Signs and Symbols in African Art:
Graphic Patterns in Burkina Faso
By Christopher D. Roy
Professor of the History of Art
Elizabeth M. Stanley Faculty Fellow of African Art History
The University of Iowa
Map of Burkina
Burkina Faso is a land inhabited by two races of beings--by spirits and humankind.
In the difficult physical environment of Burkina Faso, which is almost devoid
of natural resources, people are constantly threatened by endemic diseases,
frequent and devastating drought and starvation. Burkina Faso is ridden with
parasitic diseases that devastate the ability of the people to resist other
diseases that are less often serious in heavily developed countries. What
would our own lives be like if we were threatened with schistosomiasis (a
liver worm) when we swam in a fresh water stream, or onchocerciasis (an eye
worm) if we lived or farmed near a river, or trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness)
from the bite of a black fly?
Spirits protect man, they ensure success in life, providing the smallest measure
of security in an otherwise fragile world. Figures and masks make the spirits
visible, giving them shape and substance. Figures make the spirits visible.
Mask performances give the spirits life, as each performer acts out the history
of first encounter between the spirit and the founding ancestor, and the performance
recreates the characteristic movements, actions, virtues and vices of the
These spirits are also made visible by figures that permit communication between
the natural and supernatural worlds. Figures are the tools of the diviner.
They are placed in front of the diviner during the divination process to represent
the spirit beings with which communication has been established (Fig.
During the mask performance the spirits act but never speak. Speech is a human
characteristic, and so the human performer who interprets the character of
the abstract spirit is forbidden to speak. They may speak through the diviner,
who casts cowries, kills a chicken, or manipulates any of a dozen objects
as a technique for communicating the spirits wishes and commands (Fig. 2).
He may then place offerings of food on the figures that are his contact with
the spirit world to feed them and to secure their cooperation.
Although the performers who wear masks do not speak in Burkina Faso or in
most other parts of Africa, they have other ways of communicating. They communicate
through performance the character of the spirit they represent. The performance
interprets the character of the spirit, the way an actor interprets the character
he plays on the stage. In so doing they may communicate something of the requirements
of the spirit for its congregation. They communicate visually the rules established
by the spirits through the diviners for the moral and ethical conduct of life.
In Burkina Faso these rules are communicated through the graphic patterns
that cover masks, textiles, pottery, the walls of houses, and other objects
In Burkina Faso, among the Nunuma, Nuna, Winiama, Lela, Bwa, and Mossi, and
in Mali among the Dogon, masks are among the most strikingly abstract of African
sculpture. These masks are abstract because they are portraits of the nature
spirits. They are representations of the spiritual beings that give life to
the world in which we live. These spirit beings are normally invisible, unseeable,
untouchable. But we can feel their presence in the power of nature, in the
new life that appears following the first storms of the rainy season. What
more effective way to represent an abstract idea than with an abstract portrait.
Most African art is representative, not representational. Very little African
sculpture is intended to recreate the features of a human being, either living
or dead. Few objects are intended to resemble a deceased relative or to be
a portrait of a distinguished ruler. The invented spirits these figures and
masks embody are supernatural, unseen, unknown, incomprehensible, so that
the concrete forms that are carved to house them must also be invented.
THE MEANING OF INVENTED SPIRITS:
In an essay written in 1976 Leon Siroto has said:
The power attributed to invented spirits was a working force capable of effecting
changes throughout the human world; it contrasts with the power of the spirits
of the dead, whose power seems to have been mainly persuasive in influencing
invented spirits. The association of invented spirits with families, local
groups and individuals was of a tutelary nature. The spirit protected its
human partners and hosts against their human enemies and against the power
of other invented spirits attached to other individuals or groups. It should
be noted that the groups associated with invented spirits could be either
families of any degree of extension or composite associations composed of
different families united in such common interests as maintenance of their
village or observance of a non-familial cult" (Siroto 1976:14).
For people in Burkina Faso the key statement here is that "the spirit
protected its human partners and hosts against…the power of other invented
spirits…" Through appeal to the spiritual beings one might acquire
a little bit of security in a very threatening environment. Invented spirits
control people's lives. In cultures where science cannot provide the answers
to questions about the source of disease and misfortune, health and well-being
— cannot tell us "why me, why now?" — invented spirits
intervene to protect families from disease and to stave off the disasters
that disrupt human life.
These spirits are often given very human characters and, like the social order
of many African societies, exist in a distinctive hierarchy, ranked or stratified
as chiefs, kings, commoners and subjects. In just the way that the ancient
Greeks created the gods in their own image, attributing to them so many human
vices and failings, Africans create God in their own image, and think of the
spirits as having families like ours, with a spouse and children, and with
virtues and vices that must always be considered when communicating with them.
Distinctions between orders of spirits are vital in terms of supernatural
power and its manipulation. In most traditional ideologies that find expression
in imagery, supernatural beings exist in hierarchies. A remote creator-god
at the apex of the spiritual order allows the affairs of the world to be managed
departmentally by lesser deities who, in turn, delegate power over the material
world to lower ranks of invented spirits. Most cults show a sense of protocol
in setting their sights low in communicating with the higher powers through
the mediation of lesser spirits. Images are designed to deal with these otherwise
invisible middlemen(Siroto 1976:14).
In Burkina Faso, among the Lobi as an example, spirit beings are believed
to live in male/female pairs, just as humans do, to have children and to behave
in many of the ways humans behave, both relative to their own families and
relative to other spirits.
EXAMPLES OF INVENTED SPIRITS IN BURKINA FASO:
The Lobi provide an example of a people whose lives are so closely controlled
by invented spirits that the very fabric of their social structure is determined
by the rules for behavior these spirits have established. The Lobi live on
widely scattered farmsteads spread across large areas of southwest Burkina
and northern Ghana. Several such farmsteads comprise a community, whose spiritual
life is organized around a congregation of followers of the spirits of nature
which control life in the region.
The Lobi are totally allergic to centralized political authority: they have
no system of chiefs or kings whatever. This resistance to any sort of centralized
political power caused great difficulty both for the French during the colonial
period from 1897 to 1960, and for the contemporary independent government
of Burkina Faso. Administrators and tax collectors attempted to assert their
authority establish laws and enforce them and collect taxes from the Lobi
only to be greeted by showers of stones and arrows. The Lobi fought a protracted
war against the French early in the century, in which thousands of Lobi and
dozens of French soldiers were killed. To this day it has been proved difficult
for the government of Burkina Faso to extend the authority of the modern political
state in the Lobi area.
Lobi life is dominated by thil, (pl. thila) or spirits. These are invisible
beings with supernatural powers or abilities. The individual thil may give
a group of people rules for behavior through a diviner, creating what in Lobi
country constitutes a community. The group of followers of a particular spirit
form a congregation or a community in which all inhabitants are followers
of the spirit. A thil can punish a single person or an entire village that
fails to obey the rules it has established. These rules are called soser,
or prohibitions, and may include rules for proper and smooth functioning of
life in a community, effectively providing the social glue that is otherwise
provided by a chief in centralized political societies. Rules may include
the type of clothing worn, the type of food eaten, the species of animals
that may be or may not be hunted and eaten, abstinence from sex during certain
times, and especially certain types of sacrifices. While such seemingly trivial
rules for social behavior may have little impact on the life of the community,
they do provide visual evidence of cohesion. In contrast many other rules
about relationships between people, between the sexes, between the natural
and supernatural world, about working together for the common good, and between
the community and the outside world, provide in a real way the social glue
of the community.
The village thil creates through these rules the social and political order
as well as the feeling of togetherness and trust, which is so necessary in
order for the people to live, and in light of the production techniques used
in the fields and houses (and earlier in war) to work together efficiently
Wathila (pl. thila) are encountered in the bush by men, women, or children
who may find a strange object, usually made of iron, which he takes to a diviner
who says that it belongs to a wathil that has appeared to the person and that
the spirit wants to enter his home and receive sacrifices from him. The person
then builds a shrine in the courtyard of his house or on the roof, which includes
a pot for sacrifices to which is added the iron object or the stone the person
These spirits are normally invisible. We may feel their power in the heavy
downpour of a summer thunderstorm, or in the frightening isolation of a forest,
but we cannot see the spirits or communicate with them. The solution is to
make the spirits visible through wooden figures called boteba (Fig.
4). The wooden figures become living beings, with the ability to move,
strike out against evil, especially witches, as soon as they are dedicated
to the thil by being placed on a shrine. Unlike thil (spirits) the boteba
(wooden figures) have a physical being or bodies which they can use as humans
do, to fight evil. They can strike witches with their fists.
If you visit a Lobi farmstead and ask the permission of the head of the family
to see the shrines on which the boteba are placed he may give you permission,
or he may consult a diviner who will in turn ask the spirits. In my experience
this was usually accomplished by twisting the neck of a very small chick,
one of the little fuzzy yellow ones we see at Easter, and then observing which
way it lay when it expired: if it was on its back the spirits gave their permission.
You then are guided to a very dark corner of the home, often a small room
as far as possible from the front entrance, where a shrine is covered with
dozens, even hundreds of figures, large and small, usually in male/female
pairs, some with two heads or three, some with both arms raised, some with
an arm stuck out to the side, in a variety of poses. These embody all of the
many spirits whose help is required by the family, lineage, clan and congregation
to survive the many threats to well-being encountered in Burkina Faso. It
is eloquent evidence of the many threats of all kinds the people must face
that so many spirits, embodied by so many figures, must play a role in protecting
Most of these figures are distinguished in particular ways from naturalistic
and representational figures, of ancestors for example. Some of them have
two heads, some of them are posed in aggressive stances, some of them are
engaged in sexual acts, and almost all of them appeared in male and female
pairs. All of this again is intended to remind us that these are portraits
of spiritual beings, not of the ancestors or other natural beings.
Boteba can save people in the following ways: They can protect them from witches
and sorcerers. These boteba are called "boteba witches" (boteba
duntundara). The term here also includes the sorcerers. They mourn, so that
the members of a house later on don't have to mourn themselves, i.e. they
don't have to experience great sorrow. These boteba are called "sad bateba"
(boteba yadawora). Sad or mourning boteba are distinguished by gesture, they
hold their hands behind their backs in the Lobi attitude of mourning. They
fulfill various temporary tasks such as finding men a marriage partner, helping
women conceive children, and helping to prevent certain illnesses or healing
them (Meyer 1981:20).
The famous Lobi figure in the Kerchache collection is an excellent example
of the way gesture communicates the meaning of the object and the effectiveness
of the spirit that embodies it in dealing with adversity (Fig.
5). The figure was for years described as "the prisoner of war"
because it stands with its hands behind its back, as if they were bound, and
its face turned downward with a sad expression. I, too, thought of it as a
prisoner of war when I first saw it for sale in New York, and later when it
was published. In 1984 I attended my first Lobi funeral when I realized that
most of the Lobi gathered around the home of the deceased elder were standing
in the same pose as the Kerchache piece. They stood looking at the ground,
with their hands clasped behind their backs in the common Lobi pose of mourning.
The figure stands sad and mourning to take sadness on itself, so that its
owner will not have to mourn. It takes death and adversity on itself to free
its owner form suffering.
In the same way the gestures of other Lobi figures express thorough pose,
gesture, or composition their particular talent or skill in protecting their
followers from disasters or solving their problems. A female figure stands
with an infant tucked in its arm so that those women who follow it will be
able to bear children. A thil takes the form of a bird so that it will be
able to fly quickly to warn its owner of threatening danger, even if its owner
is working in a distant field or is away from the community on a trading trip.
As an example of the way the Lobi invent spirits to deal with problems and
represent them though art, the unusual boteba which appear to be seated on
a chair, wearing a French officer's hat, smoking a pipe represent the French
colonial medical officer Lerousique who worked for many years early in the
20th century in Gaoua, building a hospital to isolate cases of sleeping sickness
and teaching the Lobi how to cut brush that harbors Tsetse flies. Lerousique
was so effective in dealing with the threat of sleeping sickness that when
he left Gaoua the Lobi began to carve small wooden figures to represent him
and the power he had to protect them of this disease. Lerousique was transformed
into a thil and was represented by the boteba with a French officer's kepi
MASKS AS REPRESENTATIONS OF INVENTED SPIRITS:
While among the Lobi the spirits are made visible by carving wooden figures
that represent them, these figures have the disadvantage of being placed on
shrines, on which they appear static and immobile. Among other Voltaic peoples
in contrast, the spirits are represented by masks which have the advantage
of being able to perform in the village to participate in the life of the
community and to bring the spirits to life. Among all of these Voltaic peoples
including the Mossi, the Gurunsi, the Bwa, and the Dogon, in Mali, masks bear
the intricate patterns of geometric lines colored red white and black, which
are one of the most common Voltaic style characteristics, and which among
all of these people communicate important spiritual messages (Fig.
Throughout Burkina Faso masks allow invented spirits to come to life and take
part in the life of the community. Masks incarnate spirits which may appear
to man in any number of guises. Some appear as natural animals which can be
identified by their horns, snout or other physical features. The masks that
represent these spirits are naturalistic. Other spirits appear in unrecognizable,
abstract forms, because the spirit they represent did not appear as a natural
The power of the masks is called upon to solve special problems. The most
common request addressed to the spirits represented by masks is for human
fertility. Numerous informants state that there were no children in their
family, or that all the children of the community had died of disease, so
a spirit was contacted through a mask and the problem was solved through the
blessings and intervention of the spirit. When children are born with their
fists clenched or their eyes closed or the umbilical cord wrapped around the
neck their father may have a mask carved that he will wear and pass on to
the child after initiation. When problems of disease, famine, or infertility
trouble a family or clan a mask may be carved.
Among the Voltaic peoples, including the Bwa, Nuna, Winiama, and Mossi, masks
bear geometric patterns in red, white and black that are symbols in the language
of the spirits — an initiatory language in which these people become
more adept with increasing age. The patterns are combined on masks to represent
the prohibitions, rules for proper conduct of life, and requirements of the
spirits the masks represent -- they are visible forms of the soser of the
Lobi. The colors of the patterns and of the mask costumes themselves refer
to spirits, for the color red is associated with danger, especially in the
form of spirits from the bush, which are almost always thought to be red.
When a mask takes the form of a broad disk with a plank that rises vertically
above the face, as among the Bwa, it is easy to keep in mind that it is representative
of a supernatural being (Fig.
7). When a mask is clearly a representation of an animal such as an antelope
or a bush pig, it may be more difficult to understand why the antelope's horns
face forward, rather than back, or why the bush pig is combined with the powerful
features of some other animal. Such creations may seem irrational and illogical
unless we understand their meaning. A mask with human features may have added
to it forward-curving antelope horns and a great bird's beak because it represents
a spirit that does not take human or animal form (Fig.
8). Similarly, animal shapes do not mean the mask represents an animal,
but recall the invented spirit which saved the founding ancestor of the clan.
Allegorical and nonrepresentational, the masks incarnate the invented spirits.
Each mask's unique character is expressed by its dance steps, the musical
accompaniment, and its movements. Animal masks imitate, in a very stylized
but expressive way, the actions or behavior of the animals they represent.
In the Nunuma village of Tissé the bush pig darts rapidly around the
performance area, frequently scurrying through great clouds of dust raised
by its dance (Fig. 9).
It tosses its head as if sniffing the air for a scent of danger. The hyena
darts around the performance area acting furtive, hiding in a corner until
the drummer calls it to perform. It then become aggressive, dashing at members
of the audience who fall back in fear of its enormous jaws. The other masks
play along with the bush pig and hyena: when these two masks have completed
their performances and sit down next to the antelope, rooster, serpent and
other masks, the other masks get up and move to the opposite side of the performance
area, because they do not want to be close to the filthy, repulsive and dangerous
hyena or pig. At most Nunuma performances one or two monkey masks are worn
by young boys who have shown special talent as performers. They provide crowd
control, and like monkeys in the wild, frequently mimic human actions in ribald
performances that move the audience to laughter and loud applause. The Winiama
mask with a single curved horn, kenduneh, in the Naniebon neighborhood in
the village of Ouri, is a wild, uncontrollable bush spirit that frequently
falls into trances that cause it to weave and sway. The audience falls back
in fear as it approaches, for it sometimes strikes out impulsively at those
who get in its way.
The encounters between Bwa ancestors and the invented spirits that are embodied
in Bwa masks are recounted in numerous stories told among Bwa families. Bwa
wooden masks represent a number of spirit characters in the myths of their
families and clans. Masks represent numerous animals including the antelope,
bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile,
and fish of several types (Fig.
12). The serpent, and insects including the butterfly appear, as do birds
including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the
leper (Fig. 13), and the crazy man and his wife. Among neighboring Voltaic
peoples common human characters include the Samo warrior (Dogon) and the Fulani
woman (Mossi). Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms.
The elders of the Kambi clan in Dossi claim that the plank masks represent
flying spirits and are associated with water. These spirits can take the form
of insects that mass around muddy pools after early rains, or of larger birds,
including owls and ibis. Bwa plank masks may be seven feet tall and two feet
wide, with an enormous round, flat face surmounted by a rectangular plank
that terminates with a crescent (Fig. 14). A downward-curving hook protrudes
from the base of the plank above the face. The key to understanding plank
mask forms is that these masks are not representational, but embody supernatural
forces that act on behalf of the Bwa clans that use the masks.
The most remarkable characteristic of all Voltaic masks, and especially of
the spectacular masks carved by the southern Bwa, are the geometric patterns
colored red, white and black that cover them (Fig.
15). These patterns constitute a system of signs that communicate the
rules for correct moral behavior and the conduct of life for the followers
of the small-scale religious associations that are focused on each spirit.
These symbols are explained to young men and women alike during initiation.
Each has an individual meaning, a second meaning in association with other
patterns, and a meaning that varies with the level of knowledge of the initiate.
The geometric patterns incised on masks are called "scars" by the
Bwa, and they are identical to the scars worn by the men and women in the
community (Fig. 16). Among the most
common patterns is the system of parallel zig-zags, which is called "the
path of the ancestors," and reminds those who see it that they must obey
the rules established by the ancestors, do things as the ancestors did, in
order to succeed. To follow the path of the ancestors shows respect for them,
and they in turn act as mediators with the spirits of nature to provide their
blessings over their descendants. The same patterns of zig-zag lines appear
on masks of all Voltaic peoples, including Mossi masks, Dogon masks (and the
walls of caves in the Dogon cliffs), and these Bwa plank masks, and makes
"the path of the ancestors" visible to everyone who attends the
mask performance (Fig. 17). It is
clear that it is difficult to know at every turn what step is correct, and
the path is difficult to follow, so the symbol itself is broken and torturous.
The checkerboard of black and white rectangles on the broad plank represents
the separation of knowledge and ignorance (Fig.
18). The checkerboard motif is common on the masks of all Voltaic speaking
peoples, including the Mossi and the Dogon, but is especially apparent on
the great plank masks of the Bwa. The elders of the Lamien family in the town
of Dossi explained to me that the checkerboard represents that value of knowledge
and the difference between knowledge and ignorance. In our own culture we
use patters of black and white to represent ignorance and knowledge as well.
We often speak of the "light of knowledge" and the "dark shadow
of ignorance." We study the "Dark Ages" when the light of learning
went out with the invasion of Europe by nomadic peoples from the east. We
often use a lamp as a symbol of learning on university insignia. Among the
Bwa, whose skins are a deep, rich black, the association of white with knowledge
and black with ignorance does not make sense. For the Bwa, the black rectangles
on the checkerboard represent the dark goat hides on which elders sit during
mask performances and sacrifices, and the white rectangles represent the new,
freshly tanned goat hides that are used by the young men and women of the
community. Following graduation from the "bush school" where they
are instructed in the meanings of the graphic patterns that appear on masks,
the young men and women of the village are given newly tanned goat hides on
which they will sit at important religious occasions throughout their lives.
As the years pass, and the rolled-up hides are stored in the rafters of kitchens
where the smoke of fires keeps them safe from insect damage, they become darker
and darker with soot. Each year when they are brought down and unrolled they
are cleaned with a cloth, and quickly become the same rich deep black as the
skins of the people who own them. Thus, for the Bwa, black is the color of
wisdom, accumulated over the decades that men and women participate in the
spiritual life of the community, and white is the color of those who have
only just "commenced" the long process of learning that continues
throughout their lives.
Among the more unusual masks in both Boni and Dossi are the fish masks. They
are unusual because the region around these two villages is usually dry and
dusty and is far from the sea and even from the Volta River. The fish mask
performs accompanied by an elderly man with a large basket of the type the
Bwa use to catch fish in the swamps and low areas near seasonal rivers and
streams. The mask dances and skips across the performance area, accompanied
by the drums and flutes that play its music. It pauses to rest, like a large
fish resting in the shallows, beating its fins slowly back and forth. The
elder man approaches carefully, raising his basket above his head to bring
it down over the fish and trap it. At the last moment the
fish darts from beneath the basket. The same sequence is performed several
times, until, at the end, the fish remains in place and allows the elder to
capture it. Elders of the Lamien family in Dossi tell the story of just such
a giant fish that allowed itself to be captured by an ancestor who had traveled
a great distance seeking new land on which his family could settle and start
new farms. The fish gave itself up to feed the elder, to restore his strength,
so that he could return to his family and lead them to the new lands he had
found, founding the village of Dossi. This sacrifice is remembered trough
the performance of the fish mask.
The watery world is also represented by the crocodiles, which are the only
masks I ever saw perform as a group in Bwa or Winiama villages
(Fig 19). The people of Dossi tell of an ancestor who wandered for days
from his home, looking for vacant land to farm. He had become exhausted and
famished, and he lay down in the shade of a tree to rest. He was awakened
by a sound nearby, and thinking it might be a person who could give him directions
he ran toward the sound. He stumbled over the root of a tree and rolled head
over heels down the sandy bank of the Black Volta River, stopping his fall
just short of the jaws of two enormous crocodiles that had drawn themselves
up on the bank of the river. He was about to retreat in fear when he noticed
the male crocodile begin to open its jaws slowly to reveal a very large fish
between its teeth. The elder crept closer, fearing that at any moment the
crocodile would strike and tear him apart, but instead the crocodile allowed
him to remove the fish from between its jaws and retreat up the bank, where
he built a fire and cooked and ate the fish, restoring his strength so that
he could return to his family and lead them to the place. When he returned
home the local diviner told him what he already knew, that the crocodiles
were not real animals, but were spiritual beings that would protect him and
his family if he honored them. And so he commissioned masks to be carved,
which by their performance honor the crocodile spirits and communicate the
story of this magical encounter from one generation to the next.
The great serpent
masks that appear in Dossi, Boni, and Pa, in central Burkina Faso commemorate
an encounter between an ancestor and the great serpent of the wilderness near
Boni. The story is told that one day the men of the village decided to attack
a neighboring village to steal young women to become their wives. Plans were
carefully made up, and the men set out on the attack, but the people of the
neighboring village had been warned, and an ambush was set. The attackers
were surprised and fled in panic for their lives, pursued by clouds of arrows.
One of the men crawled into the deep burrow of the great serpent, calling
out to the serpent to save him, that he intended no harm, and that if the
serpent spared him he would honor it. The serpent not only spared him, but
left his burrow to hunt game which he brought back to feed the man. When it
was safe to leave the burrow he returned to Boni and told the diviner of his
experience. The diviner, of course, recognized that the serpent was a protective
spirit that would watch over the man if he honored it, and so he told the
man to have a mask carved which he and his descendants were to wear to honor
the spirit that had appeared in the form of a serpent.
This old story has a modern twist to it. In the past twenty years, the young
men of Pa realized that most of the attractive young women of the region attended
mask performances in Boni, where they admired the performance of the great
serpent mask, and where the young men of the village, as a result, had considerable
success in courtship and marriage, at the expense of the men of Pa. These
young men went to the diviner in their town and explained their predicament.
He cast his cowries and after some consultation with the spirits, informed
the men of Pa that they, too, had a serpent in their own spiritual history.
The young men quickly had a serpent mask carved and began to use it in their
own performances. When numerous young women of marriageable age began to attend
the performances at Pa, the success of the men in courtship and marriage increased
dramatically. So a mask was invented to meet a very contemporary need.
The small plank mask represents the dwarf ancestor of the Nyumu family of
the town of Boni. The family tells of an ancestor who never grew above two
feet tall, and who had a particular ability to communicate with he wild and
dangerous animals that inhabited the wilderness that, in those days, surrounded
every Bwa village. He was able to wander at night into the wilderness to speak
with the animals, and although his father feared greatly that he would be
torn to shreds by a lion or hyena, he always returned home safely. When he
was very old and was on his death bed his nieces and nephews came to him and
asked him how they could honor him after he had gone. He told them how much
he had always wanted to perform with the great broad plank masks for which
the southern Bwa are famous, but which were far too large for a person of
such small size to wear. He asked them to carve a small mask, identical to
the great planks in every detail, but small enough for him to wear in performance,
and the result was the dwarf masks named luruya, after this dwarf ancestor.
It is clear from my own research and the work of the French anthropologist
Jean Capron, that the famous leaf masks which have been frequently photographed
and studied in Bwa villages, are evidence of the influence of the Bobo people
on the Bwa. The leaf mask type is well known among the Mande speaking peoples,
but is much less well known among the Voltaic Peoples. It is quite clear that
the Bwa acquired the use of leaf masks from their Bobo neighbors centuries
ago. Until at least the end of the 19th century leaf masks that represent
the god Dwo were very common in Bwa villages. In the 1890s a series of disasters
struck Bwa villages, including raids by Fulani cavalry looking for slaves,
the invasions of the French and their subjugation of African peoples, and
finally in the period 1914 to 1918 the the French began to recruit young Bwa
men to serve in the French army. This long series of disasters led the Bwa
to doubt the ability of the god Dwo to protect them effectively. They turned
to their neighbors the Gurunsi whom they have admired for their power to control
the supernatural world, and they acquired from them the use of wooden masks
decorated with red white and black geometric patterns. These are the same
wooden masks that the Bwa use to this day. The wooden masks that we have assumed
have been used by the Bwa for centuries in fact are a recent creation —
an invented tradition.
In the past few decades these so-called ancient wooden masks have begun to
be transformed by the addition of contemporary motifs, the changing needs
for security by the Bwa people. As an example, in 1983 when the Nigerian government
passed legislation requiring all foreign workers to leave Nigeria, several
young Bwa man who had been working on oil platforms in the Niger River Delta
were forced to flee Nigeria. During that time that they had lived in Nigeria
they had become followers of Mamy Wata.
Mamy Wata is an
African spirit of fertility, abundance, and personal achievement. She seems
to have come into being along the coastal areas of Africa in the 18th or 19th
century. It is clear that her invention was a response to the arrival of Europeans
on great sailing ships bearing enormous quantities of European luxury goods.
Mamy Wata represents the efforts of Africans to acquire these luxury goods,
sometimes at the expense of their effective participation in traditional communities
in which labor on behalf of the group rather than the individual was valued.
Mamy Wata is a jealous goddess who requires her followers to be faithful only
to her. Her followers may not marry, and if they are unfaithful to her she
will destroy them. Because the life of ease, and the luxury goods that were
so admired by Africans often were associated with European women, Mamy Wata
was frequently imagined to be a white woman. Because in the 18th and 19th
centuries the ships that brought these luxury goods were often sailing ships
with carved wooden figureheads of mermaids, Mamy Wata is often depicted as
a mermaid with a fish's tail. Decades ago Africans discovered a photograph
of a snake charmer in a German circus. This photograph showed the woman with
long straight hair, with a large serpent draped over her shoulders. Very quickly
this image was adopted as a representation of Mamy Wata. The photograph was
sent to India where thousands of color prints were made from it which were
then sent back to Africa to become images of Mamy Wata herself.
As followers of Mamy
Wata in Nigeria these young Bwa men would have seen the representations
of the spirit as a white mermaid with a long flowing hair. When they were
forced to flee Nigeria in 1983, they carried the worship of Mamy Wata back
to the Bwa villages in Burkina Faso. This new religion was quickly introduced
in the villages, but rather than replacing the traditional wooden masks for
which the Bwa are so famous, the image of Mamy Wata was carved in low relief
on the backs of the tall plank
masks. In the early 1980's I saw many plank masks in the towns of Boni
and Dossi in central Burkina Faso which had been decorated with images of
Mamy Wata with their arms raised above her head in the common of Bwa gesture
of praise. In the years since my research in central Burkina Faso the Bwa
have begun to incorporate a variety of new forms into their masks. In 1984
following the rise to power of Thomas Sankara, many plank masks incorporated
the initials of the political parties, and even political slogans. Other masks
represented images of oxen drawn plows as symbols of development, and AK-47
as symbols of resistance to neo-colonialism.
The graphic patterns that cover masks in Burkina Faso comprise a system of
communication in which the combination of signs or symbols transmits rules
about the moral conduct of life. Each of these masks represents a spirit which
is invented by Voltaic peoples when a particular need arises. This process
of inventing spirits and creating masks to represent them continues to be
very active to the present day in the lives of Voltaic peoples in Burkina
Faso. As new challenges a rise, new spirits are invented, and new masks are
carved. This process means that the types of masks and the styles of masks
that appear are constantly subjected to change.
It is important that we understand that these changes to art that we call
traditional do not represent some period of decline, some sort of decadence,
or as Leo Frobenius called it Das Sterbende Afrika the “Death of Africa”.
African art was never intended to be static, to be unchanging, or to represent
unchanging traditions. African art, like everything else in Africa, is always
changing. This is why the great Roman historian Gaius Plinius Secundus, wrote
in 79 A D , semper ex Africa aliquid novii, “there is always something
new out of Africa.” Africa is characterized by constant change, not
by a tradition or conservativisim. Why should we expect art in Africa not
to change when everything else changes quickly? And so in Burkina Faso where
masks have been used by different peoples for centuries as a means of communicating
important messages about the relationship to their spirit world and to the
world around them, the masks that communicate these messages change as quickly
and as frequently as the messages themselves do.