Art of the Bwa people

Map of Western Sudan

Bwa Masks

Copyright 2007 by Christopher D. Roy

The Bwa (singular) or Bwaba (plural) are a people who speak a language (Bwamu) in the Voltaic family of languages and who live in central Burkina Faso and southeast Mali, from the Bani River in Mali south to the Mouhoun River (Black Volta River) in Burkina. Because of the confusion of early French explorers, soldiers and missionaries the Bwa were called “Bobo” for many decades, even though they are very different in all ways from their Bobo or Bobo-Fing neighbors to the west. The major southern Bwa towns are Hounde, Boni, Bagassi, Dossi, Pa, and Dedougou.  Only the southern Bwa, in Burkina Faso, make wooden masks, and only they will be discussed in this essay. The southern Bwa are noted for the very elaborate and thick scarification patterns on their faces and bodies, which led their neighbors to call these southern Bwa Nieniegue or “scarred Bwa.”  Very few Bwa boys and girls are now given these scars, and the term is beginning to disappear from use.

The Bwa town of Boni has become very famous for the size, number, and spectacular character of the great plank, animal and serpent masks they create and use. Their work has been featured in many exhibitions around the world, and in numerous films and videos, among them my own.  The village lies just beside the main highway from Ouagadougou to Bobo Dioulasso, just east of the larger town and regional capital of Houndé. It is very easy to stop your car near the highway, walk to the village and attend mask performances that are held throughout the dry season. The height of the performance season is late February to late May, when the rains begin. The people are hospitable and generous, and eager to permit strangers to attend their performances.

There are two families in Boni that use wooden masks, the Bondes and the Gnoumous, and a third family that uses leaf masks. Leaf masks, which exist only for one day before they are destroyed, are a much older tradition in Boni and there are many leaf masks throughout Bwa country, all the way north to the Bani River. These leaf masks represent Dwo, one of three sons of the creator God Wuro.  Dwo is the God of new life and rebirth in the springtime, and of the power of nature and vegetation. His brothers are Soxo, the god of the wilderness, and Kwere, the god of lightning.  Sometime near the end of the 19th century the southern Bwa discovered that they had suffered a long string of misfortunes: there had been drought, crop failure, insects, starvation, disease, slave raids by Fulani cavalry from the north, and the final, ultimate disaster, the arrival of the French at the head of columns of Senegalese mercenaries. The Bwa decided Dwo had abandoned them, and turned to their Nuna neighbors to the east for help. They realized that the Nuna were more successful and prosperous, and were obviously blessed by God, so the Bwa asked if they might make and use the same spectacular wooden masks to honor God that the Nuna used. The Nuna were happy to oblige and sold some of their masks, costumes and dances to the Bwa, while some Bwa made raids on their Nuna neighbors and stole some masks (or so the elders of the Lamien family in Dossi have told me). Many (but not all) southern Bwa families abandoned Dwo and began to make large wooden masks covered with red, white and black geometric patterns that were very similar to those of the Nuna. Some Bwa families in the south, and all Bwa in the north, remained faithful to Dwo, leading to considerable friction to this day between the users of leaf masks and of wooden masks.

Bwa masks are covered with the same red, white, and black geometric patterns that are to be seen on the masks of all Voltaic language-speaking peoples, including the Dogon, Mossi, and Nuna.  These patterns are called “scars” by the Bwa and Nuna, and are identical in shape to the scars once worn by people on their faces and bodies.  The patterns, whether on human flesh or wood, represent the religious or ethical laws for the moral and ethical conduct of life. These laws are dictated by the spirits through the medium of the diviner or priest, and are taught to young male and female initiates as part of the process of acculturation that leads to

adulthood. The graphic patterns and the wooden planks on which they are carved are analogous to the stone tablets of the ten commandments, covered with patterns in Hebrew, through which God’s laws were communicated to the Israelites. They are also analogous to the wooden writing boards on which young scholars of the Koran write their lessons in ink as they study in Muslim madrasas. Each of the geometric patterns carved on masks has a meaning. In the broadest sense the meanings of these patterns are universal among Voltaic peoples. In a more narrow sense there is some variation in meaning from village to village. Throughout the Voltaic world (I specifically include the Dogon) the tall planks themselves represent the “path of the ancestors” or the yaaba soore in Moore. This is both the path that the ancestors followed as they descended from the celestial to the terrestrial realm at the creation, and the path that all Bwa, Dogon, Mossi and Nuna must follow if they are to be successful and receive God’s blessings.  In a narrower sense the “path of the ancestors is represented by the zigzag line that may be vertical or horizontal on mask planks.  It is not easy to emulate the ancestors, to stick to the path without deviation, and so that path is a zigzag. But we must try the best we can to do as our ancestors did because they, after all, were successful. The black and white checkerboard pattern that appears on masks, on houses, pottery, and especially textiles, represents the importance of learning, especially the life-long learning that comes with age (Wheelock number 1045). In our own western cultures light represents learning and knowledge, and black represents ignorance. In a world where people are black the opposite is true. The white rectangles represent the pure white goat hides each young initiate is given at graduation, on which they sit during all religious ceremonies including mask performances.  At the end of each ceremonial season these hides are rolled up and stored in the rafters of the women’s kitchens, and they begin to become brown, then black with soot. As the years pass and the young people learn more and more about themselves and the physical and spiritual worlds in which they live, their goat hides become a rich, deep black, and so the black hides of elders are a metaphor for the life-long learning that is necessary for a complete understanding of the spirit world.  The triangle may represent the leaf of the hemp plant from which the fiber costumes are made, or the hoof print of the antelope, or the male gender whose sacred number is three, or the iron bull-roarer that is swung in a circle at the end of a long line and whose sound is the voice of God.  The concentric circles may represent the sacred wells around which Boni was settled, or something else entirely in other villages and regions. Each mask has a combination of patterns that address specific issues of spirituality and that lend the mask its unique name. In most cases the goal of these lessons is to protect the members of the community from witchcraft, or spiritual harm by emphasizing patterns of avoidance of malevolent power.

Among the Bwa young men and women pass through initiation together, in groups that constitute age grades. So there is an age grade for young men between the ages of twenty and thirty, and another for women of the same age, all of whom went through initiation at the sametime and together. Each age grade takes responsibility for certain tasks, including clearing and planting fields, building new homes, digging wells, making mask costumes. All of the people of the village above the age of initiation belong to an age grade.  At any mask performance the members of each grade appear together, dance and sing together, bring out their masks together.  All of the masks are accessible by men and women, young and old, who have been initiated,  While the young men wear the masks, simply because they are much stronger than the young women, the women take a very active role in every mask performance, speaking with the masks, singing to them, arranging their costumes, raising the hands of the performers in a gesture of praise at the end of the dance.  Except for the physical act of wearing the masks, which can weigh sixty pounds, there is no gender segregation during mask performances. The presence of so many women in proximity to the masks, touching the masks and speaking to them is surprising to scholars of art in other parts of Africa where women are systematically excluded from mask performances. Masks are worn with thick fiber costumes made of strands of hemp dyed red or black. In the past twenty years the Bwa in Boni have begun to use brilliant dyes made by BASF in Germany which they can buy in the market in Bobo-Dioulasso.  The collars of such masks as the bush buffalo and the hyena may now be dyed bright yellow, purple, or green, although the larger part of the costume is almost invariably red. The fibers are looped with a half-hitch around a netted undergarment made in several pieces. The performer wears trousers held up with a fiber belt, a shirt tied at the back, and a cowl or collar attached to the mask.  A tight hood of netted fiber is sewn to the mask so that it covers the performers head and neck, and in many cases he sees out through the tight netting in front of his eyes. The young men and women make the costumes fresh each year by soaking the hemp plants in water, usually by weighting down bundles of the stalks with rocks in a swamp. They pound the stalks to separate the fibers and rotted pith, and the fibers are dried. The amount of water necessary means that in very dry years it is difficult to make new costumes, and fewer masks appear.

Local artists, usually smiths in Boni and in each of the other southern Bwa towns carve the masks.  I have published an essay on the carvers in Ouri, a Winiama town where the Konate smiths carve masks for the Bwa (Roy 1992 4-8). They carve the masks of the wood of the Ceiba tree, Ceiba pintandra or the faux kapokier. The wood is light colored and quite light in weight, easily carved, but solid, very much like pine. The artists never use heavier wood such as Shea nut for masks because it is so heavy it would be impossible for the young men to wear the masks.  The wood of the Baobab and kapok trees is never used because they are too fibrous and are very poor materials for carving. Here, as in the Gurunsi area, carvers have permission from Eaux et forets to cut Ceiba trees for masks, even though others are forbidden to cut these trees for firewood.  The carvers are very skilled and capable, with excellent sharp tools. One of the best is the artist Yacouba Bonde, who has built a small workshop just by the side of the highway in Boni, on the north side of the road.  Yacouba is also the organizer and director of many public mask events in Boni.  Artists measure very carefully as they work to be sure that all proportions are correct and that the mask is symmetrical. The rough shape is carved quickly, the details are blocked out, then the outline is reduced until, as the carving approaches the final stages, lighter and smaller adzes are used for the final touches. Masks are tried over the face repeatedly to be sure they fit and that they are balanced. One of the last stages is to color the entire mask black with a vegetable pigment and then to carve the “scars” or geometric patterns through the black pigment so the contrast of black against the white of the wood makes it easy to see the shapes. Artists who work for Bwa families carve the patterns very deeply so the patterns stand out in considerable relief.  If the mask is intended for sale to whites the “scars” are far more shallow, and take less time to carve.

Each of the Bwa masks represents a spiritual being that plays a role in the history of the families in the village.  The spiritual characters include bush pigs, hawks, antelope, fish, serpents, hyenas, crocodiles, and many more.  There are numerous human characters as well, the leper, the “crazy man and his wife”, the dwarf, and others. Each masks has its own story, which the mask reenacts during its performance.

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 Mouhoun 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 an enormous 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 through the performance of the fish mask. In Boni the Gnoumou family performs a dance in which all the young men and women circle the fish making a gesture above their heads as they empty the swamp of water so that they can trap the fish. 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 village.  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 Mouhoun 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 elders in Boni told me that one day the men of the village decided to attack a neighboring village to steal young women to become their wives. They made up their plans carefully, and the men set out on the attack, but the people of the neighboring village had been warned, and they set an ambush. 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 (Wheelock number 1109).

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.

Mamy Wata: Among the most outstanding examples of the adaptability and acceptance of change by the Bwa people, is there adoption of the congregation of Mami Wata  in the 1980s. Three young men from the village had been working on the oil rigs in the Niger River Delta and had become followers of Mami Wata.   when the Nigerian government forced all foreign workers to leave, these three young men returned to the village of Boni,  where they introduced the following of Mami Wata.   For a short period of time images of this important spiritual being were carved on the backs of masks. Below you can see three photos of such masks along with images of Mami  from various publications over the years. In the lower right is the wonderful image of Mami Wata  carved by the Ibibio artist Thomas Chukwu,  and donated to the University of Iowa by a former faculty member named Pamela Brink. when I show these photos to people in the village now they don’t even recognize them: over 30 years later all of these masks have disappeared, sold by their families and followers, and people no longer remember when they appeared or what they look like.

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..

There is a very strong sense of theatre in Bwa performances, as the families reenact the encounters between the ancient spirits and their ancestors. The small plank mask represents the dwarf ancestor of the Gnoumou family of the town of Boni (number 1799 dwarf luruya). 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.

The bush cow and the antelope almost always perform together as a pair in Boni. One day, as I watched from the audience, the bush cow began to dance as the music began. It stalked through the audience and out into a stubble field a hundred meters from the audience, where it went through its entire performance.  As the music ended the audience laughed loudly and applauded. I turned to the elder next to me and asked “why did the bush cow go dance where no one could see it?”  He said: “You know, cows are very, very stupid.”

On my most recent trip to Boni, in April, 2006, I saw the fish mask and two crocodiles from the Gnoumou family perform.  The men and women of the family formed a circle around the masks and as they danced they swept their arms over their heads, imitation the gestures of people emptying the pond of water so they could capture the fish and the crocodiles.

In 1983-85 I saw several masks that represented Mamy Wata in Boni and Pa. Mamy Wata is a coastal West 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, Africans grew to imagine Mamy Wata 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 female snake charmer in a German circus. This photograph showed the woman with long fuzzy hair (she was from Samoa), 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 saw the representations of the spirit as a mermaid with 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, they carved the image of Mamy Wata 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. By the spring of 2006 all of the Mamy Wata masks had disappeared, and the elders were curious and pleased to see the photographs I took of the masks in 1985.  In the years since 1984 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. These are now gone from Bwa villages as well.

The incorporation of Mamy Wata into Bwa plank masks is one of many examples of Bwa openness and adaptability to change. The Bwa are cultural sponges. It is almost certain that centuries ago they acquired the following of Dwo, represented by leaf masks, from their Bobo neighbors to the west.  Dwo is a purely Mande phenomenon, and the Bwa are among the very few Voltaic language peoples who use it. Having abandoned, or been abandoned by Dwo in the last years of the 19th century the Bwa acquired the use of wooden masks from their neighbors to the east, the Gurunsi (especially the Nuna). In 1983 they were open and receptive to Mamy Wata when she arrived from coastal Nigeria. The Bwa are a very good example of the famous statement of Gaius Plinius Secundus in 79 AD, semper ex Africa aliiquid novii, “there is always something new out of Africa.” African culture is not dominated by rigid, dogmatic adherence to tradition, but is instead characterized by constant change and adaptation to new problems and the creation of new solutions. Pliny’s statement that there is always something new out of Africa is the only thing about Africa that has not changed since he said it almost 2000 years ago.

There are twenty-one Bwa masks in the Wheelock collection that represent many of the important types in the southern villages of Boni, Dossi and Pa. In addition there are five excellent masks from a bit farther north in Dedougou, where the Bwa style is more abstract.  The most impressive at least in terms of size is the great serpent, number 1109. The Bwa have rightfully become famous for these tall masks.  They attract large audience both in Bwa villages and at the annual mask celebrations at Dedougou, the Festival des Masques or FESTIMA.  One of the most impressive of the Bwa masks in the Wheelock collection is number 1080 the large butterfly, with multiple concentric circles on its wings (the Bwa in Boni call it “double zero”. The mask is associated with the new life and growth that comes in the spring with the first rainfall. Clouds of butterflies form around pools of water left after storms. They are thought of as harbingers of the new rainy season.  There is a second, smaller mask with wings, often mistakenly referred to in the literature as a butterfly. This has broad white wings without concentric circles (number 1153). I asked the elders of the Lamien family in Dossi about it and they said it is the butterfly that flies at night and eats fruit and lives in caves. It is the bat. The Lamiens did not know the French word chauvre souris, and called the mask a butterfly (papillion). It is important to be able to speak the language of the people with whom you are working if you are to get accurate information.

The segment of Bwa society called the kaani, the endogamous blacksmith group, uses the mask type named kobiay, the rooster, with an everted square mouth and a very large round crest.

Although the best-known style of kobiay is produced and used by the smiths of the Didiro clan in Houndé  (number 796), the mask is also used by smiths in many other Bwa villages, including the Konaté smith clan in the Winiama village of Ouri. The Konates in Ouri call the rooster mask hombo after the society of smiths who offer sacrifices to the spirit that protects them. The smiths of the Didiro clan in Houndé first encountered this hombo spirit when they were forced to flee their home village because they had sacrificed a boy and a girl, buried alive beneath their anvil. In fleeing, they were trapped at the edge of a swamp. The spirit of the swamp, named hombo, in the form of an electric eel, allowed them to cross but destroyed their pursuers. In annual celebrations of this event, a number of masks, of which the most numerous are kobiay, perform in the smith neighborhood.