Sarah Hegenbart | From Bayreuth to Burkina Faso

Sarah Hegenbart

Schlingensief explored whether a Gesamtkunstwerk translocated to the African continent could potentially redeem Germany from its identity crisis. By opening up an iconological dialogue facilitating a contrapuntal analysis to integrate suppressed narratives into a global discourse, the Gesamtkunstwerk Opera Village shares structural features with postcolonial thinking.


Opera Village Africa, a participatory art experiment by the late German multimedia artist Christoph Schlingensief, serves as a testing ground for a critical interrogation of Richard Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Sarah Hegenbart traces the path from Wagner’s introduction of the Gesamtkunstwerk in Bayreuth to Schlingensief’s attempt to charge the idea of the total artwork with new meaning by transposing it to the West African country Burkina Faso.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
From Bayreuth to Burkina Faso examines Opera Village as a testing ground for a critical interrogation of Richard Wagner's notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Opera Village is a participatory art experiment by the late German multimedia artist Christoph Schlingensief Having staged Wagner's Parsifal in Bayreuth in 2004, Schlingensief was disillusioned with the contemporary meaning of opera. The introduction of his Opera Village in 2008 as a transcultural platform in Burkina Faso is based on an expanded definition of opera that aims to make it accessible to everyone. Opera Village also acts as a symbol representing Schlingensief’s critical exploration of post-war German history and Germany’s failure to come to terms with its (colonial) past, and involves his diverse artistic practice as filmmaker, theatre and opera director, and performance artist. Schlingensief's aim was to endow the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk with a new aesthetic value: the value of living together.

This book maps the trajectory from Wagner’s introduction of the Gesamtkunstwerk in Bayreuth to Schlingensief’s attempt to charge the notion of the total artwork with new meaning by transposing it to the West African country Burkina Faso. Schlingensief developed the participatory art experiment Opera Village in collaboration with the world-renowned architect Francis Kéré. This final project is inspired by and illuminates the diverse themes that informed Schlingensief’s artistic practice, from coming to terms with the German past, anti-Semitism, and critical race theory to questions of postcolonial (self-)criticism.

While most of the artists who influenced Schlingensief (e.g. surrealists such as Luis Buñuel, filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists, Martin Kippenberger, Dieter Roth, Allan Kaprow, Paul McCarthy, Paul Thek, and especially Joseph Beuys) also wrestled with the problematic of identity, for Schlingensief the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk suggested a way out. Opera Village epitomises Schlingensief's oscillation between the romantic quest for redemption and the pragmatic realisation that this desire will necessarily result in failure.

My initial hypothesis is that Opera Village Africa attempts to realise the ideas of the young, left-wing revolutionary Wagner of the Gesamtkunstwerk, namely audience empowerment and the transformation of everyday reality and political circumstances in particular, through the arts. It is interesting to observe how the Wagnerian idea of a pro-democracy revolution through the arts resonates in the 2014 Burkina Faso uprising aiming to remove the long-term president Blaise Compaoré who was in office for 27 years. Music featured centrally in the 2014 Burkina Faso uprising, as the rapper Serge Bambara—one of the patrons of Opera Village, and better known under his stage name ‘Smockey—played a crucial role in removing the corrupt president. Smockey was co-founder of the grassroots movement Le Balai Citoyen, which was very active throughout the Burkinabe uprisings.

My suggestion is to view the ‘postcolonial Gesamtkunstwerk’ as an artistic strategy, which frees concepts of identity from national appropriation and points towards what Michael Rothberg calls ‘a multidirectional revision of remembrance beyond residual Eurocentrism’. This ties in with current debates about Germany’s culture of remembrance, which have been loosely labelled as Historikerstreit 2.0 (historians’ quarrel).

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
In May 2012, I curated Schlingensief's first solo exhibition in the UK, at the German Embassy in London, which centred on Opera Village. The exhibition brought home to me how much research is needed to facilitate a better understanding of his final project. My motivation was to approach Opera Village against the backdrop of Schlingensief’s diverse artistic practice, which required translation to allow non-German speaking audiences to understand it within the context of its time. While Schlingensief has been as famous as a pop star in Germany since the 1990s, I was astonished to learn that he was then virtually unknown in the Anglo-American context. The fact that Schlingensief’s work was so deeply entrenched in German culture, politics, and everyday life, and often contains references and allusions to news issues broadcast in German media, might explain why there is such a gap between international recognition and reception in German-speaking countries. I quickly realised that the amount of documentary material is huge, since Schlingensief was an avid communicator. His personal blog, the Schlingenblog; the Schlingensief website, and the Operndorf Afrika website are central sources. Moreover, the Christoph Schlingensief Archive at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste and the Richard Wagner Archive in Bayreuth have extensive holdings. Since working through the rich sources of documents went far beyond the scope of this exhibition, I aspired to complete this task as part of this book.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, ...) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?


Schlingensief Website:

Opera Village Website:

Kéré Architecture

The Art of Wagnis. Christoph Schlingensief’s Crossing of Wagner and Africa, edited by Fabian Lehman, Nadine Siegert and Ulf Vierke. Vienna: Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2017.

Koss, Juliet: Modernism after Wagner, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Thomas Sankara Speaks. The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987, edited by Samantha Anderson, New York/London, 1988.

Thiemeyer, Thomas: „Cosmopolitanizing Colonial Memories in Germany“, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 45, Nr. 4,

Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi (Hrsg.): Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.

Dhawan, Nikita (Hrsg.): Decolonizing Enlightenment. Transnational Justice, Human Rights and Democracy in a Postcolonial World, Opladen/Berlin/Toronto: Barbara Bud - rich Publishers, 2014.

Additional audio-visual material documenting my research in Burkina Faso can be found here:

Hegenbart, Sarah (director): Total Work of Art – ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. Filmed Doctoral Documentary, 2015-2015,

Hegenbart, ‘Schlingensiefs Traum’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 December 2015,

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
During my visit to Opera Village in October 2015, an approximately four-metre high pole marked the centre of the village. Wires ran outward from the pole like a spider web. They were fastened in the dry red soil. A variety of everyday objects, including shoes, buckets, tins, soap, and cloth were fixed to the wires. The installation was placed at the exact location where Schlingensief originally intended to build his festival theatre. The sculpture raised a variety of questions about the migration of artistic forms from Bayreuth to Burkina Faso, as it appeared to me a manifestation of the collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk Wagner mentioned in his letters to Theodor Uhlig. Due to its immediate similarities to the animatograph (an installation emerging from Schlingensief’s Parsifal production), I approached the sculpture as continuation of Schlingensief’s aesthetic language. I was soon to be made aware, however, that my interpretation was filtered through my own cultural bias; I was projecting my knowledge of Schlingensief’s artistic practice onto an entity which stood in no relation to either Wagner or Schlingensief. When interviewing local staff about the nature of this sculpture, I learnt that it was the result of a workshop organised by the art teacher Paulin Zongo for the students. The interviewees doubted that it was conceptually linked with Schlingensief’s animatograph, a concept they did not view as directly related to Opera Village.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
Schlingensief’s project to recharge the notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk through his Opera Village is not merely of aesthetic nature. It also corrects a philosophical episteme by opening up Eurocentric discourses to approaches in African philosophy. While Wagner linked the Gesamtkunstwerk’s contribution to human flourishing back to the Ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, Schlingensief explored whether a Gesamtkunstwerk translocated to the African continent could potentially redeem Germany from its identity crisis. By opening up an iconological dialogue facilitating a contrapuntal analysis to integrate suppressed narratives into a global discourse, the Gesamtkunstwerk Opera Village shares structural features with postcolonial thinking. Since Schlingensiefs death, however, the project has lacked the self-irony, critical awareness, and creativity necessary to continually generate ambiguities. It may be asked to what extent the contemporary Opera Village still counts as Schlingensief’s production, given that he would likely have taken it in a very different direction. To prevent Opera Village from suffering the fate of the Gesamtkunstwerk it wanted to critically rethink, the ownership of Opera Village needs be handed over to the local population. This process will reveal the extent to which Schlingensief’s Opera Village will eventually result in smashing or reviving the very concept of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in Burkina Faso.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about?
Yes, I am currently working on a book with the working title “Decolonising the Genres: The Role of Dialogical Images in the Black Diaspora”, which explores how African American artists and contemporary artists belonging to the African diaspora, such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Meleko Mokgosi, Otobong Nkanga, challenge traditional art historical genres, such as history painting and landscape. In another publication, I investigate how the arts of global contemporaneity contribute to implementing climate justice.

Finally, Dada Data: Contemporary Art Practice in the Era of Post-Truth Politics, a book I have co-edited with Mara-Johanna Kölmel will be out next spring. This book shows how the Dada movement’s artistic response to the aggressive nationalism and fascism of its time offers a fruitful analogy to our contemporary political climate.

From Bayreuth to Burkina Faso

From Bayreuth to Burkina Faso
Christoph Schlingensief’s Opera Village Africa as Postcolonial Gesamtkunstwerk?
Sarah Hegenbart
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