite magically, I am here, digging for my luggage at the national airport, which has been ‘under construction’ forever and has a strip of wood in place of a conveyor belt. I am not alone: 300 000 turbaned, nomadic silversmiths, rotund Mauritanian scarf sellers, wily bead traders, and curious French and American Afrophiles have all made their way here. We will all tolerate the ramshackle green taxis and repetitive menu of brochettes and frites (with a singular sauce that I later recognise as Maggi) for the privilege of attending what has become the continent’s biggest and most significant crafts fair.
My fellow adventurers include the feisty Colombian photographer, Marcella Echavarría, whose New York-based retail business, Surevolution, celebrates the beauty and ingenuity of organic form. Then, a delegation from the West Africa Trade Hub – a clutch of dedicated Americans who actually care about getting cashew nuts out of Ghana, or, in this case, transporting large furniture from the Sahara. My host, Elaine Belezza, has lived in West Africa for 20 years, and without her frenetic energy and determination we wouldn’t be here. A djembe buyer from Oregon joins us a few days later, then a craft consultant from Colorado who invites me to a similar event in Peru. We are an odd, but soon intimate, global family.
Physically there’s nothing striking about Ouaga, as it is known for short. The low-rise sprawl of over two million people offers few clues to its existence as a stronghold of the Mossi Empire since 1441. The adobe-styled Grand Marché burned down a few years ago, and so, on our many infuriating taxi journeys, we circle hopelessly on the dirt roads, trying to locate ourselves amid indistinguishable, unfinished concrete shells. There are no landmarks and few trees, and yet, as Frederic Alcantara, a product developer who has worked a lot in the region, explains, ‘Things are somehow more organised here. It’s the Switzerland of West Africa in a way.’ Relatively speaking, of course.
The grounds where the SIAO is held yield little ambience. The pavilions have only a faint sense of the region’s muddy-hued, organic architectural vernacular. There are five halls, two air-conditioned sanctuaries, then endless rows of crude ceramics, cane furniture and the current ubiquitous Chinese knick-knack: a fluffy little orange dog with a battery-operated wag. Alcantara has facilitated the Cotton Growers’ stall, where I’m delighted to discover Le Ndomo’s new polka-dotted takes on traditional mud cloth or bogolan. You can smell the indigo, and the texture of strip-woven natural cotton is sensuous on the skin. There are scarves that look like inky spider webs, cheerfully bright ikat-style pillows from Benin, and white cotton pouffes from Chad, decorated with Arabesque motifs. Whoever short-listed Chad for soft furnishings was bold and visionary.
The Salon de Creativité showcases the year’s top offerings, and, while not bursting with innovation, it has some amazing pieces. My eye is drawn to a Sputnikesque cabinet with a rubbed-down patina – the work of the country’s foremost artist and furniture designer, Hamed Ouattara. The dashing and low-key 40-year-old creative takes us to his studio – a space fertile with paintings, coded in nomad cosmologies reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s. Ouattara’s distinctive take on recycling is all the more relevant here in one of the world’s five poorest countries. His signature of burnished steel and distressed enamels combines with bulbous forms and spiky legs. ‘Very 1950s,’ I comment. ‘People say so,’ he concedes matter-of-factly. ‘But it’s not intentional.’
What is intentional is the social commentary in his work. While the TV cabinets and desks (lined up for export to France) are worked from discarded petrol drums, he is also framing vignettes of second-hand clothing in canvas: there is a corner of a cheap Japanese print T-shirt, complete with its $4.99 price tag and the buttoned collar of a hand-me-down shirt. They will form a larger installation, he explains. This autodidact, a former painter, is now a collectable designer in France, priced within the range of well-known European design stars.
We visit the Studio Loukare, where the delightful Malian furniture designer, Cheick Diallo, is mentoring young ironworkers. Diallo’s influence is evident in their takes on traditional steel-frame chairs, their seats woven with bright nylon used in fishing nets. The shapes are nowhere near as fanciful as Diallo’s, but the young craftsmen and women are slowly developing their own design idioms. The economical use of wood speaks of a region that is rapidly turning to sand.
I spend a wonderful evening with Diallo, grappling with the challenges of shipping his work from Mali. The costs are prohibitive. We will try to secure space in the trucks that empty along the rough roads down to the coast. This is how things are done here. Or how they could be done. Diallo, who now bases himself partly in France, is a charming and worldly gentleman. We talk as much about design as of philosophy, Pan-Africanism and current affairs. His global vision stands in strong contrast to the desperate poverty and remoteness of his context.
Indeed, whichever talented artisan’s work I probe, the luxury of beautiful handcrafted homeware is a tale of triumph against social and geographic adversity. There’s a certain romantic idealism to designers like Marianne Montaut, whose range of throws, pillows and room dividers is a pared-down take on Malian strip-woven cottons. The large pillows stamped with her brand and address, Niarela Rue 410, exude a clean, organic minimalism. Stalls like this stand in contrast to the compelling pile of tie-dyed cotton from Mauritania. Every now and then, as I pass, a head pops up, and offers to sell me a malafa – the six metres of beautifully dyed, gossamer-like cotton that Mauritanian women wrap themselves in as traditional dress. After six days’ drive and a relatively steep stall fee, they aren’t forking out for a hotel, and so they sleep among their wares.
My weakness, however, is for the fine work and mysterious allure of the Tuareg and Fulani traders who have travelled here from Niger, wrapped in their wrinkled cheches (veils) and armed with persistent sales pitches. I am delighted to see their traditional leather jewellery boxes, modernised in fuchsia, emerald green and yellow, and I spend hours inspecting the intricacy of their silver jewellery, inlaid with pencil-thin strips of ebony and crafted using the most rudimentary tools.
I too would like to buy a cheche, and trudge off with silver merchant Maigirie to where he and his clan have erected their hut – a beehive of straw mats behind the parking lot. As nomads, the Fulani believe all land belongs to them (a concept that has regularly and sometimes violently proved at odds with that of the modern state). They settle where their cattle can graze or they can trade, and this spot, albeit urban, is ideal. I choose Maigirie’s own emerald-green sheath and relearn the tying technique I once learnt in Morocco. The cloth smells of dry, dusty travel. I know that accepting an offer to share a glass of mint tea is a perilous commitment to shop. But what the hell, I intend shopping anyway, and so, slowly, a small red teapot is brought to the boil over a tiny coal fire. We drink the first cup, and I buy some carnelian pendants. The second, and I’m the owner of many finely detailed rings. By the third cup, I am almost out of money. But the Fulani are not satisfied. What of the other pieces I showed an interest in?
I storm off and have a last uninspiring lunch of brochettes, rendered all the more grim by the presence of a wily nomad keeping vigil over my every mouthful. And so it is that I wrap myself up in emerald and some mirrored Wayfarers and attempt to flee. The disguise proves hopeless: indeed, I couldn’t have looked more conspicuous naked. And so it is that I hand over my very last pile of grimy, crumpled Central African francs in exchange for some magnificent silver drop earrings. (I may be a little short for my hotel bill.)
The remoteness of the setting, the elaborate hustle of the transaction, and the rare, handmade quality of the wares I have bought all carry a deep, historic resonance. For all the attempts at modernity, the centuries-deep Saharan trade routes are alive and well in Ouagadougou. In a world where design is increasingly about brand and product volumes, objects here still carry the soulful charge of the hands that shaped them: each yard of hand-woven cloth, each rough ceramic bowl, each amber or bronze bead. In contrast to the high-gloss lucre of trade and design fairs across the planet, I am both humbled and comforted to experience something so timeless and extraordinary in a place with a name so few people can pronounce.
This article was originally published in the March 2011 issue of House and Leisure.