Land of Spirits and Men

The Land of Spirits and Men
Copyright © 2006 by Christopher D. Roy

The Character of Art from Burkina Faso:

This book is about the art of the people who live in Burkina Faso, West Africa.  The art of Burkina is remarkable for a variety of reasons:  it is abundant, it is well-made, it is still being made, it exists in significant quantities in both a village context and in public and private collections of African art around the world, it still mirrors the systems of thought of the people who made it, it provides a primary document for understanding the history and changing cultural creativity of several important West African peoples.  The sculptural styles of Burkina Faso are easy to identify: the red, white and black graphic patterns that cover the art of the Mossi, Dogon, Bwa, gurunsi and several other peoples are immediately recognizable.  Finally, because of the accidents of history, colonialism, nationalism, the tourism industry, the growth of Islam and Christianity in Africa, the art of Burkina is among the very few examples of traditional art that the visitor can still see being used by people in their own communities in forms that appear almost unchanged since the Western interest in African art first developed in Europe in 1907-1912. This does not mean that art in Burkina is frozen in time—just as elsewhere in Africa the people of Burkina have continued to use new art forms to overcome the challenges they encounter—but here the solutions they create still are recognizable as art.Peoples of Burkina Faso

Art from Burkina Faso is especially interesting because it is so abstract.  Almost all African art is abstract, but some more so than others.  With the exception of the occasional bush buffalo mask or bush pig mask which can be recognized easily, art from Burkina is so abstract that collectors and students find it baffling. They cannot make out what objects mean, or why a crocodile has a hornbill’s beak.  Much African art is enigmatic to Western minds who assume that through the dictates of ceaseless repetition forms that were once naturalistic imitations of nature have been reduced to abstract copies, or that African artists are not capable of imitating nature (I am speaking in particular of the American art historian Horst W. Janson, whose text on Western art was used by tens of thousands of students for decades).  They assume that Africans have struggled with the same challenges that European artists faced—how to reproduce reality and imitate nature.  The fact is that Africans discovered long ago that it is foolish to attempt to represent the very abstract idea of a spiritual being by making it look like a human.  Their genius as artists led them to represent abstract ideas by the use of abstract forms.  In this approach to art the artists of the West have only caught up with Africans in the past century.  Picasso was the first to get it right, but of course he never understood what was really going on in the African artists’ mind.  He assumed the African was breaking with a western representational tradition, when in fact the African artists had never tried to imitate the natural world.  Artists in Burkina have always been among the best at creating totally abstract forms to make visible the invisible spirits that control their lives.  The two best examples I can think of from the Wheelock collection are the superb Bwa mask with what appear to be huge blue ears (number 1028), and perhaps the Bwa butterfly mask (number 1080).  The Yatenga Mossi mask (1146) is another fine example of the futility of looking for nature in African art.

Burkina Faso was created (as Haute Volta) in 1960 to provide a country in which the Mossi were the majority.  The French originally intended to divide the area now known as Burkina between Ivory Coast, Mali, and Niger, but the Mossi insisted on their own state, rather than being dissected by international boundaries the way so many other African peoples had been.  Naturally, the Mossi were and still are the most important people in the country, at least from the point of view of numbers.  Mossi art is particularly important because it serves as such an effective primary document of the history of the Mossi peoples.  The hierarchy of royal art in the form of figures and spiritual art in the form of masks, mirrors the vertical structure of Mossi society, with the ruling nakomse at the top and the commoner nyonyose or tengabisi at the bottom.  Mossi art also provides a unique document of the geographical distribution of the many peoples who were conquered by the invading nakomse cavalry.  The styles of masks in each area conform to the styles of masks people were making before this invasion, and so we are able to see clearly where the Dogon, Lela, Winiama, Nuna, Kurumba, and other peoples lived before they were integrated into the new society named Mossi.

The art of Burkina continues to provide a window on the minds of the peoples of the country. The graphic patterns that cover masks, figures, pottery, faces and bodies, the walls of houses, and textiles describe God’s moral and ethical laws that the people must obey if they are to receive God’s blessings.  These laws provided the social glue that bound communities together, and in many places they continue to provide that cohesiveness today.  The Nuna, Lela, Winiama, Sisala, Kasena, Bwa and others did not have chiefs—instead they had the religious laws that fulfilled many of the same functions chiefs filled elsewhere.  These laws were effective in holding the communities together, until the arrival of the nakomse, when they proved too weak and ineffective to enable the Voltaic peoples to resist heavily armed cavalry under the leadership of powerful chiefs.

I first visited Burkina Faso in 1970 when it was still called Upper Volta (Haute Volta), and I was a twenty-three year old Peace Corps Volunteer.  My wife Nora and I were married in the town hall in Ouagadougou in 1970, and we are still the only Americans ever married there.  I was fortunate enough to have been assigned with four other volunteers (Bob Carvuto, Alfred Mock, Frances Burckhard, Gene French) to work in the National Art Center, which continues to flourish thirty-five years later on the road from the central post office north to Dapoya.  My wife and I have returned to Burkina Faso frequently over the past three decades, with extended stays in 1976-77, 1983-85, and most recently every year since 2002.  I continue to do research on the visual arts of this small country because it is a very pleasant place to work, I know the route, and the people of the country continue to be some of the most creative culturally in all of West Africa.

Burkina is unusual in West Africa because such a small percentage of its people have converted to Islam or Christianity.  Official figures state that 50% of the people are Moslem, 40% practice traditional African religions, and 10% are Christian.  Unquestionably the number of devout Muslims is far smaller, and a large number of those counted officially as Muslim continue to offer prayers to their ancestors.  In contrast to Ivory Coast and Ghana to the south, where Christianity and Islam have become the dominant religions, and in contrast to Niger and Mali to the north, which are so heavily Moslem, many of the people of Burkina continue to honor their ancestors and the spirits of nature through sacrifice, prayer, and the making of art to represent these spiritual beings. In spite of what other revisionist scholars may believe and have published, both Christianity and Islam are terribly destructive of the visual arts in Africa.  Whenever one visits a village in Africa, you can be sure that the greater the number of mosques or churches, the less art there will be.  There are still very large areas of Burkina where these two foreign, intrusive religions have not been able to destroy the rich culture of the people.

One of the most important French strategies in their colonies was the mission civilatrice.  The French truly believed in liberté, egalité and fraternité, and that anyone, even an “ignorant African”, could become French if he spoke French well enough and was totally acculturated, a Frenchman in every sense except skin color.  French administrators, teachers and missionaries did their best to convince Africans that their own art, language, literature, history, economic, political, education and social systems were primitive, savage, and worthless—that to become respectable citizens of la France d’outremer they must abandon everything they knew and transform themselves into model Frenchmen.  The result in 1970 and 1976 was that when I introduced myself and my wife to Mossi elders in their own language, and told them that I was there to visit them and to learn about their rich culture and history, I was greeted first with astonishment and incredulity, and very soon with enormous hospitality and respect.  Very few avenues of research were closed to me, and people were eager to share their ideas in open discussion.

I love Burkina Faso in part because I know and love its people and I can communicate in at least one of their languages (Moore).  These are warm, friendly, helpful, cooperative, creative, industrious people. Perhaps the suffering they endure because of illness and poverty has made them that way.  Even when I ventured into villages that were extremely conservative and did not want strangers like me asking questions, I was treated with respect and politeness.  In other villages I have been greeted warmly, offered a strong chair and clean water, and politely asked what I needed.  I love traveling at dawn down a road out of Ouagadougou on my way to a town I have never visited, wondering what I may find, and who I may meet.  I love the anticipation of a village crowd in Burkina as they sit around an open plaza waiting for masks to appear and perform.  I love the dusty, dry, smoky smell of small rural villages where industrious people make pottery, baskets, textiles, wood sculpture, cast brass, leather, and play drums and flutes while they sing.  I still enjoy awaking under the stars of Africa, looking up from a bed made of raffia midrib, out in the open away from the heat of the village.  My friends are always nervous that a hyena will get me, but I always tell them it would take an awfully big hyena to drag me into the bush.
Burkina Faso is a developing country in West Africa, north of Ghana and south of Mali and Niger.  It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of $15.74 billion or $1200/person, and a life expectancy from birth of 43.9 years.  Life expectancy for adults is much higher because so many children die before the age of five.  The population is about 11 million with a growth rate of 2.5%.  In spite of economic impoverishment, Burkina remains culturally one of the richest countries in Africa.  The people of Burkina continue to create arts of all kinds, including the sorts of sculpture for which West Africa has long been famous.  In addition, new arts have become important in the past three decades:  Burkina is one of the centers of African film industry, and the international Festival pan-africaine du cinema (FESPACO) is held there every second year (odd numbered years).

The capital city is Ouagadougou, with a population of at least one million and growing fast.  It is easy to fly to Ouaga from Paris, and from many west African capital cities.  Ouagadougou is a comfortable city, with good infrastructure, plentiful clean water and electricity, an efficient sewer system, good hotels and restaurants, and crime rates lower than the rest of Africa.  Although it is dusty, and there are lots of people and traffic, getting around the city is safe and easy.  There are paved roads from Niamey to the east, Bobo-Dioulasso and Bamako to the west, and Accra to the south.  Travel from Ivory Coast has been difficult recently because of political turmoil in that country.

There are about fifty distinct groups of people  in Burkina (I hate the word “tribe” so I call them people).  Of these I have seen significant amounts of sculpture being actively made and used by at least sixteen.  Many of the remaining people, especially the Tuareg and Fulani, have artists who work in the media of music and dance, rather than sculpture.  Most of the peoples who create sculpture are represented in this book: Mossi, Nuna, Nunuma, Lela, Sisala, Kasena, Kurumba, Dogon, Marka Dafing, Samo, Bobo, Bwaba, Lobi, Dagari, Tusyan, and Turka.  The only major artistic tradition that is not represented here are the powerful Komo society masks of the northern Senufo, which have been thoroughly described by my (former) student Dr. Boureima Diamitani.  In contrast to Mali, where people have converted to Islam and Komo is dead, this powerful anti-witchcraft society flourishes among the northern Senufo (Tagwara) south of the towns of Orodara and Sikasso.

The country we know as Burkina Faso was called Upper Volta from independence in 1960 until a coup d’etat in 1983 when it was renamed Burkina Faso. In 1983 an increasingly anti-French administration of Thomas Sankara attempted to do away with all traces of neo-colonialism, including all French names. The name Burkina Faso, from Mooré and Jula root words meaning “the land of nobles”, has replaced the original, geographically-based name “Upper Volta” based on the fact that it lies at the headwaters of the Volta Rivers. The Volta River was given this name because Portuguese sailors in the 15th century insisted their captains turn around and return to Portugal when they reached the mouth of the river in present-day Ghana, giving it the name Rio Volta or “turn-around river”. The citizens of Burkina Faso are called Burkinabé.  For twenty-three years the national flag was three bands of red, white and black, like the names of the Red, White and Black Volta Rivers, and the red, white and black patterns painted on all of the art in the country.  To needle both the French and Americans Thomas Sankara modeled his new national flag with red and green bands and a yellow star based on the Viet Cong flag, but with a green band at the bottom in place of the VC blue band.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country of about 274,200 square kilometers (105,869 sq. miles—about the size of the State of Colorado) just south of the great bend of the Niger River and 500 kilometers from the Bight of Benin. To the south along the coast are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin (Dahomey). To the north and northwest lies Mali, and the eastern border is with Niger.

Burkina Faso is an enormous flat plain of red clay soils from 250 to 350 meters above sea-level, broken only by the valleys of the Mouhoun, Nakanbe and Nazinon Rivers (formerly the Volta Rivers), the Komoé, and small tributaries of the Bani and Niger Rivers. There are occasional spectacular outcroppings of rock, especially in the north, near Kongoussi and Tikaré, in the center near Boromo and Houndé, and in the west around Orodara. In the center of the country the Mossi Plateau, drained by the Nakanbe (White Volta), reaches an altitude of 300 to 450 m. The Mossi Plateau rises, in steep bluffs, above the lower surrounding country. The major rivers are the Komoé, which rises in the rocky escarpment between Banfora and Bobo-Dioulasso, and the Red, White, and Black Volta Rivers, all tributaries of a large system that drains most of the country. In 1984 the Sankara government renamed the rivers Mouhoun (Black Volta), Nakanbé (White Volta), and Nazinon (Red Volta). Of these, the Mouhoun (Black Volta) is the largest, and runs almost year-round. The Nakanbe (White Volta) is dry much of the year, especially north and west of Ouagadougou. The Nazinon (Red Volta) is the shortest and the most intermittent of the three, joining the Nakanbe just south of the Ghana/Burkina border. Wet or dry, the valleys of all of these rivers are full of tsetse flies and other vectors of disease deadly to humans and domesticated animals, and so are rich in wildlife that includes lions, buffalo, hippos, baboons, antelope, and west Africa’s largest population of elephants.  The wildlife tourism industry in Burkina is very strong, and brings to see elephants and lions thousands of people who also see rich and vital cultures.

Rainfall amounts vary considerably from year to year, and since the late 1950’s the place has gotten drier and drier.  As is true throughout the Western Sudan (the dry area of West Africa between the forest and the desert), the yearly  cycle is marked by a short rainy season that (normally) begins in May and early June and ends in September. All farming is carried out during this rainy period. As in all agricultural areas, including the American Midwest, farmers are too busy during the growing season to do anything but battle weeds. During the long dry season from November to late April, almost no rain falls. Once the harvests have been gathered, people are left with a lot of free time to repair equipment and homes, to weave or make pottery, and to stage the elaborate and spectacular religious celebrations and initiations in which masks play an important role. The period of mask activity begins in February among the Mossi, Bwa and Bobo, and continues until planting time in May. This is also the hottest time of the year, when the daytime temperature often is over 40o C. (105o F.), and it is not much cooler at night. It is a time when young initiates can be out in the wilderness unclothed and not get too cold.  The landscape is desolate, with red dust and dust-covered vegetation to the horizon.  Families retreat to the shade of the family dwellings, and livestock huddle in the sparse shade of the few scorched trees. Dust devils dance across the fields, and as the level of wells drops, women must walk miles for a muddy bucketful of water. With the first heavy and frequent rains in June, the landscape is transformed, as roads become lined with dense green walls of millet and sorghum stalks seeming to submerge villages in a sea of vegetation.

The major economic activities in Burkina are farming and herding. The major traditional crops are pearl millet and red or white sorghum. Maize or corn has been grown since its arrival from the Americas in the 16th century, as have peanuts and tobacco. Rice is grown in large plantations north of Bobo-Dioulasso. The major cash crop is cotton, important since before the colonial period when it was woven into cloth for trade with forest peoples to the south. The French vigorously encouraged the growing of cotton to feed the textile mills near Bobo and Koudougou , often at the expense of food crops, disrupting traditional economic and social patterns. Today the major exports are Shea butter, fresh green beans, peas, sesame and mangoes to France.

I was astonished to learn recently that only 14% of Burkina’s land is classed as arable. Most of the area north of Kaya, Kongoussi and Ouahigouya is very sandy and almost desert, where farming is difficult.  Farming was almost impossible in the rich, well-watered river valleys until recently because of the high incidence of fly-borne onchocerciasis or river blindness. Over a decade ago Merck Pharmaceuticals developed a medication that prevents oncho, and farmers have been able to repopulate the rich river valleys.

Human labor from Burkina has been an important export that has fueled the economy of Ivory Coast and provided substantial income to poor farmers from the north. The French built the railway from Abidjan to Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou to carry farmers idled by the dry season to the French-owned cocoa plantations and ports of the Ivory Coast.  Without this human labor force Ivory Coast would still be an undeveloped forest.  The French made sure no roads were paved to permit truck traffic to compete with their railway, so the road from Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso was a dangerous washboard dirt track until the 1980s when it was finally paved.  When I first visited Burkina in 1970 there was not a single paved road outside Ouaga.  Now most of the major roads are paved and fairly well-maintained.

Traditional subsistence economies, including hunting, gathering and fishing are still important for rural peoples, especially during the dry season. Women gather fruit and leaves of trees that grow in the bush. Shea butter has been especially important.  This is made every year by boiling the fruit of the Shea nut tree (Butyrospermum parkii, named after the great Scots explorer Mungo Park) and removing the oil.  Burkinabe women sell it for 700 CFA/kg., or about $1.40/kg.  The rich vegetable oil is sent to France where it is transformed into expensive body lotion by l’Occitane ($30/8 fl.oz.).  In April and May all of the inhabitants of a community spend several days at nearby ponds harvesting fish with nets and large basketry traps. Each year during the dry season, great numbers of men hunt in the deep bush, forming large circles to drive game toward the center to be slaughtered.

Almost  half (48%) of the population is Mossi, who occupy the Mossi Plateau at the center of the country. The area supports a dense population, averaging from 20 to 50 inhabitants per square kilometer, but with some areas having up to 190 people/km2, in part because there are adequate soils and rainfall for subsistence farming, but also because the region is relatively free of diseases such as trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). The Mossi number 5,000,000. Their major towns are Ouagadougou, Ouahigouya, Koudougou, Kongoussi, Yako, and Kaya. The large Mossi group comprises several subgroups, including the Nyonyose descendants of ancient farmers, the Nakomse descendants of invaders, and Saya smiths.

The Fulani, or Peul, comprise 10% of the population, or about 858,000 people. They live primarily in the Sahel (north), but migrate southward with their herds during the dry season.  The Fulani are very important to the economy of Burkina because the livestock they raise are very valuable.  However, it is a mistake to describe the relationship between Fulani herders and Burkina’s farmers as “symbiotic”.  These people are frequently at odds because the Fulani often herd their cattle in fields of growing crops, destroying  food crops.  Many Fulani carry  weapons to protect themselves from farmers, and pay off the police to look the other way when their cows destroy farmer’s fields.

The Lobi are among the longest established peoples in the upper Volta valley. The Lobi and related Birifor, Gan, Dian, Dorhosié and others live astride the frontier with Ivory Coast and Ghana. There are a total of about 473,000 Lobi in Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Burkina. About 500,000 Lobi and related peoples live in Burkina. Their major towns are Gaoua, and Kampti.  The Lobi are notable for the violence with which they resisted French colonial authority.  They shot French officers and their Senegalese and Bamana mercenaries full of poisoned arrows, and were in turn mowed down in the thousands by French machine guns.

To the north of the Mossi are the Kurumba, who number about 220,000. Their principal towns are Titao, Djibo, and Aribinda. There are a few Dogon villages scattered over the dry plains of the northwest.  The Dogon speak a language in the Voltaic or Gur sub-family of the Niger-Kongo family of languages.  They are related closely to the Kurumba, Mossi, Bwa, and Senufo, and are not related to the Bamana.

To the east are the Gurmantche, (about 660,000) who also live in neighboring Niger. Their major towns in Burkina are Fada N’Gourma, Bogandé, and Diapaga. The Gurmantche are descended from Jaba Lompo, a ruler who is said to have emigrated from northern Ghana at the time of the nakomsé invasion and established the kingdom of Fada N’Gurma, east of Koupéla, imposing himself as ruler over local farmers as the nakomsé did on the Mossi plateau. In contrast with the Mossi, the founding families of the Gurmantché leadership have become so thoroughly integrated into local society that the ruler/subject division ceased to exist.

West and southwest of the Mossi are a number of peoples that are often called gurunsi; they call themselves Léla, Nunuma or Nuna, Winiama, Sisala, Nankana, and Kaséna. The total gurunsi population of Burkina is about 600,000. Boromo, Tenado, Pô, and Léo are their largest towns.  The many different gurunsi peoples are central to Voltaic cultural creativity because they are the originators of much of the art that has spread through a variety of social and historical processes to other peoples, notably the Mossi and the Bwa.

The Marka Dafing live northwest of the gurunsi around Dédougou, Nouna, Tougan, and Safané. Occupying a low brushy area between the Red and Black Volta, they number about 150,000. They are closely related to the Marka Soninké who live in Mali.  Oral histories indicate that in the 16th century they moved southward down river valleys into the area we now call Burkina.

West of the gurunsi live the Bwa who also extend into Mali. They number about 330,000, with 130,000 in Mali and 200,000 in Burkina Faso. Their major towns are Dédougou, Houndé, and Solenzo.  The Bwa are famous because they have bridged the cultural gap between Mande speaking Bobo to the west and Voltaic speaking Nuna to the east, making free use of the best of both cultures.  They are very open and receptive to change, and have incorporated Bobo spirits such as Dwo and Nuna art forms.

The Bobo number about 748,000 and their major community is Bobo-Dioulasso (over 500,000), the second city of Burkina Faso and the old French colonial capital. Farther north are large towns including Fo and Kouka, with Boura in the extreme north in Mali. The famous French anthropologist Guy LeMoal has thoroughly studied the Bobo (Les Bobo: Nature et fonction des masques. 1981.  Paris:ORSTOM).

In the far southwest of Burkina live the Senufo and related peoples, including the Syemu and Tusyâ. Tusyâ population is about 22,000.  The northern Senufo call themselves Tagwara, and are very creative people.  Their major organization that commissions art is the Komo society, the most powerful anti-witchcraft society in West Africa.  Unlike their neighbors to the west, the Bamana, who have become heavily Muslim and have abandoned Komo, the Tagwara have preserved this important cultural tradition, and it is still possible, under just the right circumstances, for a stranger to attend a Komo performance and see the Komo masks dance and sing.

The areas occupied by these peoples have been indicated on the ethnic map, but the frontiers between peoples are very porous and constantly changing. Frontiers between groups are open and frequently crossed by peoples and ideas. Many disparate peoples may live in the same village.  The Mossi especially have moved into communities all over the country.  In the capital and other cities populations are completely intermixed.

These peoples may be divided into two major language groups: Voltaic or Gur, and Mandé. The Voltaic speakers include most of the groups east and north of the Black Volta–Mossi, Dogon, Kurumba, Gurmantche, Bwa, Senufo, Tusyan, Winiama, Nuna, Lela, Kasena, Sisala (the so-called gurunsi). The Mandé speakers live west of the Black Volta and include the Bobo, Bolon, Jula, Dafing, Bisa (actually in the east), and Samo.  In 1984 Thomas Sankara changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso.  Nevertheless, the term “Voltaic” continues to be useful and is used by scholars to refer to many peoples who share important linguistic, ethnic, and cultural characteristics.

The most important “lingua franca” in the area west of the Mossi is Jula, the language of Moslem traders.  In the north the most common language is Fulfulde or Pular, the language of the Fulani.  French continues to be the official language of government and education. About 32% of Burkinabes speak and read French. The rest continue to communicate in their own languages or in Jula, Fulfulde, or Moore.

The history of the Basin of the Volta Rivers has been recorded in oral histories of local peoples, which were gathered by early visitors including Heinrich Barth, Leo Frobenius, and Louis Tauxier, as well as numerous colonial administrators and missionaries. There are sparse written descriptions in the Tarikh el-Fettach (16th century) and the Tarikh es-Sudan (17th century). More recently, Burkinabé scholars have collected and preserved oral histories of the many small, non-centralized groups that were ignored by early visitors. The history of the area is one of recurring conflict between peoples: on the one hand, people who have inhabited the region for many centuries, and who have preserved little or no trace of their emigration from some other area, and on the other hand, people whose oral histories tell of recent migration, penetrating regions of sparse population to subjugate the earlier settled farmers and to impose themselves as political rulers of large, centralized kingdoms or empires. The settled populations include both Voltaic and Mandé speakers, so it is an error to assume that one language family is associated with ancient inhabitants, and another with invaders.

Scholars of Burkina Faso agree that before the creation of the Mossi states the central basin of the Volta Rivers was inhabited by a number of small, essentially leaderless farmer groups that had occupied the land for centuries. These original peoples included the Kurumba and Dogon in the north, Nuna, Léla, Winiama, Kaséna, Sisala in the south, Bwa, Bobo, Lobi, and probably many Senufo-related peoples in the southwest and west.

The most dramatic event in the formation of the ethnic map we now recognize was the arrival of several groups of horsemen from the south, from the kingdoms of Dagomba, Gonja, and Mamprusi. This invasion almost certainly took place at the end of the fourteenth century. Displaced and landless, these younger sons rode into the upper basin of the Volta Rivers and conquered or expelled the relatively defenseless farmers in the region, establishing themselves as rulers over a commoner population. They created a new Mossi society where none had ever existed.  The Mossi founded several kingdoms, of which the most important are the kingdoms of Ouagadougou and Yatenga. The Emperor of the Mossi, called the Mogho Naba, has always lived in Ouagadougou.  You can visit the palace of the Mogho Naba in Ouagadougou, especially at dawn every Friday, when he reenacts an ancient tradition, refusing to mount a horse to ride after his sister, who (centuries ago) fled to Yatenga.

The Mossi conquests, which depended on the force of light cavalry, were effectively limited by the boundaries of the Mossi plateau. Known as powerful magicians, the gurunsi used their powers to drive off Mossi cavalry. The Nuna planted poisoned thorns in the ground; the Mossi countered by wearing thick sandals.  When the cavalry rode off the high plateau into low brushy areas near rivers they rode into areas infested with tsetse flies.  The horses of the Mossi cavalry were bitten and died soon after invading the wooded areas where the gurunsi lived.  Most of the Dogon population fled before the Mossi invasion and sought refuge in the Bandiagara cliffs, where Mossi horses could not follow. The Dogon who remained behind in the Mossi area were assimilated into Mossi society as Nyonyosé.  There are many, many Mossi in northern Yatenga whose ancient ancestors were Dogon.

The conquered peoples and the invading horsemen were welded into a new society called Mossi, and spoke the language of the conquerors, Mooré. The descendants of the invaders, a group called Nakomsé (children of the nam, or right and power to rule), became chiefs, kings, and emperors, called nanamsé (sing. Naba) or nabissi. The descendants of the subjugated peoples were called Tengabisi, “children of the earth”. The men who may have held some political power before the invasion became “earth-priests” responsible for the use of the land and the propitiation of the earth spirits.  This very important and remarkable social structure has been eloquently described by the eminent French historian Michel Izard in numerous publications, especially Gens du pouvoir, gens de la terre (1985: Cambridge University Press).  By far the best analysis of Mossi political structure is The Mossi of the Upper Volta by Elliott P. Skinner (1964: Stanford University Press), since reprinted as The Mossi of Burkina Faso.  This book focuses on the political development and sophistication of the Mossi because it was written during the lead-up to independence when scholars of Africa felt compelled to make the case that African countries were capable of ruling themselves.

Throughout this long period the southwestern area was considered a reservoir for slaves, and frequent raids by Fulani, Songhai and Mossi bore gurunsi captives to Cape Coast castle, Elmina, and any of numerous slave forts along the Guinea Coast, whence they were sent to the Americas.  Thus, a significant cultural influence was carried from central Burkina to the New World in the holds of European and American slave ships.

In 1897 the situation went from bad to worse when the French arrived, marching from the west at the head of columns of Senegalese mercenaries armed with machine guns and light field artillery.  For more than sixty years the region was part of the French colony of the “Haute Sénégal et Niger.” French occupation was punctuated by several violent revolts by peoples (especially Mossi, Lobi, Bwa and Bobo) who resisted taxation, the imposition of centralized rule, forced labor, and military conscription. The French colonial armies slaughtered those who revolted and had effectively subjugated the peoples of Burkina by 1903.

Faced with the difficulties of administration from distant Abidjan during the 1930’s, and later with the threat of dissection between Mali, Niger, and Ivory Coast, Mossi chiefs agitated for status as a separate territory after World War II, and when independence came in 1960, the territory became the République de Haute-Volta. The first president, Maurice Yameogo, served from 1960 to 1966 when he was accused of corruption and popularly deposed. After many years of military rule, his successor, General Sangoulé Lamizana, was democratically elected to head a civilian government in 1978 which was soon (1980) overthrown by army officers led by Seye Zerbo.  (Lamizana was never imprisoned, and died only recently, much honored.)  Zerbo’s government was toppled by young officers including Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and Thomas Sankara in 1982.

Finally, in August, 1983 Ouedraogo’s forces were defeated in a counter revolution, and the government of Captain Thomas Sankara took control.  Sankara was a true radical and revolutionary, who quickly angered the French and Americans.  He was charismatic and innovative.  In one of his speeches he said tout homme doit liberer son génie créateur (“every person must free his creative spirit”).  He made a lot of mistakes, but he also contributed enormously to Burkinabe’s sense of pride and self worth.  On October 15, 1987 Sankara was murdered in a coup-d’etat and his friend and ally Blaise Campaore became chief of state.  In 1991 a new constitution was approved and Campaore was elected president with no opposition permitted.  In 1992 the first multiparty elections since 1978 were held.  Campaore’s party won by large numbers with widespread accusations of flagrant and ubiquitous fraud.  Campaore was reelected in 1998 to another seven-year term.  This was the state of affairs until late 2015 when Campaore insisted on ruling for another ter.  He encountered vast opposition, with riots and demonstrations in the streets, and he finally fled to Ivory Coast.  He has been replaced by Michel Kafando, and the prospects for progressive, democratic government are better now (2016) than they have been in almost fifty years.

Burkina has been damaged by troubles to the south.  In the first decade of the 21st century Ivory Coast collapsed racial, religious and political conflict that resulted from of the candidacy of Alassane Ouattara as prime minister.  Ivoirien politicians have accused Burkina of providing sanctuary to rebels from northern Republic of Ivory Coast.  Relations between the government of southern RCI and Burkina were been quite bad, in great part because so many Burkinabes who had lived in southern RCI for decades, who had been born, educated, and had worked there, have been persecuted by thugs from the southern part of Ivory Coast, their property stolen, their families brutalized, themselves beaten or murdered.  Laurent Gbagbo was finally arrested and removed by French and UN forces, and Ouattara was installed as the new, elected president.

Mossi figures-political art
Mossi society is made up of the rulers and the ruled, of the nakomse descendants of the cavalry who created the Mossi political states, and the descendants of the nyonyose, the ancient farmers who had occupied the land for millennia before the invasion from the south.  Mossi art mirrors this major division in society: royal figures carved of wood and cast of brass are political objects that identify those with power and authority, and validate their rule, while masks and other spiritual objects represent the power of the nyonyose to control their environment through contact with the spirit world and their right as first occupants to the land they farm and in which they have buried their ancestors.

The use of political art in the region that now is Burkina Faso dates from the creation of the Mossi states.  Before that date most of the peoples who lived in the valley of the Red, White and Black Volta Rivers (Mouhoun, Nakanbé and Nazinon) had no chiefs or leaders of any kind, and had no centralized decision-making process.  Farming communities were organized around small religious congregations with a body of spiritual beings at the center

Mossi society is made up of the rulers and the ruled, of the Nakomse descendants of the cavalry who rode into Burkina in 1500 AD and created the Mossi political states, and of the Nyonyose, the ancient farmers who had occupied the land for millennia before the invasion from the south.  Mossi art mirrors this major division in society: royal figures carved of wood and cast of brass are political objects that identify those with power and authority, and validate their rule, while masks and other spiritual objects represent the power of the Nyonyose to control their environment through contact with the spirit world and their right as first occupants to the land they farm and in which they have buried their ancestors.

When you visit the compound residence of a Mossi chief, a Naba, you might see any of several forms of political art.  There may be a horse tethered to a carved post in the courtyard in front of the Naba’s door.  The horse may wear a bridle of red, green, black and white leather, and a saddle with brass stirrups.  Near the horse and outside the chief’s home is a large straw sun shelter, usually composed of nine or twelve posts arranged in three rows of three or three rows of four, and which in turn support a straw roof that casts a large area of shade during the heat of the day. As you enter the naba’s home you pass through an entrance house through a door flanked by two carved posts, one male, the other female, which are placed close to the mud-brick wall of the house and hold the straw mat that serves as a door in place. Not far from the entrance to the house you may see a low earthen mound about six feet in diameter with a small shrine on it on which there are traces of chicken sacrifices.  At least once each year carved wooden figures, some of them male, others female, are placed on this shrine as sacrifices are offered to the memories of deceased chiefs and kings.  When they are not on public view these ancestor figures are kept safe in the inner rooms of the chief’s home, often in his own bedroom. Each week the chief reclines comfortably in a large chair surrounded by members of his court as elders from the village approach with petitions for the chief’s decisions about pressing matters of property, marriage, debts, or any other conflicts in the community.

Each of these objects  is a signal that any Mossi, recognizes immediately as an indicator of political power.  Even from a substantial distance the horse in front of the compound marks it as the home of the chief.  The straw sun shelter is unique to chiefs, as are the figures that flank the doorway.  Had you entered the house thirty years ago or more you would find that the chief’s wives wore Saturn-shaped brass bracelets on the left wrists that identified them as royal wives, so no commoner would approach them. Most important, were you to meet the chief a century ago or today you would see him wearing a distinctive “pill-box” shaped cap in red, black, yellow and green with small equal-armed crosses above the rim, the distinctive royal hats of the Mossi chiefs, given to them only at their investiture.

Shelters: Each year in a fixed celebration called na-poosum (“greet the chief”) the elder male representatives of every family in a chief’s domain visit the chief’s home to offer some of the harvest from their fields and to renew their pledges of honor and obedience to the chief.  One after another in turn the senior men get down on their left hip and touch their elbows to the ground before the chief, with their hands over their heads, in the traditional Mossi gesture of respect for authority to the chief (Naba).  The ceremony takes place in front of the Naba’s home, in a large public courtyard dominated by a sun shelter with a straw roof supported by wooden posts carved with female figures.  The posts are offered as gifts to the chief by the male heads of households to whom the chief has, in the past, given a young woman in marriage.  Each Mossi chief has the right to assign certain young women in his village to deserving young men whose families have demonstrated strong support for the chief.  In return for the chief’s decisions about any sort of conflict in the village, his approval for an economic project, his ruling in a conflict with neighbors, the family promises one of their daughters when she reaches marriageable age.  When another family has demonstrated their support for the chief in some important effort, he may reward one of their sons with the hand in marriage of one of these women.  In turn, the new couple offers their first-born daughter to the chief for this bride exchange. The wooden posts carved with images of women that the families give to the chief when he constructs his royal sun shelter make these commitments visible.  At the center of the shelter, where the three rows of three posts intersect at right angles, the posts are paired, one male, the other female, with a small shrine at the base on which sacrifices are offered as prayers are said for the prosperity of the families in the community.


The posts are carved with female characteristics.  The majority display a series of rings, stacked one above the other, which represent the large bracelets that are worn by women of the royal family.  More rarely, the post may be carved with a fully articulated female figure with head, arms, legs, torso and breasts such as the superb example in the Louvre in Paris.  The top of the post is forked to receive the horizontal beams that make up the roof.  By the time these posts have left Burkina and been sent to art galleries in Paris or New York the lower portions which have been buried in the ground for years have been heavily consumed by insects, and the post may show signs of years of exposure to sun, sand and rain.


Door Posts:  As we enter the home of the Mossi chief through the entrance house, a small round thatched building, the visitor passes between two carved wooden posts, a male figure on the right and a female on the left.  These are each about three feet tall, and are set into the ground close to the wall of the house so that they hold in place the beautifully decorated straw mat that traditionally formed the door of the compound residence.  They are positioned close enough to the mud brick wall that they hold the mat securely in place.  These posts usually bear some of the physical characteristics that used to identify a person as Mossi: a saggital crest, like a “Mohawk” from the front to the back of the head, and most important, the distinctive scars like small ladders from temple to chin and a diagonal slash across one cheek.  A century ago the door to every Mossi home consisted of posts on either side of the entrance and a straw mat to slide back and forth.  Only the posts in front of chief’s houses were carved with human figures.  Today most Mossi homes are secured with cheap sheet-metal doors, and only prosperous and important chiefs still use craved posts as visual reminders of the political power they hold.  In 1976 my wife Nora and I visited the chief of the town of Sapone, southwest of Ouagadougou.  He took great pride in Mossi political culture and had installed new door posts, a horse tether, and straw sun-shelter posts outside his residence to demonstrate his respect for the political arts and for Mossi history.


Royal figures: In terms of their use as expressions of Mossi political power the most important form of political art are the carved figures that chief’s display to represent their royal ancestors.  A century or two ago every Mossi chief owned such figures, and they were still fairly common thirty years ago.  Today, as more and more Mossi become Moslem, these figures have become difficult to find, and many fine examples have made their way to the antiquities market.


These figures are carved of wood, about two feet tall, with no post or base attached.  They may be male or female in gender, and I have seen some that are obviously bi-sexual, with penis and breasts.  These are “idealized” portraits of each of the rulers in a kingdom.  I was told many years ago by the chief of the village of La Titon, west of Yako, that they were male and female because the chief they represented was responsible for all of his subjects, men and women, young and old, white and black, Muslim, Christian, and “traditional.”


The figures are very private for eleven months of the year, secreted away deep in the darkest rooms of the chief’s palace.  Once a year they are brought out of the palace and placed on public view in the chief’s courtyard for all of the village to see at an annual ceremony called na-poosum (“greet the chief”).  During the week-long celebration the chief travels on horseback to every neighborhood, town and village in his kingdom where he is greeted by the male heads of each and every household.  The elders offer the chief the first baskets of grain harvested from their fields, and renew their oaths of loyalty and allegiance to the chief, asking that he and his royal ancestors watch over the community and bring prosperity, health and well being during the year to come.  This oath taking is very much a quid-pro-quo affair.  In return for the support of his subjects, their taxes in the form of harvest, and their obedience and willingness to serve in the chief’s army, the chief promises that he and his ancestor’s spirits will watch over the community, bring good rains, good health, a bounteous harvest, peace and prosperity.  When the crops fail or the town was devastated by an armed attack from invading Fulani or French forces (in the 19th century) the chief’s subjects may  “vote with their feet.”  That is, they pack up their belongings and move to a better area, with more land to farm and a stronger, more powerful chief.  It once was common to visit the remains of villages that were abandoned, with only the chief and his immediate family still at home, because the villagers felt that the royal ancestors had forsaken them.


The question of portraiture and representation is a difficult one.  The royal ancestors are very much seen as spirits, and so issues of gender are fairly abstract.  If you ask the chief if these are images of spirits or ancestors he says “yes.”  When I asked why some figures were male and others female I was told it was because the chief was both male and female, that is, his subjects were everyone in the village.  In just this way modern African chiefs attend Christian church on Sunday, kill chickens to their ancestors on Wednesday, and go to the mosque to pray on Friday.  The chief of Yako told me and my wife in 1976 that as long as we lived in Yako he was as responsible for our safety and well-being as for the well-being of all his people.  When I visited La Titon in 1977 for the chief’s na-poosum I saw a small, nicely carved black portrait of the current chief’s grandfather which clearly had a penis and women’s breasts.  The current chief (in 1976-77) had spent many years as a government official, was quite literate and well-educated, and enjoyed playing football with his village team. He had chosen to have himself represented in a wooden figure with a red soccer jersey, football shoes, and a white and black soccer ball before him.  Clearly a great deal of self image goes into the ways the chiefs choose to be represented.


In 1976 Nora and I visited the elderly chief of Gourcy, an hour’s drive north of Yako in northwest Mossi country.  I had read Peter Hammond’s excellent study of political power in Yatenga, and I was curious to see what had come to pass in the years since Hammond had been there.  The elderly chief was still alive and quite vigorous.  He had recently made the Hajj to Mecca and his devoutly Moslem son was very proud that the old man had made the right choices about his religion.  I showed him a copy of Hammond’s book and asked about the three figures in the photographs.  The son was embarrassed but the old chief was quite proud.  He said he still had one he kept hidden in his bedroom and soon went to find it.


Finally, each Mossi Emperor for generations has commissioned a cast brass and silver portrait of himself to serve as a memorial figure after his death.  Mossi emperors are buried at Loumbila, about twenty kilometers northeast of Ouagadougou on the road to Kaya, very near the presidential mansion of the current head of state.  In 1976 the chief brass caster (nyogsin) in Ouagadougou described these portraits as consisting of a broad, rounded base about two feet in diameter, surmounted by several figures of warriors and servants at the edge, and the larger figure of the Moro-naba (Emperor) at the center, mounted on a horse.  Bila Toure, who was the senior brass caster in Ouaga in 1976, had cast two such portraits in 1942 for Mogho Naba Kom and in 1957 for Mogho Naba Saga.  Presumably similar portraits have been cast for the recently deceased Emperors.  The best description of these figures was provided by a French colonial officer in 1907: Capitaine G.E. Lambert described the appearance of the brass portraits of the deceased Mogho Nanamsé at secret ceremonies celebrated seven days after the festival of Tinsé, when sacrifices are offered in Loumbila, northeast of Ouagadougou:

The effigies, representing the deceased Moro [Mogho] Nabas, placed under the responsibility of the chief of Lumbila, are carried out and placed in a vast enclosure of woven straw mats. Each royal image is accompanied by those of servants carrying in their hands a calabash for libations of zom-kom (millet flour water) and of beer. No one may approach the enclosure of straw mats if he is wearing a hat, sandals, an axe, or hoe; if this should occur, the objects are confiscated and thrown into the interior of the enclosure. These statuettes are produced by the nyogsin, specialized smiths, from Ouagadougou (Lambert 1907: 159).


In the past twenty years the ceremonies associated with the death and burial of the Moro-naba have become more public than they were at the turn of the century, and it is now possible to visit the tombs of the deceased rulers at Loumbila.


Finally, there are several published reports of the use of carved wooden mannequins as replacements for the body of a deceased chief during his funeral.  In Burkina, as elsewhere in Africa, the corpse is buried very quickly after death, and when a memorial service is held weeks or even months later a carved, life-sized wooden figure is dressed in the clothes of the chief and is carried thorough the village.  A student at the Ecole National d’Administration in Ouagadougou, Gaston Kabore, left this description in the archives (Kabore 1961:7-8):

…carved from the trunk of a Shea nut tree. This effigy was about one meter long, carefully carved, it had everything a man has on the outside in the way of limbs and organs: legs, arms, head, eyes, mouth, ears, etc….in this figure the person of the deceased chief was re-created. They pretend to shave its head, after which they completely washed it. Clothing, tailored to measure, was placed on the body: shirt, robe, trousers. The head was covered with a pointed cap, over which was placed a large hat. They even placed slippers on the feet. After all the clothing was carefully arranged, without forgetting anything, they now had to bury this so-called corpse. It was rolled up, completely clothed, in a large white blanket, then in a special mat. It was placed at last on a litter made of two long, parallel bars crossed at intervals by shorter sticks. A black cloth covered the entire affair. Then it was necessary to announce to everyone outside that all was prepared. Everyone crowded toward the door of the hut to await the appearance of the body. The drums doubled their beat, the funeral songs began. Several people who were first able to take hold carried the litter in their hands, raised high above their heads. At that moment the dances around my grandfather’s house began, with the litter always raised high and violently bounced up and down.


Horses are the essential element in stories about Mossi political structure.  The stories of the founding of the Mossi states tell of a hunter named Riale who lived alone in a forest camp.  One day he was surprised by the arrival of Princess Yennenga, who had been carried from the south on a great war horse.  Riale quieted the horse and sheltered Yennenga.  Their son was named Ouedraogo or “stallion” (ouidi “horse”, + raogo”man”), and as a young man he rode farther north into the basin of the Volta Rivers to found the Mossi states.  It is still common today to see numerous horses at any gathering of large numbers of Mossi chiefs.  The invaders from the south who founded the Mossi states used the horse as their irresistible weapon.  Charges of large groups of cavalry on enormous warhorses terrified the lightly armed farmers whom they encountered.  Wherever they rode the nakomse cavalry spread fear and confusion, until they rode down off the Mossi plateau into the low, brushy wilderness areas southwest of the White Volta where their horses quickly sickened from the bites of tsetse flies and died of sleeping sickness.  Horses have been the symbol of Mossi political power ever since.  The Mossi decorate their horses with beautiful leather tack, saddle bags, saddles, bridles, cinches, girths and other straps of red, black, white and yellow dyed leather.  They control their horses with   beautifully cast brass bits, and their riders are steadied by large cast brass stirrups in the north African Arabic model.  In the period up to 1985 there was a rich section of the old Ouagadougou market where leatherworkers continued to make and sell leather and brass tack for royal horses.  I have not been back since the central market burned in 2003 to see where the harness makers have gone.


Bracelets:  As late as 1977 I visited the home of a Mossi chief in the north, near Yako.  There were a half-dozen middle aged women in the chief’s compound, each wearing on her left wrist a distinctive brass bracelet of the kind called kobre.  These bracelets were spherical, with an opening to allow them to be put on the wrist, and a broad sharp ring at the equator like the rings of Saturn.  The women explained that in the old days commoners were not permitted to speak to the wife of the chief, and these women were identified by the distinctive bracelets to warn commoner men away.  During the two years that I worked as director of the National Art Center in Ouagadougou my brass casters purchased dozens of sacks full of these bracelets, as well as hundreds from other peoples around the country. These were all heated in a fire to make them brittle, then smashed with a mallet so they would fit into the crucible from which were cast ashtrays, chess figures, napkin rings, and other tourist objects.

CHIEF’s SCULPTED POSTS 3 pages 1 photo of Mossi chiefs posts
GENERAL ESSAY ON MASKING 5 pages  field photo of Bwa masks standing side by side
Sacred art- masking essay


Burkina Faso is a land of masks.  It is a space inhabited by two races of beings—of humans and spirits.  The spirits appear every day in towns and villages all over Burkina Faso.  There have been days when I had to stop my car as masks crossed the road while I was on my way to a mask performance in a nearby village, when masks appeared and disappeared behind walls and around corners, and the people of the neighborhood made their way to and from the town plazas accompanied by masks.


Communities in Burkina Faso may include large numbers of Christians, when the center of the town is a church, or of Muslims, in which case the town is dominated by one or more mosques.  However, the vast majority of village communities in Burkina continue to depend on the blessings and protection of the spirits of nature to watch over the families and provide them with good crops, healthy children, and long and prosperous lives.  Various estimates place the percentage of Christians in Burkina at 20%, of Moslems at 80%, and of animists at 10-20%.  In fact, my best guess is that over 80% of the people of Burkina regularly and devoutly offer prayers and sacrifices to the same spiritual beings that have been important to hundreds of generations.  Many of these people may go to church or mosque as well, but when it is time to seek serious spiritual help, they sacrifice chickens to the spirits that give life to the world they inhabit.  In the 1970s the late director of the national museum, Toumani Triande, told William Fagg when he visited Ouagadougou, that the people of Burkina, in particular the Mossi, had all become Moslem and no longer made art.  Triande was completely wrong.  As millions of Burkinabes can tell you, the use of masks to represent the spiritual beings that give life to the African world is flourishing in Burkina Faso, perhaps more now than thirty years ago.


The vast majority of the people in Burkina Faso make regular offerings on shrines to the spirits of nature that give life to their world and are the source of spiritual power.  In most villages there are a half-dozen public shrines that everyone in the village can approach with prayers and sacrifices, as well as dozens of more private family shrines that may embody a single spirit and which only the members of the family use regularly.  These shrines focus the power of spirits that control human fertility, the fertility of the fields, prevent accidents and disease, bring love and sexual energy, success in school, success in business and trade.  The spirits are embodied in shrines as well as in the prominent physical features, the earth, rivers, streams, low swamps, patches of wilderness forest, mountains and hills.  Each spirit has a name by which it can be addressed, and members of its congregation offer prayers on a very quid-pro-quo basis.  “God, if you let me pass this exam I will offer two chickens and twelve kola nuts.  God, drink this millet beer and protect my children from the polio that has been so devastating in our village.”  When you listen to these prayers the most common (Mooré) word you hear is niu (“drink”) as small quantities of millet beer are splashed on the shrine.


The spirits are ineffable, untouchable, invisible, unhearable.  We can sense their power in a summer thunderstorm when the earth shakes with the crash of thunder and sheets of rain sweep across the hot dry fields.  How are we to communicate with the spirits?  How do we make our needs known and in turn how do we understand the demands or the spirits?  Through art.  Man creates God in his own image, and in Burkina Faso artists are particularly adept at giving form to the spirits though the use of masks and mask performances.  The idea of supernatural spirits is abstract.  We can sense their power and importance, but what do they look like.  Their images must be invented.  If we are to create these images from scratch, do we make them look like people, or like something else?  Artists in Burkina have chosen “something else.”  They make abstract images of abstract ideas.  This is not someone’s grandfather, someone’s ancestor, it is a force or a power that no one has ever seen.  Does it make sense to make it look human?  Would it be better to express the very strange, mysterious, powerful, abstract, secret character of the spirit by means of a mysterious, secret, abstract image?  Of course.


Not all of the spirits of Burkina Faso are benevolent by any means.  The characteristics of these spirits are as diverse as are human characteristics.  Some are ferocious, horrible monsters, blood thirsty, “eaters of souls.”  Some of them spread horrific disease, cause appalling accidents, spread death, destruction, poverty, pain wherever they can.  Others can be helpful, especially if they are honored.  Some of the spirits have the power to fly through the air and warn their worshippers of danger, accident and threats of any kind.  Spirits my stand in front of a home with their arms outstretched to block the entrance to misfortune and death, like the marks the ancient Jews made on the lintels of their homes so that the spirit of plague would Passover their homes and not take their firstborn sons.  Some have the power to bless young women with healthy children, or to bring love and successful marriage to young men.  If you think of all of the good things that can befall humans, there is a spirit that is responsible.  If you think of all of the bad things that can befall  humans then there is a spirit that is responsible.


These are very much “invented spirits.”  They come into being when a threat or a need arises, and they disappear from use when the threat or need disappears.  When a new disease appeared in Burkina in 1984 which made young men and women waste away, a new spirit was invented that was held to be responsible.  Spirits that brought such diseases as polio have become much less important in the lives of Burkinabes in the past twenty years.  Invented spirits are common among other peoples and cultures around the world.  There is evidence of many kachina spirits that once were important among the Hopi of northern Arizona in the remote past which no longer appear in the dances on the Hopi plazas.  There are many kachinas that appear and dance today that did not exist a century or two ago.  Closer to home, poor Saint Christopher has fallen on hard times, while Saint Theresa is on the ascendant.  Invented spirits are not omnipotent or omniscient.  They cannot protect their congregations from every possible threat.  Most have only one particular skill or power. The result is that shrines to these spirits may contain dozens of figures that embody their power and to which the congregation has recourse.  If you visit a Lobi shrine in the southwest, or a Nuna shrine in the center of the country you may see, deep in the black corners of the owner’s home, dozens of figures, many in male/female pairs, covered with traces of sacrifice of millet beer, porridge, and chicken blood, each of which embodies the power of just one spiritual being.


Carved or cast figures make the spirits visible so that we can speak with them, make promises in exchange for their blessings, and offer food in exchange for their help.  Masks allow the spirits to participate in the life of the community.  They can dance, run, jump, spin, and most important, they can reenact the historic encounters between the ancestors of the family and village and the spiritual beings that watch over them.  Masks bring the spirits to life.  Each of the masks in Burkina Faso represents a spiritual being in the form that it appeared to the ancestors.  In some cases those spirits appeared in the shape of an animal, an antelope, bush pig, hyena, serpent, hawk and thousands of others,  Sometimes that spirit chose to appear in the form of a human, the leper, Fulani woman, albino, Samo warrior, white man, dwarf, and many others.  Each of these characters appear in the stories families tell of their origin, of their migration to the area where they now live, and of the miraculous encounters of the founding ancestors with the spiritual beings that control the area.


If the spirits are invisible, how do we communicate with them?  In Burkina artists carve masks to represent the spirits.  Artists must invent the ways the spirits are to be represented, just as the spirits are themselves invented.  The invention of visual forms for representing the unknown is one of the constant themes of the study of African art.  Both collectors and scholars are attracted to African art because African artists are such innovative inventors of spiritual images.  They are not constrained by an art school training.  They are not limited by the need for naturalism nor representationalism.  They do not need to make the spirits look like themselves or their ancestors.  African artists are extremely adept at making unknown, invisible forces visible, of representing abstract ideas through the use of abstract art. We are reminded that these are supernatural things that we see only in dreams, or on those once in a lifetime occasions when we are wandering in the wilderness, starving and thirsty, lost and desperate, and a magical spirit appears to us in a vision.  Much of the art of Burkina includes the elements of several creatures in one composition.  That is, a hawk mask may have horns, or a bush pig may have wings, or a crocodile mask may have a birds beak.  These are examples of the inventions of patrons (mask owners) and artists of the forms that spirits take, of the shapes in which they chose to appear to the ancestors.  The images of the spirits are as inventive and unique as are the characters of the spirits themselves.


The most abstract masks of all are the tall plank masks that are carved by the Dogon, Mossi, Nuna, Nunuma, and Bwa.  The smallest of these by the Nuna are a foot wide and two feet tall, while the largest, by the Bwa, are two feet wide and six feet tall.  The masks of the Mossi and the Dogon are much narrower and taller.  It is a mistake to try to analyze these masks in terms of human or animal forms.  They are only media on which are written the sacred rules for moral and ethical behavior that the people must obey if they are to receive God’s blessings.  They are signboards, like the tablets of the ten commandments or the wooden board on which Moslem students write their lessons in washable ink.  Their surfaces are covered with geometric patterns including checkerboards, concentric circles,  zigzags, and many others that communicate visually the moral code of the community.  There are other references on some of these masks: the crescent moon on Bwa masks refers to the moon under which initiation is carried out. And the hook-shaped beak refers to the hornbill, a metaphor for fidelity and communication with the spirit world.


Carving: Throughout Burkina masks are carved of the wood of the silk-cotton tree, the Ceiba pintandra.  This is a light, white wood very much like pine that is easy to carve.  It is light enough that masks carved of it are not too heavy to wear, but it also susceptible to insect damage so it must be soaked in water every year to kill burrowing insects.  The Ceiba, by the way is also the tree of life for both the Dogon and the Maya, in Mexico.


The pigments used to paint the masks are red, black and white.  These are among the most universal colors in African art, and for decades were the symbols of Burkina Faso, which was named Upper Volta until 1983.  The flag of Upper Volta had three red, white and black stripes, and the Volta Rivers were the Red, White and Black Voltas.  The red is ground iron oxide, easy to find anywhere in Africa.  The black is a thick tarry substance made by boiling the seed pods of the Acacia tree.  The white is either chalk or the excrement of sun lizards which little boys dig out of their burrows.  The pigments are blended with gum Arabic, a sap that is exuded from Acacia trees and which is used widely in the West as a binder in art and printing.  Black represents age, health, wisdom, well-being, white represents youth, inexperience, death and illness, and red is the color of danger and of the spirit world.  In the past twenty years artists have begun to use enamel paints, but most masks are still painted with traditional colors.


The costumes of all masks are made of the shredded bark of the dah or hemp plant Hibiscus cannabinus.  The plant is cultivated in large fields, cut, soaked until the pith rots, pounded to free the fibers, dried, dyed, and plaited into thick hempen costumes constructed on a netted body stocking.  The soaking process requires a great deal of water, so it is carried out near low swampy areas and is difficult to do during very dry years.  There have been several years since 1970 when few masks appeared because it was not possible to make new costumes.


The masks are worn by the young, initiated men of the family, clan or village that own the masks.  These are young men between twenty and thirty years of age, at the height of their physical ability.  They have been through initiation where they were introduced to the masks, taught their meanings, learned their dances, and at the end of the initiation they wear the masks themselves for the first time.  The conclusion of initiation is always accompanied by a large public spectacle in which all of the young men and women who have just completed the ordeal are introduced, the young men wear the masks, and in most cases the young women dance along with them.  It is quite apparent to all the spectators who the most talented performers are, and these young men are invited to perform again and again in the years to come, until they have started families and reached an age when they are heavier and less agile and are encouraged to “retire.”  Among many Voltaic peoples the masks are quite heavy and awkward to wear, and with constant use and exercise the performers develop specialized muscles, especially in their necks.  In 1983 when I first settled in Ouri for three years study I introduced myself to the village sous-prefet in his office in the presence of about thirty young members of the C.D.R. (Comite de la defense de la revolution).  I noticed that several of them had very strong, thick, muscular necks.  The sous-prefet asked me about my work, and when I explained that I was interested in mask performances these young men all smiled, because they themselves were performers.  Weeks later, when the masks appeared, the young men went out of their way to dance close to me so I could get a good photo, and to accommodate me in any ways they could.


Burkinabes appreciate good performances as much as any London West End audience.  Although there are strict expectations the men must follow for certain dance steps and actions that are associated with each mask character, they are encouraged to innovate and create new routines that surprise and delight the audience.  They are given considerable creative latitude, and may become quite famous.  Great numbers of spectators travel distances to see a particular performer interpret his favorite character on market day or for a funeral.  The young men spend time together talking about dance steps and planning their moves, trying them out on one another, until they are perfected.  Young women attend performances to see their favorite masks, and wait for the dancers outside the stage door.  The most successful and popular young performers are often very successful at courtship and marriage, and begin a new family sooner than their friends.




Smiths carve all of the masks made in Burkina. There are families of smiths in several parts of Burkina that specialize in carving: the Konates of Ouri are a good example.  Most or all of the smith families are immigrants to the areas in which they now live.  That is, they come from the west or northwest, and have settled in Bwa, Winiama, or Nuna towns in past centuries where they make tools and carve wood.  The evidence I have found among the Mossi indicates that smiths have been integrated into Mossi society for many generations, and I have not found stories that Mossi smiths have immigrated, in contrast to the Nuna and Bwa.  Each of the families of sculptors is capable of carving masks and figurative sculpture in any of several styles.  They know very well what style is to be associated with which patrons.  If a Nuna elder commissions a mask, they carve it in the Nuna style.  If, the next month a Bwa elder commissions a mask they carve it in the Bwa style.  They use the wood of the silk cotton tree, the faux kapokier or Ceiba pintandra.  This is a light, strong, white wood that feels very much like pine.  They never use the wood of the kapok or the baobab tree, both of which are much too soft and fibrous, and they use the wood of the Shea nut (Butyrospermum parkii) only for carving figures, for while it is more durable than Ceiba, it is also much heavier.  The Burkina ministry of forests strictly controls the wood people can cut for firewood, and they forbid ordinary people from cutting Ceibas.  However they give special certificates to artists that permit them to cut Ceibas for carving sacred objects.  Most of the suitable trees are now found only in remote, low lying swampy areas near rivers, so the carvers travel some distance to get their materials.


The artists block out the basic shapes of the objects while they are still in the forest to reduce the weight of the wood they must haul back home.  They then load the heavy blanks on their bicycles or on a moped and continue the work in their workshops. They are very good indeed at marking out the basic shapes of each mask on the blanks of wood, and then carving away the excess material until the shape of the final work can be seen.  This is perhaps the most important step in the carving, because they must plan ahead carefully or the shape, proportions, or even major details will be wrong.  Each artist has ample experience blocking out specific types of masks, so they have learned exactly where the cuts must be to result in a well-proportioned piece. They work with sharp iron adzes, that is axe-like cutting tools on short handles in which the blade is at right angles to the handle (the blade of an axe is parallel to the handle).   The blades are soft, high carbon iron, so they must be sharpened frequently on a stone but they are very sharp.  At the early stages the artist carves with a heavier adze, and the blade strikes the wood at a steep angle, biting deep into the wood and removing large chunks fairly quickly.  As the work proceeds he may use smaller, lighter adzes for lighter, more detailed work. In 1976 I photographed Yili Wango, a Mossi carver near Yako, who had a whole set of about four adzes in varying sizes for different stages of the work.  As the carving approaches completion the adze strikes at a very shallow angle, so it is removing the very finest thin shaving of wood, much like what you see from a carpenter’s plane.  At several stages of the carving, especially when details are to be carved, the artists may remove the blade of the adze from the handle and hold it in his hand like a knife or a gouge.  In 1983 I saw Poboye Konate, a Bwa carver in the town of Ouri, use the blade in this way to scribe out and then remove the rectangular spaces that formed the checkerboard on a Bwa plank mask.  Each day the artist buries the rough block of wood in the ground at the end of the day to keep the wood moist and prevent cracking.  Each morning the block is dug up and carving resumes, the first strokes removing the layer of dirt and debris.


When all of the shapes have been carved and the proportions are right the entire object is blackened, either with a red hot blade applied to the wood, or with a black pigment.  This permits the carver to see the details more clearly as he marks out the geometric patterns they call scars.  My experience in the art market in Burkina has been that the deeper the scars are carved, and the higher the relief, the more likely it is that the mask was carved for an African patron and not for the tourist trade.  Deeper scars are the result of greater time and care in the carving.


When all of the carving has been completed the object is painted using the three colors I have described, red, black and white.  The paint is applied with home made brushes made by chewing fibrous sticks, or sometime made of feathers or other materials.  The red and white pigments are applied fairly thinly, while the black pigment is quite thick and sticky.  It is made by boiling the seed pods of the Acacia for weeks in a small pot.  The result is a very thick, glossy, tarry paint that is, I think, the same pigment Asante artists use to stamp Adinkra cloth in Ghana.  When dry it looks like enamel paint.  Each year the masks are soaked for a week under water in low swamps to kill borers.  This process removes the red and white pigments which readily dissolve, but it does not remove the black pigment, which builds up thicker and thicker over the years.


The artists are paid small fees for carving.  None of them make enough money to become prosperous, unless they carve for the tourist trade.  Because of their importance to the community as the makers of masks they become thoroughly integrated into the associations that use the masks.  However, they are still considered to be outsiders, to be slightly marginal, and each of the smith families has masks of their own which only they use.  Because they are so deeply involved in the creation of these masks they also are implicated in the trade in masks on the antiquities market.  They are sometimes accused of stealing masks, or not paying the owners the full price when an old mask is sold, and their reputations suffer.  The Konates in Ouri are an example of a very creative family that is so involved in the tourist trade that no one within a hundred miles trusts them at all.


Over the past thirty years many, many people have written to me to ask why it is so difficult to see masks perform in Burkina, especially in the summer time.  Mask performances are seasonal: during the summer rainy season farmers have no time away from farming.  They are in their fields from dawn to sundown every day in an effort to keep ahead of the weeds. When the harvest is brought in and safely stored in early October the ceremonial season begins, and lasts until the first rains fall in May.  Occasionally masks appear during the rainy season, to end the ceremonial cycle or to attend an important burial, but all funerals are held in the dry season when people have lots of free time on their hands and plenty of food and drink from a good harvest.  This is also the time when smiths makes tools, women make pottery, carvers make new masks, weavers stretch out their warp threads, and most of the creative activity of West African takes place.
The Gurunsi:

The Nuna, Nunuma, Lela, Sissala, Kassena, Nankana, Kussase, Winiama (Gurunsi peoples):

It seems to me to be fair to say that the many peoples in central Burkina Faso who comprise the so-called gurunsi are the key to understanding the art of the entire region.  In terms of artistic creativity these are truly the seminal people in Burkina.  In one way or another, most of the surrounding peoples, including the Mossi, Dafing, and Bwa, have either acquired or inherited their sculptural forms from gurunsi peoples.  The exceptions are the Bobo, Lobi, and Senufo, whose art has developed quite independently.


It is important that we begin by understanding that these people do not call themselves “gurunsi.”  Gurunsi is a Moore word (that is from the language of the Mossi) which means something like “those who eat the bark of trees.”  It is a pejorative, and is condescending.  In Moore a single person is a gurunga, and many people are gurunsé.  The word is wholly of Mossi origin.  In the 70’s you could call these people “gurunsi” without them protesting, but now, thirty years later most of them dislike the word and will correct you if you use it.  There would be no point in using it at all were it not for the fact that the literature on African art up to this point is full of references to “gurunsi” art.  Also, it is sometimes a useful way to get a handle on a large cultural area.  Depending on where they live they call themselves Nuna, Nunuma, Winiama, Lela, Kassena, Sissala etc.



Of these people the most important sculptors live among the Nuna, Nunuma and Winiama.  Very large numbers of masks from these people perform every day through the dry season, and significant numbers of masks from them appear at the numerous public mask spectacles that have become part of the cultural landscape of Burkina Faso in the past twenty years.  In contrast such people as the Kassena are much better known for their superbly built and decorated architecture, while the Lela are such a small group of people that it is more difficult to see their masks in performance.


The Nuna, Nunuma, Lela, and Winiama occupy the central portion of Burkina Faso and northern Ghana between the Nazinon (Red Volta) River in the northeast and the Mouhoun (Black Volta) River in the southwest.  This is a fertile area, good for farming.  However, there are large areas, especially near rivers, where there is a lot of forest, hence lots of tsetse flies and a lot of sleeping sickness.  These areas today have been preserved as game parks, and it is a pleasure to visit them to see elephants, bush pigs, monkeys, baboons, and occasionally lions.  The presence of trypanosomiasis also played a key role in preventing the invasion of the region between the two rivers by Mossi warriors mounted on horseback, because their horses were soon bitten and died of sleeping sickness.  The Mossi of course believed that the magical power of the Gurunsi had killed their horses, and they were duly impressed with Gurunsi spiritual power . In about 1650 the Mossi Emperor Naba Kumdumye penetrated westward as far as Boromo where he was killed, and whence his army was forced to retreat by sleeping sickness. Mossi accounts tell of the magical powers of the gurunsi, who used the forces of nature to fight their enemies, and to this day the Nunuma and Winiama are feared for their dangerous magical powers.


The Winiama occupy the region surrounding Boromo west of the Black Volta. Their most important towns are Boromo, Oulo, Ouri, and Soubouy. The northern Nunuma live north of the road from Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso between the Léla and the Winiama. Their major towns and villages are Séréna, Tissé, Tierko, Tigan, and Tchériba. The southern Nuna occupy the area between the Mouhoun and Nakanbe, with the Kaséna to the southeast, the Mossi to the northeast, and the Lobi, Bwa and Winiama to the west. Their most important population centers are Zavara, Fara, Sapouy, Gao, and Leo.  Most rural gurunsi live in concentrated villages made up of numerous adobe houses with flat roofs and narrow alleyways between the houses.  In the 18th and 19th centuries these tight communities were a bit intimidating to Mossi slave raiders on horseback, because the Gurunsi farmers could stand on the roofs of their homes and stab or drop stones on the heads of anyone who dared ride through the village.  Nevertheless, the many Gurunsi peoples were one of the major sources of slaves, captured by the Mossi and the Asante, chained up and marched down to the slave pens at Cape Coast Castle and Elmina on the Atlantic coast.  There are numerous descriptions from the period of tens and even hundreds of thousands of gurunsi captives marching south through Ghana to ships that carried them to Brazil of Havana.  So many of these people ended up in Brazil that there are still Voltaic words that survive in the languages of the streets of Bahia.


The Nuna, Nunuma, Winiama, and Lela carve masks that represent spiritual beings from the wilderness, and that are covered with red, white and black geometric patterns.  It would, in my estimation, be fair to say that they are the origin of this style in Burkina, and that they can be considered the cultural well from which so much of the culture of the other peoples who speak Voltaic languages has been drawn.  The reasons for this are that the southwestern Mossi who use masks now are descendants of ancient gurunsi peoples who lived throughout the area before the Nakomse invasion.  Those gurunsi who did not flee the invasions were integrated into the new Mossi society, and their descendants use masks that are very similar in style to contemporary Lela, Nuna and Nunuma masks.  Most of the Mossi in the southwest who use masks are called Sukwaba.  In contrast, the Bwa people to the west of the Nunuma and Nuna gave up the use of leaf masks that represent Dwo and adopted the use of wooden masks in the years following the arrival of the French (1897).  They purchased the rights to Nuna, Winiama  and Nuna styles as well as the rights to songs and dances.  On rare occasions they stole the masks from nearby villages.  The result was the transmission of the Nuna, Winiama and Nunuma style to the westward in Burkina.


The Nuna, Léla, Winiama, Kassena, Sissala and Nunuma are farmers, without any sort of social or political hierarchy. Before the arrival of the French, they had no chiefs or kings, and all important decisions were made by councils of the oldest male members of the community lineages. This has led them to be described in the old anthropological literature as “acephalous” — without chiefs or leaders (more literally “headless”). The French established cantonal chiefs, as puppet rulers, and the families of some of these retain some small influence even today. A few men hold considerable traditional authority, including the Tia-tian (Nuni), or earth-priests, who are descended from the founding lineage of the community, and who assign land for cultivation and act as intermediaries between the families and the spirits of the land. The Tia-tiou is responsible for purification sacrifices in cases of adultery, suicides, and murder. He sacrifices chickens to the ancestors and asks them “to take the chicken and sweep away the evil spilled on the earth, so that the soil will continue to nourish the community.” The sacrifices to the ancestors are offered on a great conical mud shrine.

It is essential to recognize that the “gurunsi” as “acephalous” peoples represent the original core of Voltaic peoples who survived for millennia before the arrival of the Nakomse.  All of the area of the Upper Basin of the Volta Rivers east of the Bobo people was occupied by such people, with no vertical political structure, no chiefs, no kings at all, until political hierarchy was imposed on them by the Nakomse.  When we speak of the political systems of Voltaic peoples before the colonial era we can speak of “spirits” and “kings”.  Peoples who lived in religious communities with no chiefs, including the Bwa and gurunsi, and people who live in kingdoms, of whom the Mossi are the only example.  This fundamental contrast is essential to understanding the ancient history of the peoples of Burkina Faso.

Nuna, Nunuma, Lela, Kassena, Winiama, and Sissala villages are religious communities.  The members of the village comprise a congregation, in which the rules for the ethical and moral conduct of life are the religious commandments handed down from the nature spirits through the Tia-tiou to the members of the congregation.  Rather than the secular laws of a chief or king, the congregations follow God’s commandments, and these provide the social glue that binds the community together.

The gurunsi believe in a supreme God named Yi (in Nuni), a creator God whose shrine is always at the center of the village. After he had created the world and populated it with humans, animals, and plants Yi withdrew and left the world to Su, the mask spirit.  Su is represented by masks, and the oldest and most sacred mask in the community serves as its shrine. Members of the community are able to use the powerful and fearful  spirit of Su either to benefit their community or to harm those who threaten it.  Su aids the community, especially by encouraging the fertility of women and by maintaining the health of the community. Like all such spirits, Su requires that its followers strictly obey its religious rules .  Each village has an altar to Su, and each clan or family has smaller shrines that contain the sacred power objects that give them the power to control nature.    Each clan has sacred objects that protect the members of the clan.  These are very personal and powerful, but are not necessarily secret.  Outsiders are permitted to see them and may even be allowed to offer sacrifices on them. Most of these power objects are non-figurative, including  animal skulls and tails, rings, amulets, bracelets, stools, bottles, and sometimes anthropomorphic figures in clay or wood. All magical objects are cared for by the oldest male members of the lineage or clan, who serve as priests or intermediaries during sacrifices.

The gurunsi carve dozens of different types of masks in the form of animals, humans, and a large variety of purely abstract, non-representational shapes.  Masks represent bush buffalo, antelope, bush pigs, hyenas, serpents, crocodiles, birds, insects, and several human types.  Many other masks consist of broad, short planks with curving beaks, cylindrical posts, hooks, crests, and many, many other shapes.  All masks are covered with red, white and black graphic patterns, carved into the wood of the mask and painted with traditional, local colors.

Two particularly fine examples are the Nuna ape or monkey masks (#864, 1308).  The monkey is a trickster in west African societies, causing endless mischief and serious destruction to crops.  The monkey masks usually perform as entre actes dancing when the other masks are preparing to perform, and making comical and ribald gestures that cause the audience to laugh and applaud. In several villages the most ancient and sacred mask is a monkey mask.

The red, white and black patterns include concentric circles, triangles, rectangles, zigzags, checkerboards, and all of the other patterns that appear on Bwa, Mossi, and Dogon masks.  In addition, the Nuna use lines that radiate from the eyes of the mask like the spokes of a wheel.  Sometimes these lines are straight, and others are curved, but they appear only on gurunsi masks, never on those of the Bwa, Mossi or Dogon.  Good examples of these lines appear on the crocodile mask (#943), and on the hornbill mask (#1198).

As among all Voltaic peoples, including the Dogon, these graphic patterns represent God’s commandments, which each of the young men and women of the community learn during initiation, and which govern the rest of their lives.  The Dogon paint these patterns on the rock walls of caverns above the villages, while the Mossi and the gurunsi paint them on broad planks or boards that the elders who organize the initiation use  as teaching devices.  The young initiates memorize the patterns and learn the meanings of the combinations of signs on each of the masks.[1]

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. At most Nunuma performances one or two monkey masks are worn by young boys who have shown special talent as performers. The monkey masks often carry whips that they use to control the crowd, and their performances are rude and sexual, and often move the audience to loud comments. The Winiama mask with a single curved horn, kêduneh, in the Naniebon neighborhood in 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 Wheelock collection includes a fine group of Winiama masks, including “one curved horn” (921, 2164), keduneh (1829), a very beautiful and carefully carved mask with two figures of bush spirits above the face (832), a Winiama ape mask (1196),

Masks appear at numerous events throughout the dry season. They perform to purify the village of evil forces. They attend the funerals of male and female elders. Masks participate in initiations every seven years. There are two classes of masks: public entertainment masks and much more private sacred masks called wankr.  Entertainment masks appear on almost every market day to dance for the crowds of visitors, including white tourists. The sacred wankr masks do not appear at such popular, public performances.  In the past few decades large numbers of gurunsi masks have appeared at public festivals such as the Festival des Masques in Dedougou, and mask competitions in Ouagadougou, the capital, and most recently in a large stadium built by the government in the village of Pouni, south of the road from Ouaga to Bobo and just east of the Mouhoun.  These public performances are not a deviation from tradition, because the element of public entertainment has always been important to gurunsi mask performances.

There are two very fine examples of the most sacred masks or wankr in the collection.  The hombo mask (1077) is in a style used by the smiths in the town of Ouri.  It is of a type only used by smiths, and is matched by a much newer mask by the same carvers, from the same town (1101).  The older mask shows the patterns of wear and accumulation of sacrificial material that are typical of the oldest objects that have served as shrines and are very rarely used in public performance, while the newer mask is typical of the surface of masks that were still being used at the time they left Africa.  The ape mask (1196), and the small, superb plank mask (1102) are also sacred masks.

It is very unfortunate that art dealers in Ouagadougou who hope to sell newly carved masks to tourists or collectors expose them to thick accumulations of wood smoke to try to give them the appearance of old sacred masks, because this seriously mars some very fine carvings by contemporary artists whose work is very much up to the level of quality of older artists.  It is unfortunate that tourists insist on buying masks that have been “smoked” and appear to be old, because they are encouraging the dealers who spoil otherwise fine carvings.  Anyone who attends public performances in Burkina sees masks that are brightly painted with fresh red, white and black pigments, and old sacred masks with dark surfaces, covered with sacrifices, are invisible to the public.

Once each year, in late April masks in each neighborhood in the community perform to drive malevolent forces from the area. This marks the beginning of the annual ritual and agricultural cycle. The ceremony begins three days before the mask performance when women begin to brew a delicious millet beer called chap or chapalo. At about 11 AM on the day of the dance, each of the masks in the community bows in turn before the great conical mud shrine to the collective ancestors, asking them to drive the sources of evil and disease out of the neighborhood. The masks then visit every lineage residence in turn, beginning with the home of the mask-chief, who is the oldest male member of the first family in the community to acquire a mask. Members of each family offer sacrifices on family ancestral shrines to purify the home, and everyone drinks large quantities of millet beer.

The masks dance one at a time, each mask performing twice during the morning. Local musicians or griots accompany the performances with the sound of drums and flutes. Young men play flutes in groups of three, seven, or nine. The coordinator of all mask performances is the head or lead musician, who used to be paid a very small fee following every day’s dance.  In the past twenty years the griots have started to demand larger and larger sums to play.

Masks assist in the burial of deceased elders, both male and female, and later at their funerals. Funerals for the male and female elders in the community who have died during the year are held during the dry season. The older the deceased and the more descendants he leaves, the more elaborate are the ceremonies. In the Nunuma villages of Tissé and Tierko I attended funerals at which twenty-five to thirty masks performed, to honor the dead and escort his spirit into the world of ancestors (niaba in Nuni). The masks arrive at the home of the deceased late in the afternoon of the final day of the three (male) or four (female) day ceremony. The first two or three days of the funeral are occupied with sacrifices to secure the safe travel of the soul of the deceased to the land of ancestors, sacrifices to request the blessings of the dead on the living, and occasional brief appearances of masks to attend these ceremonies. The masks enter and leave the courtyard always backing through the door. Inside the compound each mask bows before the threshold of the dead elder’s room to honor the spirit of the deceased. The elders make important sacrifices on ancestral altars in the masks’ presence. While awaiting their turn to dance, the masks sit quietly in a row, their backs to the wall of the house. The head musician, playing a long cylindrical wooden drum, calls each mask in turn to dance for about five minutes. As a mask ends its performance, members of the audience, representing the many lineages in the community, cast handfuls of cowry shells on the ground before the mask, as gifts to the lineage of the deceased. The young, uninitiated boys of the family then gather the shells to be reused when the family attends a funeral of another clan.

Every three, five, or seven years the community initiates the young (about 10 years) boys of into the secrets of mask use and meaning, and in their responsibilities as adult members of society. Each clan carries out its own initiations, supervised by clan elders.  The initiation is essential for the cohesion and survival of the community, for during the initiation God’s commandments for proper social behavior and moral conduct are taught to the boys . According to Nao Oumarou, initiations are held in a wooded grove called subara, “the place of Su” not far from a swamp or river, where the work of preparing mask costumes can be carried out. During the initiation, the boys are subjected to physical, moral, and intellectual tests, including wrestling matches with masks. They are taught the meanings of the geometric patterns on the masks and the significance and meaning in their lives as adults of the mask’s names. Each name represents a moral lesson that is carefully elaborated and discussed by the clan elders and initiates. Masks communicate a moral force, for their function is to direct the moral conduct of life in the community. They then learn how to make the mask costumes, and work through the long, hot days preparing the fibers, while at night they practice dancing with the masks. The initiation ends on the 14th day, and on the following day they leave the grove and return to their homes. The masks also return to the village, where special sacrifices of millet flour are placed on the shrines to Su. Su is asked to grant a lucky performance season and to provide health for the community. Each mask, with its new costume, dances in turn before each shrine in the community. Finally, the new initiates dance wearing the masks on each market day until the beginning of the rains.[2]

The Wheelock collection includes some truly outstanding examples of gurunsi art. The small plank mask (#574 ) is among the most visually striking and beautifully carved examples of the art of Burkina Faso.  The object is small, thin and delicate, with finely carved patterns that are deeply cut into the wood to form a high relief.  The red, white and black pigments are well preserved, although a bit of the white has been rubbed away.

Among the most interesting of the spirit beings represented by masks are the hornbills (#1198, 1767).  This wonderful bird is a ubiquitous symbol of communication with the spirit world.  Hornbills mate for life, and the female lays her eggs in the hollow of a tree every year.  The birds seal up the entrance to the nest with clay so the female safely hatches her eggs inside.  Meanwhile the male flits in a distinctive swooping flight through the forest gathering insects and lizards which he passes into the female in her nest.  Many African peoples see this passing from outside into the nest as a metaphor for communication with the spirits, just as in Cameroon the motions of the trap door spider serve as the same symbol.  One hornbill mask (1767) also has a small figure of a chameleon on its beak.  The chameleon is a symbol of change and of danger.

One of the more curious masks in the collection is the scorpion (#1129) with red seeds set in wax for eyes and a big menacing stinger arched over the face.  An almost identical mask appears in my DVD “African Art in Motion” at a mask performance in Pouni in spring, 2005.

Truly two of the masterpieces of the collection are the northern Nuna crocodile (#943) with a hornbills’ beak, and the small, slender crocodile (#1816), which may be from the Lela near the city of Koudougou.  The newer Nuna crocodile is complex, beautifully carved, symmetrical, light, and carefully painted.  The combination of crocodile and hornbill features may be perplexing to anyone who makes the mistake of associating these masks with natural creatures: it is a reminder that African artists are adept at representing abstract ideas through the use of abstract compositions.  The much older Lela crocodile is incredibly delicate, with a long, almost menacing head and jaws and a small body and legs.  Both represent spirits that appeared to elders in the form of crocodiles, providing the ancestors with fresh fish to eat, saving their lives, and watching over the community for generations.
ESSAY ON BWA MASKING TRADITIONS 5 pages  two photos of Bwa masks
Bwa masking


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” 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 same time 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. 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 have 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.


The Wheelock collection includes a fine example of the mask type called 1072 bayiri, a female spirit of fertility and new growth.  The mask bears several of the hook-shaped beaks of the hornbill, a metaphor for the passage of knowledge between the world of the living and the world of the dead.  The male hornbill passes food to its mate, who is sealed up in her nest in the trunk of a tree while she hatches her eggs.


Finally the Wheelock collection includes a number of fine examples of masks from the Bwa people in the large town of Dedougou, which lies north of Boni and Dossi.  The style of Dedougou (numbers 1135 butterfly, 1100 larger butterfly, 449 small butterfly, 1001 hornbill)  is quite distinctive from the style of the most southerly Bwa.  The butterfly masks (449, 1135) are good examples.  The wings are much smaller than the butterfly from Boni, and the mouth is a stark rectangle.  The face of the mask is covered with broad red, white and black triangles with white spots over the red.  The convex crest mask (732) is very similar.  Dedougou has become famous in the past decade as the site of the annual mask festival called FESTIMA (Festival des masques).  Numerous examples of the local Bwa masks appear to perform wearing very large, thick fiber costumes, and their performances are marked by rapid spinning in place that makes the fiber strands fly outward.
ESSAY ON MOSSI MASKING TRADITIONS 5 pages at least two field photographs of Mossi masks in context

Mossi masking:


The use of masks by Mossi peoples serves as a primary document in understanding the historical processes that led to the creation of the Mossi people.  By understanding the distribution of the several styles of Mossi masks, and the relationships between those Mossi who use masks and the rest of Mossi society, we can better  understand the events in the period when the Mossi states were formed.


Mossi society is divided vertically into two major segments: the descendants of the horsemen who conquered the peoples on the Mossi plateau are called the Nakomse  (“people of power”), and all Mossi chiefs come exclusively from the Nakomse class.  These people use figures as political art, to validate their rule over the peoples they conquered.  The descendants of the ancient farming peoples who had occupied the land from the beginning of time and who, by right of first occupation were and are the owners of the land are called the Tengabisi (“people of the earth”).  These Tengabisi can be further divided into groups of smiths (Saya), groups of traders (Yarse), and most important, groups of farmers (Nyonyose).  Generally the smiths and the traders do not use masks, but the Nyonyose, the “ancient ones” are the principle makers and users of masks in Mossi society.


The Nakomse oral histories tell of their encounters with the original farming peoples as, over a period of about two hundred years, they spread across the Mossi plateau and imposed themselves as chiefs.  In the southwest, south of the Nakanbe River, they came across communities of Nuna, Nunuma, Lela, Sissala, Kassena, Nankana and others. The Nakomse called all of these people “gurunse”, or “gurunsi” (from the Moore word gurunga sing. , gurunse pl. “eaters of bark”). North of the Nakanbe the Nakomse encountered and did battle with large numbers of Dogon, whom the Nakomse called “kibsi”.  East of the Dogon they conquered farmers who called themselves Kurumba, and whom the Nakomse called “fulse”.  In the southeast the Nakomse conquered the Bissa and Yancé, near Tenkodogo and Garango.


In each case, as time went by, some of the peoples the Nakomse attacked chose to retreat ahead of the charges of powerful cavalry, and some chose to stay in place, to surrender and to live peacefully under Nakomse rulers.  In the case of the Dogon, large numbers trekked the eighty miles northwest across the Plain of Seno to the cliffs where they live to this day.  Many other Dogon stayed behind in the villages in northwest Burkina where they live today.  In the north most Kurumba stayed in their villages and became Nyonyose subjects of the Nakomse. In the southwest many Nuna and Lela fled farther west to the low brushy areas where Nakomse horses could not follow.  Substantial numbers stayed behind in towns with Nakomse chiefs, and their descendants live in those towns to this day.  The Mossi created their states over the two or three centuries after 1500 AD.


Until 1979 very few scholars, either Burkinabe or Western, had any idea who the kibse, fulse, gurunse or others were or where they had lived before the creation of the Mossi states.  The word gurunse or Gurunsi was used inaccurately to refer to the Lela, Nuna, Sisala and other peoples to the southwest of the Mossi.  There was no documentation of where these peoples had lived other than the oral histories of the Nakomse conquest that talked about the defeat of the kibse and fulse in the north, the gurunse in the south, and so on.  Only a few French scholars, most notably Jean Capron, Michel Izard, and Guy LeMoal, and one great American scholar, Professor Elliott Skinner, understood the history of the Mossi states and the complexity of Mossi social structure.  In 1976-77 I began a survey of the Mossi towns where masks were used, and in the course of fourteen months I visited 107 villages, either speaking with the elders or attending events in which masks appeared.  I mapped the towns I visited and the styles of the masks in each community, and soon realized that all of the masks in the southwest were used by peoples whose ancestors were gurunse, all the masks in the north were used by people whose ancestors were kibse or fulse (Dogon or Kurumba).  The map showed me that the dividing line between these peoples before the Mossi conquest had been the Nakanbe River.  The extent of the occupation of each of these peoples was clearly traced by the distribution of the several styles of masks the nyonyose still used.  It also became clear to me, as it has to Izard and other scholars, that Mossi social structure was extremely complex, that the Mossi were of very diverse origins, and that art could provide us with excellent clues about the series of events that led to the creation of the Mossi states.


In the southwest, in what became the Kingdom of Ouagadougou, the Nakomse conquered the Lela and Nuna, and the masks that are today used by the Nyonyose in the southwest are very similar in style to the masks of their modern Nuna and Lela relatives.  Each of these peoples makes masks in the form of animals, that are covered with red, white and black geometric patterns.  The Mossi usually wear the masks on top of the head, rather than over the face, with a thick costume of hempen fiber that completely covers the body of the performer.


In the northwest, in what became the Kingdom of Yatenga, the Nakomse conquered the Dogon (kibse) and the masks that are used today by the Nyonyose in Yatenga are very similar in style to the masks of their contemporary Dogon relatives.  Both peoples make tall, thin plank masks with a concave oval face over the face of the performer and the upright horns of an antelope rising above the face, in front of the plank.  They cover the  masks with red, white and black geometric patterns that communicate visually the sacred laws that the people must obey if they are to be blessed by God.


In the northeast, in what became the kingdoms of Kongoussi, Risiam, and Kaya, the Nakomse horsemen conquered the Kurumba and the masks that are used today by the Nyonyose in these areas are very similar in style to the masks of their contemporary Kurumba relatives.  Both peoples make plank masks, sometimes with multiple branches above the face, with a convex oval face.  Mossi artists in the Kaya area use black and white pigments, with very little red.  In 2006 the smiths of Dablo, north of Kaya, carved a mask for me that looked just like the multi-branch masks I had seen in the mid-1970s.


The key point is that many different peoples, Nuna, Lela, Dogon, Kurumba, Bissa, Yance and others were combined with the Nakomse invaders from the south to create a people named Mossi who did not exist before 1500.  The Nakomse and the Nyonyose, along with traders, smiths and others, combined into a heterogeneous people whom it would be a mistake to refer to as “the Mossi” or as a single “Mossi people.”  There are many different Mossi peoples, whose cultural practices mirror the complex processes that contributed to their creation.


In addition, we must understand that the word Nyonyose refers to the farmers who owned the land from earliest times.  Some of these Nyonyose are descended from the Dogon, some from the Lela and Nuna, some from the Kurumba.  But now they are all Mossi.  They identify themselves as Mossi, and speak a common language, which was imposed on them by the invaders.  All Nyonyose are Mossi, but not all Mossi are Nyonyose.  A number of scholars of Burkina have fundamentally misunderstood the social structure of these people when stating that the Nyonyose are all Kurumba and are a different people from the Mossi.  This is the unfortunate trap that scholars fall into when they carry out research in so small and restricted an area that they fail to see the larger, broader picture.


The Mossi use masks during the dry season for initiations and funerals.  Initiations are secret, and in southwest Mossi country they are impenetrable.  Funerals however are public, and I attended dozens of these during the period form October 1976 to late 1977.  Funerals for members of the Nyonyose community are very different from those for Nakomse, because masks appear to honor the deceased and to free his or her spirit to travel to the land of ancestors.  Masks may appear briefly at burials, when the body is interred within three days of death and the masks alert the ancestors that the deceased was an honored member of the community. The funerals are best compared to memorial services, and are held during the dry season, anywhere to a couple of months to even a year or two after the burial.  Large numbers of friends and relatives of the deceased travel through the bush[3] from village to village to attend, bringing large quantities of food and drink, especially millet beer, for the celebration.  The masks travel from village to village as well, and there have been times when I literally followed the strands of hemp fiber clinging to the shrubs on each side of the path left behind by the masks as I made my way to the site of a funeral.  The masks appear twice each day, in the morning and the evening, when the sun is low enough so it is not too hot.  Each mask appears in turn, and they perform one at a time, with all the villagers, men and women, young and old, black and white, in the audience.  Each masks has a particular performance that communicates the character of the spiritual being it represents.  Each mask is accompanied by young male escorts from he family that owns the mask, who use whips made of thin branches from neem trees to keep the crowd back.  The masks each perform for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and then retreat to the sacred enclosure where the costumes are removed, and are followed by the next mask to appear.  The masks are aggressive, and people flee in front of them if they approach the audience.  The masks also tend not to like white people in the audience, and I have received a few welts across the back when I got too close on a few occasions.  The function of the masks performance is to reenact the encounters between the ancestors and the spiritual beings, many, many generations ago when the families first settled on the land they now farm.  Their appearance honors the spirit of the deceased, so that it is free to leave the world of the living and to dwell forever in the world of spirits.  There are numerous sacrifices of chickens and goats, and the weapons and tools of the deceased are smashed on the dead person’s threshold.  The mask performance ends within an hour of sunset, and the masks make their way back to their home villages.


Masks in the southwest style, in the ancient kingdom of Ouagadougou, are represented in numbers and quality in the Wheelock collection.  These are cap or crest masks, worn on top of the head with a thick fiber costume whose weight holds them securely in place.  They do not have holes for eyes because they are not worn over the face.  They are, like all Voltaic style masks, covered with red, white, and black graphic patterns that represent moral and ethical laws.  Number 695a is a very old, very worn, small mask that represents a bird, perhaps a rooster.  It is covered with thick sacrificial material that indicates that its owner had long since passed away when it was sold, and that it had served for a long time as an altar, rather than being used in performances.  This function as an altar is very common in Burkina.  Almost any objects, from masks to figures, to stools and even hoes serve as altars to the elders who once owned them.  There is a fine balinga mask, number 74, which represents a Fulani woman.  The mask was once worn with bright, cheap imitation gold hoop earrings and brightly colored rayon scarves in imitation of the elegant, beautiful women of the Peul or Fulani people.  There are numerous stories of Mossi elders who in their search for new land to farm became lost, hungry, thirsty and tired.  The elder was suddenly startled by a noise and a beautiful Fulani woman emerged from the bush, deep in the wilderness, carrying a bowl of milk or cheese on her head, and led the elder to safety.  These were clearly the actions of a supernatural spiritual being, not of a living Peulotte, and so the elder had a mask carved to honor this creature that had provided her protection.  The balinga performs in a very feminine way, never aggressive, always graceful and as elegant as the women themselves.  Number 72 is a beautiful antelope mask, that represents the small antelope called Grimm’s duiker, or the Gazella rufifrons.  The mask has the beautiful, s-curved horns and long narrow snout of this animal, and above the head is the carved image of a small bird, perhaps the kind of bird that cleans ticks from animals’ coats, or perhaps to indicate that this is the type of mask called wan-liuli (“bird masks”) that often appears in public.  Number 225 is of course a very old mask that represents the larger antelope Hippotragus koba, the “antelope du soleil” in west Africa.  There is an excellent bush buffalo mask, number 1083, with broad, flat, curving horns.  This animal is unpredictable and dangerous, because it sees very badly, is violent and fast.  Many a Mossi hunter has been frightened out of his wits when a bush buffalo such as this suddenly, with no warning, came crashing through the brush straight at him.  My favorite from this area, and one of the most outstanding works of art in the Wheelock collection is the superb bush pig mask, number 87.  This a fairly large mask by the standards of the southwest area, and is elegantly carved, with great white tusks on the upper jaw.  Such bush pigs, called in French “phacochere” are ubiquitous in the wilderness of Burkina, and when startled they go crashing off into the bush making a great racket, followed by their progeny.  They are a very suitable metaphor for he wilderness and for the ways humans disturb nature by their hunting and farming practices.  This piece has, quite deservedly, been illustrated and exhibited frequently, and is truly one of the finest animal masks in any collection of African art.  Number 191 is another fine antelope mask, with much of the original red, white and black pigment and some of the hempen costume intact.  The rooster mask, number 1675 is another of the fine pieces in the Wheelock collection, along with the bush pig, that has been illustrated in several publications.  The crest on top of the head represents crest feathers, and the ribbed crest is characteristic of a rooster.


I am astonished that these Mossi masks have, so often in the past, been mis-labeled as Bobo, especially by French scholars who never seem to get their attributions right.  These masks bear all the characteristics of Voltaic style masks, especially the use of red, white and black patterns, a characteristic shared with the Dogon, Nuna, Winiama, and Bwa.  The masks of the Bobo, who live in far western Burkina, north and south of Bobo-Dioulasso, share none of these characteristics.  Bobo masks often have long, trapezoidal faces with distinctive T-shape to the nose and brow, and are painted blue, yellow, red, white, green and a variety of other colors, but not red, white and black.  The confusion in European minds stems from the fact that the Jula (Dioula) interpreters who accompanied French military expeditions into Burkina in the period 1885-1910, confused the Bwa who are Voltaic, with the Bobo, who are not.  Ever since, scholars who have never set foot in Burkina have made the mistake of calling the Bwa “Bobo”, leading to tremendous confusion and error.  The Bwa and the Bobo are not related.


The masks usually performed holding either an iron spear or a short wooden club called a casse tete or skull crusher.  The spirits use these weapons to do battle with the evil forces of witchcraft, and to defend the deceased on its travels through the spirit world.  At midday each mask selected with its weapon a row of jars of millet beer that it and its attendants would drink until the late afternoon performance.


I never saw another white person at any of these funerals, and the Nakomse people in the region never attended either, because the spiritual power of the masks was a threat to the health of the Nakomse, let alone to their political power.  I was told that if, by some accident, a chief ever arrived at a Nyonyose funeral there would be a cataclysm of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.  They told me that in the past, during the colonial period, white colonials sometimes showed up, and when they did they were arrogant and insisted on being able to do what they pleased.  This always resulted in people being very upset, even violent, so they were happy enough when I showed up and behaved properly.  It is important to understand that the spiritual power of the Nyonyose is opposed to the political power of the Nakomse.  They are, essentially, enemies.  The Nakomse use their military and political power to control the Nyonyose, while the Nyonyose in turn use their spiritual power to defend themselves.  They visit each other’s communities or neighborhoods only when absolutely necessary, and the in some communities the Nakomse live in considerable fear of the magic of the Nyonyose.  The Nyonyose elders are contemptuous of the Nakomse, and the Nakomse chiefs reciprocate.  At the first funeral I attended in 1976 the elders asked me why I had come, and I made the mistake of saying the chief of Yako had said it was OK.  They said the chief of Yako could go to hell (or words to that effect), and I never ever made that mistake again.


There are a few masks in the Wheelock collection that I enjoy because they are so similar to masks I saw at funerals in Burkina.  The balinga (Fulani woman) mask (1052) is missing all of its pigment, but if it still had its gold earrings and red fiber costume it would be very similar to one that did its best to whack me in the town of Seguenega near Yako in 1977.  The antelope mask (72) is identical to dozens of the same type I saw at almost every Mossi funeral in the 1970s.  It represents nyaka (Gazella rufifrons)  or Grimm’s duiker, the most common antelope in Burkina, and the most ubiquitous of wilderness spirits.  My favorite of all is the bush pig (87) which is an important character at these events. The Wheelock mask is one of the most affective and carefully carved I have ever seen.


The most astonishing Mossi mask I ever saw was called katré, the hyena, and appeared at a funeral in a small town east of Yako in 1977.  This was a Guro zamble mask, with open snout, sharp teeth, and long antelope horns that had been imported from Ivory Coast to Burkina by a young man of the family who had traveled to Ivory Coast to work in a bicycle factory.  He had purchased the mask as a tourist object in Abidjan, wrapped it in burlap, and carried it back home on the train and bush taxi.  His family had repainted it red, white and black and renamed it katré, which is the family’s protective spirit.  It was quite a dangerous, unpredictable, perhaps xenophobic spirit, for it chased me several times threatening me with its whip.  So a Guro antelope mask made for the tourist market was transformed into a very traditional Mossi hyena mask by the family that purchased it in the capital city of a neighboring country.


Nyonyose funerals in northern Mossi country are rather different than those in the south.  The tall plank masks that appear across the north from Yatenga to Kaya are less aggressive, the people who use them are less secretive and conservative.  The masks appear on each of the three days of a man’s funeral, or four days of a woman’s funeral, where they dance before the deceased’s home.  A great hunt is organized by the men of the village and the dead game is thrown onto the threshold of the dead man’s home.  The masks emerge on the second day to parade three (or four) times around the deceased’s home to honor him and allow his spirit to depart.  On the third (or fourth) and final day the masks appear as the members of the family bid goodbye to the spirit of the loved one, and then the masks all return to their home villages.  In this area much less effort is made to hide the fact that the masks are worn by young men; the costume does not even completely hide their identity.  Finally. I was received with a great deal less suspicion and was allowed to ask questions and take photographs as I pleased with no complaints or objections from the members of the community.



Two of the plank masks in the Wheelock collection (#s 1295 and 1066) are very typical of the tall plank masks called karanga that the Nyonyose use in the kingdom of Yatenga, near the city of Ouahigouya.  These look very much like the masks some Dogon use because the ancient Dogon lived in Yatenga before they fled to the Bandiagara Cliffs.  The descendants of those who did not flee are now Nyonyose and make masks.  Another mask with three planks (#1146) is very unusual, enigmatic, and therefore to me delightful.  I never saw anything like it and so I love it, because it reminds me how much there is yet to explore and discover in Burkina.  The Kaya style mask (#812) is beautifully carved and finished, with the branching plank and convex face that is characteristic of Nyonyose masks to the east of Ouahigouya.  The shallow carved patterns are especially beautiful and vivid.  The two karan-wemba masks (#1472 and 1008) which bear female figures above the heads are another type that reminds us of the close links between the Nyonyose in Yatenga and the Dogon, for it is the Mossi version of the satimbe masks of the Dogon.  In both areas these masks represent important elder women, much respected in their communities. One of these has two figures above the face, again a variation I have never seen before.


The Mossi who use masks in the southwest area of the Mossi plateau, that is in the area of the ancient Kingdom of Ouagadougou, are extremely conservative.  They resist quite adamantly any effort by outsiders to attend or participate in mask performances, to ask questions, and most especially to photograph or film.  This is a symptom of their even stronger resistance to change in their religious beliefs.  In the period from 1976-77 I was able to attend dozens of these performances because I negotiated carefully with both elders and young people before the event, was able to convince them that I would not be disruptive, promised I would not record, film, or photograph, nor even ask questions or take notes.  They always told me that I could do just what they do, what the ancestors did, which is attend, watch, and not ask questions nor make any effort to record what I saw.


The largest group of people who use masks in the southwest of Mossi country belong to an association called the Sukwaba (Sukomce in the plural).  This is a very secretive association that has made every effort to remain isolated from their neighbors, especially from the Nakomse.  They have actively worked to guard their traditions from any sort of change, especially as a result of contact with the Nakomse.  Over the centuries they have realized that assimilation with the Nakomse would result in the loss of their cultural uniqueness, and they have resisted assimilation forcefully.  They are closed and resistant to change. My ability to speak their own language, Moore, and to greet them in the proper polite Mossi way went a long way toward gaining their trust.  Most such funerals were held in the most remote villages, miles and miles from even a rough dirt road, let alone a paved road.  The feeling of powerful spirituality at these funerals was very strong.  It was always hot and dusty, there was always the smell of smoke and of clean human bodies, and the strong sense that spiritual power was here.  I could sense that I was being observed carefully to be sure I followed the rules, and I could sense that these were very important, sacred, spiritually dangerous occasions. Although I was always greeted with suspicion and mistrust when I first visited a village, I was accepted more freely when I showed that I was willing to follow their rules for behavior, to follow the “path of the ancestors”, the yaaba soore.



The Sukomce have developed this resistance to change as a strategy for preserving their spiritual power and their cultural identity in the face of Nakomse political domination.  This resistance to change is also manifested in an absence of churches or mosques in any of the Sukwaba towns.  Proselytizing and conversion are simply not permitted by the Sukwaba.  Anyone who wanders from the path of the ancestors must leave the community.  Students of some American Indian peoples, notably the Hopi, will certainly recognize the same commitment to tradition among both peoples.  The Hopi have refused to allow churches of any kind to be built in their towns, have chased missionaries out of town, and in the distant past have even killed whole village populations who had converted to Christianity.


The Boulsa Style: The easternmost Mossi style of masks is concentrated around the villages of Sini, Boulsa and Zeguedeguin, between Kaya in the north and Pouytenga in the south, near the border areas with the Gourmantche.  Masks of three types appear in these towns.  Tall masks made of wood, painted white, with red fiber costumes are male masks, which behave aggressively, whip anyone who crosses their path.  Tall wooden masks with white faces, red seeds on the face and mirrors for eyes wear black fiber costumes.  These masks are female.  The lower portions of their costumes are close-fitting wrappers of hemp fiber which restrict the length of their stride just as do Mossi women’s cloth wrappers.  The third type are very short masks, no more than four feet tall, with two horns that project vertically from the top of the white wooden mask.  These play the role of children to the other two masks, and are often in fact worn by pre-teen boys.  They may be aggressive but generally only chase other children.


All three of the masks represent bush spirits, which appear in “families” of father, mother, and child, just as humans do.  The masks appear at funerals, when they escort the spirit of the deceased into the world of spirits, at initiations, and at year-end celebrations when all of the spirits of the collective ancestors are asked to bless the community during the year to come.  I used to think that these masks were the result of Gurmantche influence, and that they represented the same sort of pattern of conquest by the Nakomse that had occurred in other areas of Mossi country.  However, in the past two decades I have discovered that these masks and the people who use them are closely related to mask societies farther to the southwest in Mossi country, near Saponé, and even to important mask traditions in north-west Ghana.  The descriptions of mask societies in Ghana called Sigma[4] are so strikingly similar to the mask groups in Boulsa and Zeguedeguin that I have begun to wonder if the people in Boulsa and Zeguedeguin may be emigrants from northern Ghana.  The people of Zeguedeguin cooperate closely with the Nakomse chief in the village, and do not have the aggressive, conflicting relationship with the Nakomse that exists in other Nyonyose communities.  Perhaps another scholar will be able to straighten out the history of these masks, their origins, and their relationship to other Mossi peoples in years to come.


There are some excellent examples of these masks in the Wheelock collection.  The mask number 1086 is a male red mask with much of its costume intact.  It is clear how much the appearance of the mask in the village depends on the fiber costume attached to it.  Once the costume is removed the object loses not only most of its meaning but most of its sculptural quality as well.  There are few such objects in collections outside Burkina because so often the costume has been stripped and the carved wooden portion has very little appeal to collectors who fail to understand what is missing.  Number 1448 is a mask of the same type, but the style is different.  The T shaped black pigment around the eyes is unusual and an interesting variation that gives the piece a stronger character than others of its type.  I wish I knew what village it came from and who had made and owned it.  Number 2047 is an excellent example of the type called yali, the dwarf or child.  The zigzag horns are quite characteristic of the type, as is the hook shaped nose.  It is so similar to examples I saw in Sini and Zeguedeguin that I suspect it comes from that area.  It is a pity that all of the pigment and fiber costume were removed before Tom Wheelock acquired it.


By far the best known of all the Mossi mask styles is that of the northwest, from the area of Gourcy north through Ouahigouya and east to Kongoussi, in the ancient Mossi state of Yatenga.  These are the tall plank masks with oval faces and antelope horns that have been published repeatedly in exhibition catalogues and texts as examples of the archetypal Mossi mask.  They are, in fact, only one of many styles of mask that the Mossi create.  A very elegant example of the Yatenga style masks in the Wheelock collection is the tall plank mask number 1066, with a tall, delicate, thin plank that is covered with geometric patterns and with tall, thin antelope horns.  Another superb example is number 1295, with beautifully carved horns, intricate pierced decoration on the plank, and a pair of superimposed triangles above the plank.  Number 1472 is shorter and more elaborate, and has perhaps seen less use in a Mossi village, but it is nevertheless a fine example, rather similar in style to the famous piece in the Museum Rietberg in Zurich.


In addition to the tall plank masks there is a second important type, which incorporates a female figure above the mask face, either in front of the plank or entirely replacing the plank.  Numbers 2091, 1142, and 1008 are excellent examples.  The Mossi call these female masks karan wemba. These masks are made to honor an elderly woman in the community who has achieved the rank of a living ancestress.  This is a woman who has married, had children and grandchildren, and whose husband has passed away.  She has fulfilled her role as an ideal wife and mother, and is free to return to the home where she was born and which she left as a young woman.  When she passes away her funeral is celebrated by the appearance of masks such as these.  The double figure of a man and woman are unique to my knowledge. I have never seen a second in or out of Burkina, but it is quite well carved and an interesting variation on the type, no doubt representing the ideal husband and wife.


Masks of this Yatenga style are used by the Nyonyose in the northwest whose ancestors fled the Mossi plateau and settled in the cliffs of Bandiagara, to the northwest of Ouahigouya.  Their ancestors were the ancient Dogon, who now live in Mali, while those who remained behind when the Nakomse invaded were incorporated into a  new society called Mossi. The similarity between the masks of the contemporary Mossi in this region and the contemporary Dogon farther northwest is because these two peoples share common ancestors.  It is amazing to me that after so many decades of study by French and American scholars there still seems to be a question in some peoples minds about the origin of the Dogon and the date of their arrival in the cliffs. The contemporary Mossi retain strong and clear memories of the flight of the Dogon, whom they still call kibse, in front of the Nakomse cavalry.  The Nakomse in Yatenga still call the Dogon kibse, and there are large numbers of Dogon villages in northwest Burkina Faso on the plains between Ouahigouya and the Mali border (and to Bandiagara).  These and all other Dogon are Voltaic language speakers and are very closely related to other Voltaic language speaking peoples in Burkina, including the Mossi, Nuna, Lela, Bwa, and others.


Dogon and Yatenga-style Mossi masks are similar in both style and type.  Both people share the use of tall plank masks, with antelope horns above the face, and with the plank covered by graphic patterns.  Both peoples carve oval-faced masks with female figures that represented women who have achieved a measure of spiritual importance to the community.  Both peoples use masks at funerals to permit the spirit of the deceased to leave the land of the living and travel to the land of the ancestors.  Finally, both people cover their masks with red, white and black graphic patterns that serve to communicate from one generation to the next the sacred laws that the community must follow and observe if they are to receive the blessings of the spirits.  The tall planks that are so important to Mossi and Dogon masks represent the path of the ancestors, which in Moore is the yaaba soore, which all living members of the community must follow if they are to succeed.  For the Mossi as well as the Dogon, the path of the ancestors represents the systems the ancestors developed for survival, which have made it possible to prosper generation after generation.  If the path of the ancestors is a zigzag pattern, it is because it is difficult always to do just what the ancestors did, but the living must try their hardest, nevertheless.  For both people the checkerboard pattern of black and white rectangles represents the importance of learning, and of knowledge of the world in which we live.  For both people the black rectangles represent the wisdom acquired through a lifetime of experience, while the white rectangles represent the absence of knowledge of those who have just “commenced” (college graduation in America is called “commencement.”) the long learning process.


Throughout Mossi country the Nyonyose use masks at burials, funerals, and initiations.  When an elder dies a mask or two accompanies the corpse to the grave and oversees the burial, testifying to the qualifications of the deceased for admission to the world of ancestral spirits.  This is the time when friends and family mourn the passing of the loved one.  Several weeks or even months after burial the funeral is held, just as among the Dogon, and friends, family, guests, dignitaries from near and far gather at the home of the deceased to honor him or her.


Risiam/Kaya masks: Vertical plank masks are used by the Nyonyose across the northern areas of the Mossi plateau from Ouahigouya in the west to Kaya in the east.  In the center, in the old kingdom of Risiam, around the town of Kongoussi, the ancient inhabitants were Kurumba.  When the Nakomse invaded they conquered large numbers of these peoples and incorporated them into Mossi society.  Farther to the north other Kurumba were not conquered, in part because the most northerly areas around Aribinda and other Kurumba towns are too dry to be useful for farming.  These towns are now in the southern reaches of the Sahara, although 500 years ago they must have been considerably more green.  The Mossi in the Risiam kingdom call the Kurumba fulse, and in many publications by European scholars they are also called fulse.  This word is a Moore word of the ga- se- class  The singular is fulga, the plural fulse.


The Nyonyose in this central Risiam style area make masks with shorter vertical planks and with convex faces (Roy photo of masks at Sini, and #1473).  The mask in the Wheelock collection is an excellent example.  The face is concave, the plank is thin but short compared to masks near Ouahigouya, and there are distinctive, well carved and painted graphic patterns on the face and plank.  There is also a very clearly carved antelope head and horns above the face.


Such masks are used in exactly the same ways masks are used in other Mossi areas: they are worn at funerals and burials, and at initiations of young men and women into the secrets of masking.  They are called wango, or “mask”, just as everywhere else in Mossi country.  They are worn with rather scant cloth and fiber costumes, that reveal more of the performer’s body than is true in the south.


I attended a funeral in a town named Sini, east of Yako, in 1976 at which three masks in this style appeared to escort the spirit of a deceased elder woman to the land of ancestors. During the spring of 1976 meningitis was endemic through the entire region, and many people had died.  Nevertheless, large crowds of friends and neighbors turned out for the funeral.  A Risiam style plank mask appeared to which a black plastic baby doll had been attached — bound to the horns of the antelope above the face — to represent the elderly woman (Roy photo from Sini of mask with doll).  This transformed the mask into the type called karan-wemba, which, like the satimbe masks of the Dogon, honor senior women in the community.


Finally, the easternmost of the plank masks styles are found near the small city of Kaya, in northeast Mossi country astride the road north to Dori and Fulani country.  These are also vertical plank masks with convex faces, just like the Risiam masks.  Unlike Risiam masks, the planks may have branches that extend in pairs from each side of the plank and then sometimes curve upward.  Number 812 in the Wheelock collection is an outstanding example of this style.  Again, these masks are made by Nyonyose whose ancestors were Kurumba, whom the Mossi call fulsé. The Wheelock piece is notable for the fine, elaborate graphic patterns on the plank and the painted dots on the face, which again remind people in the community of the rules that God has given them for the moral and ethical conduct of life.


There is a significant and quite vital masking tradition among the Mossi in the northwest Mossi area that is often overlooked by scholars and collectors who are interested in African art, but which is well represented by objects in the Wheelock collection.  These are the small but very elegant crests called zazaido, which are made and used in the village of Kwaltangen, west of Yako, and perhaps in other villages in the nearby area.


Zazaido are small crests colored red, white and black, with the head and horns of an antelope toward the front or face, and a second antelope or some other creature at the back.  A small, oval slab or stela rises vertically between the two heads.  There is a very fine example of a crest of this type that was collected by the German scholar/explorer Leo Frobenius in 1912 in Yako and now in the Museum für Volkerkünde in Berlin, with a tag attached that says “aus Jako” (Yako).  Number 376 is an outstanding example, but is not from Kwaltangen.  The black and white color and the length of the horns are similar to others I have seen from an unknown town northeast of Yako, a place I have never visited. The fiber costume that fell over the performer’s face is still intact.  Number 377 is also an excellent example of the variation in which the antelope has been replaced by a human figure.  Number 794 is a fine example of the work of the artist Yamba Ouedraogo, who carved in Kwaltangen in the 1960s-80s.  The red and white coloring, the vertical horns, the triangular face of the antelope, and the rounded stela are very typical of his work.  Number 584 is a second piece by this same artist, and is almost indistinguishable from six such pieces I commissioned from him and which are now in my own collection.  This is an example of the most abundant type, with two antelope heads facing in opposite directions.


Zazaido are the only type of mask/crest I ever found that is associated with the Nakomse chiefs.  The men who use these come from the Nakomse families in Kwaltangen, the artists Yamba Ouedraogo is a Nabiga (sing. of Nakomse), and the crests perform at chiefly celebrations.  The information I was able to gather indicated that the group is a voluntary organization that does good works in the community and is sponsored by the chief.  They help with harvests when a farmer is sick or injured, help elderly people without resources, and generally benefit the community.


Zazaido bear a strong resemblance to the chiwara kun crests of the Bamana, who live about 200 miles to the west in Mali.  I would not be at all surprised if one day a scholar discovered that somehow, at some time in the distant past, a Mossi farmer who had witnessed chiwara kun and brought the idea to Mossi country.[5]  These sorts of ideas and art forms sometimes travel quickly and long distances, ignoring the meaningless political boundaries that didn’t even exist before 1960.


In conclusion, the diversity of the styles of masks different Mossi people use in different parts of the Mossi plateau mirror the diversity of the people who make up the Mossi and the complex historical processes by which the Mossi peoples came into being.

ESSAY ON DAFING MASKING TRADITIONS 2 pages  one photo of Dafing masks
Marka-Dafing Masks:


There are two groups of people in Burkina who call themselves Marka.  One group uses art that includes red, white and black geometric patterns similar to those of Voltaic peoples:  I call these people Dafing.  Farther north, in Mali and northern Burkina, people cover their masks with thin sheets of metal:  I call these people Soninke.  The Marka speak languages in the Mandé sub-family of the Niger Congo family of languages.  Both peoples are descendants of the ancient empire of Ghana, which was defeated in 1076 by the Moroccan Almoravids. The Dafing moved into an area occupied by the Samo and Bwa soon after 1600 as a result of the destruction of the Mali Empire in the valley of the Niger and Bani. The valley of the Sourou, which joins the Black Volta just north of Dedougou, seems to have been the primary route followed by the Dafing when they moved into the region they now occupy.


The Dafing people occupy a region of north-central Burkina Faso between the cities of Nouna and Tougan in the north, south as far as Boromo. There are large numbers of Dafing in Mali, north of the frontier with Burkina. Their largest communities are Nouna, in the north, and Safané in the south. Important villages include Bai, Songoré, and Tiendougou, in Mali, and Toma, Gouran, Koumbara, Kouri, and Gassan, in Burkina Faso. There is a very large Dafing community in Dédougou. There are many important Dafing communities among the Bwa south of Nouna. There is an large concentration of Dafing villages along the valley of the Sourou River.

The Dafing are typical of peoples who have penetrated the upper basin of the (formerly) Volta Rivers and adopted the cultural institutions of peoples they encountered, superimposing the traditions of these peoples over older beliefs, forms, and styles.[6]  In contrast to the leaderless Voltaic-speakers among whom they settled, the Dafing created small-scale, politically centralized states, with a chief in charge of several villages. The position of village chief was achieved, rather than inherited: an elder who had demonstrated his skill as a warrior, trader, and diplomat was selected from a council of local lineage elders. During the 18th and 19th centuries such a state, centered at Ouahabou (between Boromo and Houndé) encompassed several southern Bwa and Winiama villages and extorted taxes from the conquered peoples (Tauxier 1912: 409-13).

The Dafing live in concentrated village communities, with many houses spaced close together offering blank walls to the exterior.  From the outside these towns look like fortifications, with no windows, and only one or two narrow entrances, easy to defend. In the hills north of Bagassi, the Dafing villages of Mana, Bana, and Ouona are nestled in high, dry, but fertile valleys where valuable crops of cotton are grown. Farmers have cleared stones from the rocky fields to form low terraces that prevent violent rainstorms from washing away the rich soil, and to hold in some moisture in an area where water is scarce and wells are 60 to 90 meters deep.

There are large numbers of Dafing in cities who are engaged in long-distance trade and who have become Moslem, but the people in rural Dafing villages continue to sacrifice chickens to the spirits as their ancestors have done for millennia.  Many of the farmers in the remote hill villages between Bagassi and Safané fear their Dafing neighbors as dangerous and powerful magicians.

Dafing merchants have specialized in trade in cloth, salt, beef cattle, and (formerly) slaves, that were sent south to Ghana and Ivory Coast in exchange for gold and kola nuts. Slaves and gold from the gurunsi and Lobi areas were also traded north to San, Segou, and Jenné.  Dafing merchants carried salted fish from the Niger, Bani, Sourou, and Mouhoun Rivers to the forest areas in the south.  Vegetable butter from the karité or Shea nut was carried south in large quantities to trade for kola nuts, but this trade ceased with the development of the palm oil industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.  Because of their involvement in trade many Dafing families became quite prosperous and economically powerful in Burkina Faso.

Other than commerce, the major Dafing industries are weaving and dyeing, techniques which they must have brought with them from the northwest, for the peoples among whom they have settled did not weave cotton centuries ago.  The Dafing are very famous for their fine weaving.  All Bwa women, and many other women in northern Burkina, wear beautiful blue-stripped skirts woven from cotton or local silk by the Marka.  These elegant and costly textiles are avidly collected and carefully preserved by many Burkinabe women.  Dafing women maintain their economic independence from men by engaging in commerce, especially of dyed cloth. They are the most skilled dyers in central Burkina.

Dafing masks are a blend of the sculptural styles of their Mandé relatives in Mali and the graphic patterns of the Voltaic peoples among whom they settled in Burkina. The face is oval, with a heavy, horizontal brow and a large, straight nose. The intersection of the nose and brow forms a very distinctive T. The planes of the cheeks are flat, with the small, square eyes placed high in the angle of the nose and brow. These style traits are very similar to the characteristics of Mandé style masks, especially the n’domo masks of the Bamana. Over the basic Mandé sculptural forms the Dafing artists superimpose distinctively Voltaic geometric patterns, including triangles, chevrons, checkerboards, and especially the “Voltaic target motif” of concentric red, white and black circles. They color the decorative patterns red, black, and white resulting in a much more colorful palette than is common in Mandé sculpture.  The Dafing call their masks barafu. The very fine Marka mask, number 851 in the Wheelock collection, is an excellent example.  We can see vivid red, white and black graphic patterns applied over sculptural forms that are very Bamana in style.  A second Marka mask, number 1010 is also quite typical.

The Marka Dafing also use masks of leaves and straw that are very similar to the Bwa leaf masks of Do.  In 1983 I saw a number of Dafing leaf masks in Mana, just north of Bagassi (where the road crosses the railroad).  These were very similar in style to the leaf masks of the northern Bwa near Dédougou. Rather than a crest of feathers and a protuberant cylindrical mouth, as in Boni and Bagassi, Dafing leaf masks have a large circular crest of thick dried grass that runs from front to back.   If you attend the annual mask festival FESTIMA in Dedougou you will see lots of Marka leaf masks perform.

Dafing wood and leaf masks appear at annual renewal or village purification ceremonies, at funerals of male and female elders and at the initiations of young boys. As among all peoples in Burkina, masks are family oriented, with each clan[7] taking responsibility for the carving of masks that represent animal and supernatural characters in the clan’s histories. A single clan can use masks of wood or of leaves. The wood and leaf masks never dance together, although they may appear on the same day for the same event.  Leaf masks represent Do, the spirit of the bush and of plant life. The elders of Mana told me that masks in wood must open and close every mask performance.  Masks of wood represent spirits from the bush that watch over the families and protect them from sorcery.
ESSAY ON BOBO MASKING TRADITIONS 5 pages  one photo of Bobo masks


Bobo masks:


The Bobo people who live in an area around the city of Bobo-Dioulasso and to the north into Mali are one of the most important groups of people in Burkina, from the point of view of cultural richness, history, and numbers.


The Bobo speak a language in the Mande subfamily of the Niger-Congo family of languages.  They are related culturally to the Bamana, Malinke and other groups to the west, and are not related to the Bwa, Mossi and other Voltaic speakers to the east.  As one might expect, their art is very different from that of the Voltaic peoples and much more similar to those of Mande speakers.  The Bobo probably number about 200,000, most in Burkina but substantial numbers in Mali south of the Bani River.


The Bobo are very heterogeneous.  They include farmers and smiths, as well as the numerous Zara, who live primarily in Bobo-Dioulasso and whose oral traditions say they moved into the area in the 16th or 17th century well after the arrival of the Bobo themselves.


Bobo villages are compact, concentrated clusters of rust-red clay houses.  They resemble the villages of the gurunsi and Bwa, and are much more compact than the villages of the Mossi.  One of the most famous Bobo villages is Kumi, just west of Bobo-Dioulasso, which escaped destruction by the French in the early 1900s and so is one of the few Bobo towns to include multi-storey homes.  Kumi is so spectacular and unique in Burkina that it merits a visit by every traveler to the country.  In the past five years the people of Kumi have established a cooperative museum, with the help of the West African Museums Program, and have begun to repair older buildings that were damaged by rain.


The Bobo are farmers, and farming is the only acceptable work for “traditional” Bobo men.  There are large numbers of smiths among the Bobo, who were invited to settle centuries ago in the Bobo villages.  Smiths are a group apart from the farmers, but they play such an important role in the Bobo religious patterns that village life would be drastically altered without them.  Both the smiths and the farmers use masks of wood and of leaves.


Like everyone else in Burkina except the Mossi and Dafing, the Bobo do not have a system of centralized political authority—no chiefs.  They are completely allergic to any form of power focused in the hands of one person.  There is no authority beyond the lineage or family, and the concept of chiefs is repugnant because it does not reflect the order of things formed by God, Wuro, at the creation.  They first resisted the idea of chiefship introduced by the Jula (Dyula) people who moved in among them, and then from 1895 resisted the imposition of French colonial power.  Bobo resistance was emphatic and at times violent.  Like almost all the people of Burkina at one time or another from 1895 to 1940 the Bobo fought bravely against the French and their Senegalese mercenaries, and in 1914 they rose up against the French, killed a few colonial officers in and near Bobo-Dioulasso, and in turn were slaughtered by the French using field artillery and machine guns.  Every Bobo village that had revolted against the French was flattened.  Only Kumi was spared because it was so close to Bobo-Dioulasso that its people did not dare to rise against the French.


The Bobo are called “Bobo-Fing” in the old literature on Burkina Faso, and the Bwa are called “Bobo-Oule.”  These two distinct people are not related.  Early Jula interpreters for the French got them confused.  There has been endless confusion over the years about the differences between Bobo and Bwa masks—Bobo masks do not have red, white and black circles, squares and triangles, while Bwa masks do have them.  Bobo masks look very different from masks made by the Bwa, gurunsi, and Mossi.


The Bobo Creator God is Wuro.  Obviously Wuro read Claude Levi-Strauss, because he created systems of opposition including male/female, village/wilderness, male/female and more.  Wuro’s sons are Dwo, the mask, Soxo, the spirit of the wilderness and of new life, and Kwere, the spirit that punishes with lightning and thunder.  Of these, only Dwo is represented by masks.  All Bobo masks, whether made of leaves or of wood, whether owned by farmers or by smiths, represent Dwo.  Dwo was placed on earth by Wuro to help man, and Dwo is the principal manifestation of the power of God in the Bobo world.


Both Bobo farmers and smiths use masks to represent Dwo. Wooden masks that belong to farmers are called syenkele. The wooden masks must be carved by smiths, and to a non-Bobo person, farmers’ masks and smiths’ masks are indistinguishable.

The basic syenkele mask has a very long, trapezoidal face which is bisected vertically by a thin, straight nose. The head is a large, spherical helmet, always surmounted by thin, straight horns. The eyes are high at the intersection of the planes of the cheeks and the brow, and the mouth is placed so low on the chin it almost disappears. There are many types of syenkele. The most common variation is the addition of a long, rectangular plank (number 1698). Two additional characters appear represented by syenkele: the buffalo (tu), with large, vertical, flat spreading horns, and the hornbill (kuma), with a massive curving beak that projects from the face, as well as curving horns.

The most sacred wooden smiths’ masks are molo and nwenke. These are accompanied by antelope masks (nyanga), and by entertainment masks (bole). Both molo and nwenke are abstract and stylized, rather than representational. Other masks, nyanga for example, are fairly naturalistic depictions—they look like big antelope. In the case of entertainment masks, the artist is given a great deal of latitude to create new, unusual forms. A mask with human features may have forward-curving antelope horns and a great bird’s beak.  If you ever have a chance to attend a Bobo funeral in villages east of Bobo-Dioulasso you will see a dozen different types of these entertainment masks perform on one afternoon.

Molo masks have a long, rectangular or trapezoidal face. The head is a spherical helmet with a saggital crest (from front to back along the ridge of the skull).  Two long horns project dramatically upward from the helmet, and there is no frontal plank above the face. A small handle of plaited fiber beneath the chin permits the masks to be held on the head during acrobatic performances. The molo masks in the Wheelock collection include the large mask number 793, and the impressive molo with much of its original color intact, number 1108.  Number 1087 is a very fine example of a molo with darker coloring.

Nwenke masks (sing. nwenka) are also used by smiths in initiation. These masks are composed of a very long trapezoidal face with a narrow chin, surmounted by a plank that is seen fully from the front of the mask. The intersection of the nose and brow form a T and the brow is protuberant, with the small eyes high in the angle of nose and brow. The nose is long and bisects the face vertically; the mouth is small and always very low on the face. The heavy helmet-shape is surmounted by a saggital ridge (like a Trojan helmet). The frontal plank is very complex and is pierced frequently with triangles so that it appears to be built up of a vertical series of triangular wings that spread horizontally.  All nwenke masks have a plank above the head.  Nwenke masks wear hemp fiber costumes.  Number 1064 is a fine example, with an elaborate plank and a long, trapezoidal face.

The mask called nyanga represents the large antelope Hippotragus koba. A pair of enormous horns curves backward from a large, rounded forehead. The snout is elongated and curves forward and down in dramatic balance to the horns. The mouth is open and is studded with real antelope teeth. The horns are banded and the eyes hooded with protruding lids.  The nyanga mask in the Wheelock collection, number 321, is beautifully carved, with a large, bulbous snout and graceful, curving horns.  Much of the original red and black color has been preserved.  It is one of the best of the Bobo antelope masks I have seen in any collection.

In addition to sacred masks, the Bobo carve masks used for entertainment, called bole (sing. bolo). These are helmet masks that rest on the shoulders, or cap masks with short faces. They represent people or numerous animals: antelope, rams, monkeys, rooster. These masks are worn with hemp fiber costumes.  The helmet mask with a crest, number 932 is a fine example, as is the helmet mask with two small horns, number 2020.

Molo, nwenke, and syenkele were painted the traditional colors, red, black, white, until the 1960s. In the past thirty years much brighter enamel colors including yellow, green, red, and blue have been used. Colors are applied rather roughly in triangles and rectangles that represent magical amulets (sebe). Bobo artists paint the patterns but do not carve them in low relief into the surfaces of the masks, so that very old masks that have been darkened with smoke or scrubbed clean by art dealers show no traces of the original painted patterns. The Bobo repaint their masks at the beginning of each performance season.  I have never found evidence that the painted geometric patterns on Bobo masks communicate any sort of message, but I still have a lot to learn about the Bobo.

The Bobo are famous in Burkina for their use of masks of wild leaves and of cultivated hemp fibers to represent Dwo.  Recently I have seen masks made of discarded audio-cassette tape.  Some of these masks appear in towns at the beginning of the dry season (January to May) to sweep the village clean of malevolent spiritual forces.  Leaf masks are put on early in the morning by the performer, with the help of his friends, then enter the village from the east with the rising sun, leave the west side of the village, and are cut from the performer’s body and burned in the evening. Such masks are never seen in private or public collections but have only been documented through photographs.


Masks made of fibers are more sculptural than masks of leaves, for the fibers are more supple and durable, and can be fashioned using basketry techniques into more elaborate shapes.  Originally all such masks were made only of fibers obtained from wild plants, but the Jula introduced the cultivation of the hemp fiber, Hibiscus cannabinus which is now used for all such masks. Several types of fiber masks are distinguished by the shape of the head and the color of the fibers. The older, more traditional colors are red, black, and white, but now fiber masks are also dyed yellow, green, and blue.

The Bobo use masks in three major contexts: masks appear at harvest time, in male initiation, and they participate in burials and funerals.  Of these by far the major context is initiation.  Each mask is considered to embody the spirit of Dwo, and as a result, may serve frequently during sacrifices as a sort of portable altar of Dwo. Sacrifices may be placed directly on the head of the mask as offerings to the spirits they embody.

Because of their close relationship with the natural world and the power of the wilderness, the farmers’ masks of leaves have an important role to play in the yearly harvest. The masks absorb the toxic forces that are present in the newly harvested crops just brought into the village, and return to the bush the forces that cause sickness and conflict in the village, restoring the balance of nature/culture, bush/village that was established by Wuro.  The millet gathered at harvest is one of the original gifts of Wuro, and for man to consume it is an attack on Wuro’s creations and an insult to the creator of life. To cut the millet is to kill it, freeing the spirit that it contains. To allow this spirit to remain in the village is to invite disaster in the form of disease and infertility. The masks “clean” the millet so that humans cane safely eat it, returning to the bush the dangerous spirits and asking Wuro’s forgiveness through appropriate sacrifices.  This function is very similar to the use of masks by other Mande peoples, especially the Bamana in Mali.   Bamana n’domo masks are also used to strip this toxic spiritual force from newly-harvested grain.

Among the Bobo initiation takes place over a period of up to fifteen years, when the elders explain the stories of creation in several steps. Masks play an essential role in initiation because they reestablish and reinforce the cosmic order created by Wuro, and restore the balance and the rhythms of the natural world and of the community. Each of the new steps in the initiation is punctuated by important ceremonies when the initiates dance with several types of masks.

During the first step the boys learn that the mask performer is a man. Next the boys eat the leaves of the mask, an important basic step that represents the absorption of the mask spirit. The boys also begin to learn the initiatory language. The boys are whipped on many occasions, especially when they return from the village to the place of the masks, where they undergo their training. These beatings serve an important purpose, for they demonstrate to the initiates that knowledge does not come without suffering and courage. At the end of this first period of training, the initiates are considered to be re-socialized into the life of the community, helping with sacrifices and traditional festivals. In particular, they are allowed to make parts of the masks and to wear certain ones. This period lasts several years.

The second step in initiation includes tests of endurance, cooperative labor in clearing the bush, and a long period of seclusion in the bush to gather the wood and game necessary for the graduation celebration. Every time the boys leave or return to the village they undergo battles with masks that beat them severely.  During the second step the boys are symbolically killed as children and then reborn as adults. When the date of the initiation itself is set, the young men go into the bush to make the fiber masks. This takes about a month. The women of the community prepare enormous quantities of millet beer which will be consumed during the final celebration.  The masks again beat the boys severely. Next, a communal meal, attended by numerous guests from related villages, confirms the unity of the ethnic group.

The third stage is focused on the secret language and includes new rites of initiation.  The initiates learn about the origin of masks, the legends of the ancestors and supernatural beings, and the accounts of historic events.  At this point, the young men must demonstrate their mastery of the initiatory language: they are required to recite myths and legends throughout an entire night.[8]

By the fourth and final stage the initiates are between twenty-five and thirty years old and the initiation as such has been completed. There are no further new tests at this stage, which consists of the transfer to the initiates of wooden masks by the senior men. The young men prepare the masks and dance, and the same ceremony is repeated two or three years in succession. The initiates are finally considered to be adults.

There is a strong bond between masks and ancestors, as among Voltaic peoples to the east. Some Bobo peoples believe that the spirit of the deceased is accompanied on the journey into the after-life by a mask, and that the spirit of the dead may take up temporary residence in a mask.  At funeral ceremonies, masks have two functions: they escort the deceased to the tomb at burials, and at funerals they send the spirit on the road to the world of ancestors. In southern Bobo country masks of wood appear at funerals of all elders, male or female, where they destroy the wooden funeral biers that represent the deceased, freeing their souls to travel the long, smooth road to the Black Volta River, the land of the dead. A key moment in the funeral is the arrival of the wooden masks at the grave, where they are seated in a circle around the grave and receive offerings of millet beer.  Whether farmers or smiths, elaborate funerals are only held for elders, male or female: the heads of lineages and their wives.

The distinction between the Bobo, who speak a Mande language, and the Bwa and peoples to the east, who speak Voltaic languages, is significant, because it represents a major cultural frontier that was ignored in the 1940s when the French drew the lines between Mali and Burkina Faso.  As in so much of Africa, national borders were drawn with no care for the significant cultural groupings on the ground.



The character called Do or Dwo [2] appears in the religious belief of the peoples of central and western Burkina Faso, as well as numerous groups in northern Ivory coast and southeastern Mali. Engravings that accompanied the publication of Binger’s travels to Kong in 1887-89 record the use of leaf or fiber masks to represent Do a century ago. The congregation continues to flourish, and ceremonies at which leaf and fiber masks representing Do appear are common occurrences in western Burkina each year from March to June.

In Burkina Faso the congregation of Do appears to have originated among Mande speakers, primarily the Bobo, and to have spread to one Voltaic group to the east, the Bwa. [3] The Marka Dafing, a Mande group who penetrated the valley of the Sourou river in the 1600’s may have carried the congregation of Do with them, and adopted the use of Voltaic mask styles from their new neighbors, the Nunuma and the Winiama. [4]

Although the Bwa and the Bobo are similar in several ways, especially in the lack of central political authority and the common congregation of Do, they are quite different in their world view. The Bwa are open and receptive to outside influences, and their society is in a constant process of change, while the Bobo are far more conservative, preferring to preserve the purity of their traditions. [5] These differences in resistance and receptivity to change is reflected by their adherence to the congregation of Do.

The Bobo:

The Bobo are farmers who, despite traditions of migration over centuries, appear to have been the earliest inhabitants of the region of western Burkina Faso around the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. The Bobo speak a Mande language and many of their cultural characteristics, such as the importance of initiation in village life are distinctly Mande, in contrast to their Voltaic neighbors to the east. [6]

The Bobo live at the headwaters of the Black Volta River. To the east live the Bwa, to the north are the Fulani and Soninke, to the west live the Bolon and Senufo, and to the south live the Lobi, and several Senufo-related groups. The Bobo number about 110,000 people, with the great majority in Burkina Faso, although the area occupied by the Bobo extends north into Mali.

The Bobo should be thought of as a southern extension of the Mande people, that live in what is now Burkina Faso, rather than an intrusive Mande group that has recently penetrated the region.  A very important concept among the Bobo (as among the Bwa) is the primacy of farmers, called seseme (sing. sasama). The core of Bobo farmers has been augmented, over the centuries, by immigrant Mande groups that have adhered to the Bobo traditions of scarring the face and wearing lip labrets, and have adopted the name Bobo and the congregation of Dwo. The largest and most important of these groups are the Zara, or Bobo-Jula, who arrived in the area from Mande between about 1500 and 1700 to found Bobo-Dioulasso. Most Zara are not truly integrated into traditional Bobo life because they carry on long-distance trade during the dry season, and are not bound to the soil as are the Bobo farmers. Both the Zara and the Bobo revere the god Dwo, although each group has given its Dwo masks a slightly different function. The Zara are best known for their white cloth masks, worn at night and called bolo (pl., bole).

The Bobo are farmers, and like most groups in Burkina except the Mossi, are politically non-centralized. Village organization is democratic, and decisions are made by a council of male elders from all lineages. The idea of centralized authority symbolized by a chief is, for the Bobo, an aberration. The Bobo are very conservative and resistant to change, and guard their traditions tenaciously.

The Bwa:

Bobo-Oulé is a Jula term, and means Red Bobo, to distinguish the Bwa from the Bobo, whom the Jula called Black Bobo. These people call themselves Bwa, or Bwaba. The Bwa speak a Voltaic language they call Bwamu.

The Bwa live in central Burkina Faso, just west of the valley of the Black Volta River. There are about 125,000 Bwa in Mali, and 175,000 in Burkina Faso, totaling 300,000 Bwa. The Bwa are surrounded by the Bobo to the west, the Bamana to the north (Mali), the Marka Dafing to the east, and the gurunsi and Lobi to the south. The Bwa think of themselves as autochthonous, and record in their oral histories no earlier inhabitants of their lands.

Until the 18th century the Bwa were protected from the conflicts between neighboring states. In the 18th century the Bamana empire of Segou came into power, occupying a large part of the Bwa lands in Mali. The Bwa were forced to pay taxes, and the Bamana carried out raids into unconquered areas, creating an insecure environment. This continuous instability weakened Bwa social, political, and economic systems.

The 19th century marked the decline of the Bamana empire and the rise to power of a predominantly Moslem Fulani empire whose power reached to the Bwa along the Bani River. Incursions were carried out into the interior of Bwa country, bringing the destruction of villages and crops, the theft of animals, and the enslavement of men and women, or the forced enlistment of men in the Fulani army. In addition to raids by armed soldiers, roving bands of brigands used the period of confusion to raid villages that were poorly organized to resist.

The arrival of the French, in 1897, led the Bwa and their indigenous neighbors to hope for an end to the Fulani invasions. Instead the French reinforced the power of these brigands, using them to gain control over the area. The French administration proved to be the greater of the two evils.  The culmination of all of this was a severe famine from 1911-1913, made worse by the villager’s inability to store grain during rich years for use during lean years due to excessive French taxation. This, coupled with French demands for military recruits in 1914-1915, resulted in a revolt by the great majority of Bwa villages. The insurrection was put down in six months in a series of extremely bloody battles, marked by the determination of the Bwa to fight to the death rather than to submit to enslavement by a foreign power. The French used Fulani mercenaries, heavy artillery, and machine guns and razed all the offending villages. By June, 1916 the revolt was over and the surviving Bwa struggled back to their burned fields and villages to begin to rebuild. [7]

The Bwa live in independent villages devoid of central political authority. All decisions are made by a council of the male elders of the local lineages, and all external authority is strongly resisted.

The Bwa are very open and receptive to change. They are quick to adopt new ideas or forms that they find useful, and to adapt or transform these discoveries to fit their own specific needs. In this way they are fundamentally different than the Bobo, who wish, above all, to remain faithful to “the path of the ancestors.”


[7] Among the earliest changes imposed on the Bwa by French colonialists was the cultivation of cotton in large quantities. Jean Capron has told me that the cultivation of cotton by the Bwa has contributed more to the deterioration of traditional Bwa culture than any other factor. Because the Bwa are paid individually for their crops, all cooperative labor in the fields has ceased, eradicating an essential cohesive force in Bwa society (Capron 1973: 91-107).

The Bwa and Bobo should be considered to be distinct ethnic groups, who have drawn on a common pool of religious belief, resulting in many cultural similarities. Among the most important common characteristics is the congregation of Dwo represented by masks of leaves.

The Bobo creator God is called Wuro. He cannot be described and is not represented by sculpture. Bobo cosmogonic myths, wuro da fere, describe the creation of the world by Wuro and the ordering of his creations, which are placed in basic opposing pairs: man/spirits, male/female, village/bush, domesticated/wild, culture/nature, safety/danger, cold/hot, farmer/blacksmith. The balances between forces as they were created by Wuro are precarious, and it is easy for man, through the simplest daily acts, to pollute his world and throw the forces out of balance. Even farming, in which crops are gathered in the bush and brought into the village, can unbalance the precarious equilibrium between culture/nature, village/bush.

Wuro is an otiose creator God, for after creating a perfect world he saw he could not improve upon it; the world was perfect, and its balance ideal but fragile. This balance could be destroyed at any moment, especially by some kind of change. [8] Wuro also sought to avoid confrontations with man, the most difficult of his creatures. He withdrew from the newly created world, leaving behind part of his own vital material, his son Dwo, the mask, to help mankind. Dwo is the materialization of one form of Wuro, and his principal manifestation. [9]

Wuro also left behind with man his two other sons, Soxo, the spirit of the bush, of vital force, and Kwere, the spirit that punishes with lightning and thunder. Events that followed the creation by Wuro are explained in a secret language that is taught during initiation.

Dwo is usually revealed to man in the form of a mask (in leaves for the original form, in fibers and with a wooden head for later forms) as bull-roarers and other objects that are kept near the congregation shrine. [10]

Because Wuro first gave masks to smiths, smiths continue to control their production and use, whether the masks are made of leaves, fibers, or have wooden heads. Dwo, Soxo and Kwere partake of the essential force or spirit of Wuro. These three spirits are the links between man and the forces that control his life. Shrines are erected to them in every Bobo village, each shrine controlled by a congregation priest, dwobore. Because of their relationship to man and Dwo, smiths are most frequently the congregation priests of Dwo, but in contrast are excluded completely from the congregation of Kwere, thunder.


[8] It is from this religious basis that Bobo resistance to change of any kind stems. The imposition of colonial rule or of a new military government from Ouagadougou all threatened that balance of the Bobo world.

[9] During the historic period Dwo appeared on many occasions, but to individuals and in special places that people remember to this day. These are villages whose locations are known but which no longer exist. Le Moal calls these numerous appearances “subsequent representations.” Among these forms, the Bobo distinguish between the oldest, considered to be the most important, and those that appeared afterward. The first of these “subsequent representations” is, in reality, a triple form, comprising Kwele Dwo, Dwosa, and Sibe Dwo. This form is the object of numerous important cults, and the followers of these cults are called sibe. All other subsequent representations are called Dwosini. Dwo is usually revealed to man in the form of a mask (in leaves for the original form, in fibers for later forms) as bull-roarers and other objects that are kept near the cult shrine.

[10] The Bobo use several words for “mask”. In the north masks are called kore (sing. koro) , something that is old and venerable; in the center of Bobo country they may also be called sowiyera (sing. sowiye), “a disguised man”; in the south the word siye, “the shadow man”, the double. In addition, each mask has its own, personal name.

Dwo is the major spiritual being through which communication between man and Wuro is possible and desirable in his role as the representative of men to their creator. Wuro is a God of action, whose creations are celebrated in the rapid swirling rotation of masks.

The Bobo produce masks in leaves, fibers, wood, and cloth. Each of these is used by one or more segments of Bobo society in a range of traditional contexts. The many types of masks are distinguished by the name of the leaves or fibers used, the colors of the fibers, or the shape of the head of the mask. Each of these masks is a manifestation of Dwo.

The earliest, original forms of Dwo are the most sacred and most highly respected. Masks made of the freshly gathered leaves of various sacred trees represent the original forms of Dwo first revealed by Wuro, which are called Kwele Dwo. Masks made of the colored fibers stripped from kenaf represent later, revealed forms of Dwo. Each of the different forms of Dwo requires a mask that personifies it, that recreates its personal characteristics.

The most typical leaf mask is birewa sowiye, a mask that appears at the beginning of the performance season to sweep all impurities from the community. The head is made of the leaves of the saxada (Guiera senegalensis) and of the nere. The leaves of the West African mahogany form the body, and saxada leaves again form the arms.

Masks made of fibers are more sculptural than masks of leaves, for the fibers are more supple and durable, and can be manipulated using basketry techniques into more elaborate and identifiable forms. [11] The most ancient and important of these fiber masks are called kele. The body of the performer is hidden by a thick fiber costume knotted to a net foundation.

The most important types of wooden masks are sacred masks (molo and nwenke), escort masks (nyanga), and entertainment masks (bole). The sacred masks are representative, rather than representational masks, and do not represent any living, tangible being, human or animal.

Other masks, nyanga for example, are fairly naturalistic depictions. In the case of entertainment masks, the imagination of the artist is free to create innovative forms.

The two major wood mask types are the molo and nwenke. These are the most ancient and sacred of smiths’ wooden masks, forms of Dwo that were revealed in the ancient village of Kwele during the cosmogonic period, that is, after Wuro’s withdrawal.

Molo masks are carved of the wood of the sacred tree lingue, Afzelia africana. These masks have a long, rectangular or trapezoidal face. The head is a spherical helmet with a sagittal crest. Two thick, long horns project dramatically upward from the helmet, and there is no frontal plank above the face. [12] A small handle of plaited fiber beneath the chin permits the masks to be held on the head during acrobatic performances. [13]

Nwenke have remained exclusively smiths’ masks. These masks are composed of a very elongated trapezoidal face with a narrow chin, surmounted by a frontal plank. The intersection of the nose and brow form a “T”, and the brow is protuberant, with the small eyes high in the angle of nose and brow. The nose is long and bisects the face vertically; the mouth is small and always very low on the face. The heavy helmet-shape is surmounted by a sagittal ridge. Nwenke masks wear fiber costumes.

In addition to masks made for ritual use, the Bobo carve masks used for entertainment, called bole (sing. bolo). These are helmet masks that rest on the shoulders, or cap masks with short faces. They represent people or numerous animals: antelope, rams, monkeys, rooster. These masks are worn with fiber costumes.

The Bobo use masks of the congregation of Do in three major contexts: masks appear at harvest time in annual rites called birewa danga. Masks participate in the male initiation, named yele danga, which is their major function. Finally, they participate in the burial (syebi) and the funeral rites (syekwe) of people who have been killed by Dwo, or of the elder priests of Dwo. [14]

Leaf masks representing the initial and universal form of Dwo serve to integrate the individual into human society and to link the community of man with the natural world; fiber masks fix the individual in a social grouping, dedicated to one of the later forms of Dwo. These masks are important agents of socialization. The significance of these lessons is impressed on each new generation in the major institution of initiation. [15]

By his very nature Dwo is not concerned with death. The masks that represent him as a result, usually do not participate in death ceremonies, especially among farmers. Among blacksmith clans that are followers of sibe, the presence of masks at funerals is required. There are, however, exceptions: In the north, birewa sowiyera leaf masks participate in the burials and funerals of people who have been killed by Dwo, either struck by lightning or burned alive in the fibers of the mask they were wearing. Dwo is said to have “swallowed” the offender. In addition, a funeral of a priest of Dwo, the dwobwo, who also “belongs” to Dwo and who has been responsible for the masks’ performances, is marked by the appearance of masks of leaves, but these show their respect for the head of the congregation. [16]


[14] This is a secondary function, and not all masks of all Bobo clans attend these rites. Masks seem to participate in funerals much more frequently in the Syankoma area in the south, near Bobo-Dioulasso, than in the north.

[15] The different levels of knowledge are explained to Bobo boys in several steps spread out over a period of fifteen years. Masks play an essential role in initiation because they reestablish and reinforce the cosmic order created by Wuro, and restore the balance and the rhythms of the natural world and of the community. Each of the new steps in the initiation is punctuated by important ceremonies when the initiates dance with several types of masks.

[16] In the region around Bobo-Dioulasso, where I have attended mask performances, wooden masks spin wildly, almost seeming to be out of control, from one side of the open dance area to the other, and then back. The climax of each mask’s performance is a tour-de-force rotation of the mask alone, when the performer plants his feet firmly and twists his torso and neck, grasping the small handle that protrudes from the chin of the mask or a band of fiber that is knotted inside the chin. The wooden head of the mask rotates two or three revolutions, then returns, in such a way that the mask may leave the performer’s head and is only kept from flying across the performance area by the dancer’s tight grip on it. It is quite common to see clearly the performer’s head and torso. In the south the performances of fiber masks are the most athletic: unencumbered by a heavy mask of wood, the performers leap across the dance area like gymnasts, executing forward flips, cartwheels, and handsprings.


[12] The performer who wears the molo mask either wears a costume of the leaves of the tabe (Isoberlina doka) and is called sibe molo, or he is nude, and is called so molo. The wooden head of the mask is always the same–only the costume changes depending on the ceremonies in which it participates. There is a third type of molo mask, the saxa molo. This is a rare, ritual mask, because it is now only used by a few lineages. The head is a slab of bark of the lingué. The costume is made up of leaves of the same tree.

[13] There are two major styles of molo masks: in the north, around Tanguna, the broad, flat planes of the face are divided vertically by a ridge that bears, in descending order, a short thick nose, a protruberant mouth placed high on the face of the mask, and an umbilicus. The eyes are rectangles. In contrast, the style of molo from Kurumani, in central Bobo country, has a very broad, square face with a long nose that divides the face vertically. The mouth is placed far down very near the chin, and is very broad and protuberant. The face is marked by slanting tribal scars (Le Moal 1980: 224, fig. 18).


[11] When I distinguish between leaf and fiber masks I refer to the materials of which the body of the performer is covered. No leaf masks have wooden heads. There are fiber masks, however, that are entirely of the fibers of the kenaf and other fiber masks that have heads of wood and these wooden “heads of the masks” are the Bobo sculpture we see in museums.


[6] “La langue des Bwa est volta que alors que celle des Bobos est mandé” (Guy Le Moal cited in Capron 1973: 27, fn. #8).  “…il existe une coupure linguistique très profonde entre Bwa et Bobo” (Capron 1973: 28). Greenberg assigns the language of the Bobo to the Voltaic family because the “Bobo” for whom he had word lists were the Bwa, who are, in fact, Voltaic.

Bwa Religious Beliefs:

Only 5% of Bwa are Moslem, 10% are Christian, while fully 85% are traditional animists. For most Bwa, spiritual life centers on the congregation of Do, and on the myths that recount the founding of the clans.

Capron has stated that the congregation of Do among the Bwa has been acquired by the Bwa from the Bobo, along with many social institutions, out of a sense of admiration by the Bwa of Bobo social cohesiveness and village organization. This acquisition of the congregation of Do is an example of Bwa receptivity to change for they are quick to adopt institutions from their neighbors if they feel they will benefit.  As an example, the congregation of Mami Wata has recently been introduced from Nigeria by young men expelled from Nigerian oil fields in 1983. [17]

The Bwa believe that the world was created by God, named Difini, or Dobweni, who abandoned man and left the earth when he was wounded by a woman pounding millet with her pestle. To act as his representative among man and as an intermediary between man and the forces of nature, Dobweni sent his son, Do.

Although Do is androgynous, both male and female, it is most frequently represented as male. Do represents the bush and its life-giving force, for the Bwa still depend on the bush for game and gathered food. He shows himself as the source of plant life and the power that gives fruit to man’s work in the fields. Do is concerned with all ceremonies that insure the renewal of life.

Do is represented by an iron bull-roarer that is called aliwe “he weeps” or linyisan “he makes a sound”. “The man who carries this Do whirls it about his head. The sound that is produced is low and vibrating: it is the voice of Do (dotanu). Do is also represented by masks bieni, made exclusively of wild plants (stalks, grass, and leaves), because they must not resemble the creations of man.

The religious leader is an earth priest, the labie, who is the oldest male member of the clan that first occupied the land on which the village is established. The congregation of Do is a major cohesive force in the traditional Bwa community, providing the congregational bonding that makes the Bwa a unified ethnic group.

[17] I have seen Bwa plank masks bearing the image of Mami Wata in the southern Bwa towns of Boni, Dossi, and Pa.

Leaf masks, called bieni, that represent the spirit Do among the Bwa are used throughout Bwa country, in the north and south as well. In the most southern area called Kademba, near the gurunsi, inhabited by the “scarred-Bwa” or nyaynegay, people use the wooden masks for which the Bwa are famous. Wooden masks represent spirit characters in family myths and have nothing to do with Do. [18]

Leaf masks are born in the bush, early in the morning, when young initiates of the congregation gather vines and the leaves of the karite tree, a symbol of fertility. The mask assistants, who do not perform, wrap the body of the performer in vines from head to toe. The performer may no longer speak, for speech is a human skill.

As among the Bobo, from whom the Bwa acquired the congregation of Do, the mask performance consists primarily of a rapid spinning which represents the creative power of God. [19]

Do and the masks that embody him are concerned with life and new growth, and not with death, so that these masks rarely participate in funerals.  However, leaf masks, which are very sacred, may appear briefly to honor the deceased if he belonged to a clan that used leaf masks. The major contexts in which leaf masks appear are initiations and village purification or renewal ceremonies called loponu.

The performer becomes Do, and performs in rites that represent the dependence of man on the forces of nature for life. In this way “the human community is reintroduced to the cycle of nature, and therefor renews its forces, through the image of the vegetation that is reborn each year” (Capron 1957: 104).

Men pay visits to the sacred places in the village, sanctuaries of Do, ancestral shrines on which the village chief and the priest of Do make numerous sacrifices. At the end of the ceremony, the leaf masks enter the village in a procession that includes all of the men and women of the clans that are adherents of Do. Each compound of the eldest man of each clan is visited in turn, before the masks emerge from the village to perform in the fields.


[18] Leaf masks are made of wild vines that are wrapped around the body tightly enough that the costume will not slip, but loosely enough that the performer’s movements will not be restricted. To this wrapping of vines are bound small bundles of green leaves so that every inch of the human body is concealed. A crest of dried grasses called bwosonu (Loudetia togoensis) is bound to the head, or in some villages may be made of white “eagle” feathers gathered in the bush.

[19] During a leaf-mask performance I attended in Bagassi in 1983, the masks of the Ye clan danced beneath a great tamarind tree in the dry dusty fields in which cotton is planted. Each mask spun wildly, leaping and thrusting his arms wide in an athletic pirouette. The feathers that formed the masks’ crests often were dislodged by the spinning dance and fluttered to the ground, to be gathered quickly by a young boy wearing a carved wooden pendant representation of Do incarnated as a leaf mask. Following the mask performance, at sunset, the leaf masks return to the bush where their assistants cut the vines and burn the entire leaf costume, saving only the white feathers that form the crest.


In the north, initiation into the congregation of Do begins at a very early age, and continues into adult life with frequent and numerous steps. In this area, Bwa and Bobo society are so closely linked that the organization and purpose of initiation into the congregation of Do in the two groups is strikingly similar. With increasing knowledge, boys and young men are introduced to masks of leaves and of fibers.

Only in the kademba and the extreme southern Bwa area inhabited by the scarred Bwa and the Nieniegay, do the Bwa use the great wooden plank masks for which they have been known in surveys of African art. These southern Bwa acquired wooden masks from their eastern neighbors, the Nunuma, Nuna, and Winiama sometime shortly before the arrival of the French in 1897. The wooden mask traditions among the southern Bwa are recent.

Bwa wooden masks represent a number of spirit characters in the myths of their families and clans. Masks represent spirits that took the forms of numerous animals including the antelope, bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile, and fish of several types are included. The serpent, and insects including the butterfly appear, as do birds including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the leper, and the crazy man and his wife. Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms.

As among neighboring Voltaic groups, Bwa wooden mask performances emphasize the impersonation of the spirit character depicted by the mask.

In contrast to the leaf masks dedicated to Do, which are used in a congregation that unifies the Bwa in their belief in a common creator, wood masks are very family oriented, and are used only by the southern Bwa.

Wooden Bwa masks function in many of the same ways masks function among the Nunuma and Winiama. They play an important role in initiations of young men and women, appear at burials and later at a memorial services. Masks appear at annual renewal ceremonies. Masks appear at many other events during the dry season, including the introduction of newly carved masks and market day dances. Celebrations, funerals, and initiations are organized by individual clans, and rather than unifying the members of a village community, they are actually divisive, for clans compete to give the most elaborate and innovative performances.

Among the Bwa there is a basic and deeply rooted conflict between the Mande congregation of Do and the use of wooden masks on the Voltaic pattern. Bwa oral traditions make it clear that the use of leaf masks representing Do is a very ancient practice and that originally all Bwa clans were adherents of Do and used leaf masks. Clans that use the bieni leaf masks state emphatically that those who use wooden nwamba masks have borrowed the practice from the Nunuma and Winiama to the east. In regions where they exist in the same community, especially in the south, they often comprise rival congregations and never appear together at the same ceremony at the same time, and in some villages never dance on the same day.

In many southern villages, notably Dossi and Bagassi, clans using each type live side by side. Those who have continued to honor Do with leaf masks look on the adoption of wooden masks as heresy and as an attempt to wrest religious authority from its traditional source, the local earth-priest. They have instituted strict prohibitions that prevent members of wooden-mask clans from participating in rites of Do. Clans that have adopted wooden masks and their magic from the Winiama and Nunuma are aggressive and proselytizing. Songs that accompany the nwamba performances often insult the clans that persist in using leaf masks, and refer to them as filthy primitives. As a result, fights frequently break out between these clans that have, in the past, resulted in the intervention of the local military police. This has occured in both Bagassi and Dossi. In Bagassi the Nyumu family has acquired the use of wooden masks from the east, while the Ye family continues to use leaf masks for the congregation of Do. The members of the two families constitute the two major factions in the village, taunting each other in the streets, engaging in brawls in local bars, and shouting insults from the sidelines during performances of rival families’ masks. This conflict between traditions that are, in turn, Mande and Voltaic in origin, reflect the clash of conservative and innovative traditions on the larger scale in central Burkina Faso. The older, more established tradition is Mande and the congregation of Do while the newer, innovative tradition in the south is the congregation of wooden masks acquired from the Voltaic Nunuma and Winiama.

In contrast, masks in the northern and northwestern areas of Bwa country participate peacefully in the congregation of Do. In the north, the use of wooden masks was acquired from the Bobo, to the west, rather than from Voltaic groups in the east, as is the case in the southern Kademba area. Here leaf masks integrate man into his natural environment in the spring, when farmers leave their villages to work in the fields. Wooden masks, in contrast, reintegrate man into village society following the harvest, when farmers must return to village society and conform to rules for correct social behavior. Wooden masks serve as agents for social control in these villages. Masks of leaves and other wild-growing materials represent nature, while masks carved of wood with costumes of cultivated fibers represent village culture in the nature/culture balance that is basic to Bwa world view.

The Dafing:

The Dafing are an intrusive Mande people who also call themselves Marka, and are closely related to the Marka Soninke in Mali between the border with Burkina Faso and the banks of the Bani River.

150,000 Dafing live in Burkina. They speak a Mande language.

The Dafing are descendants of the ancient empire of Ghana, which was defeated in 1076 by the Moroccan Almoravids. The Dafing occupy a region of north-central Burkina Faso between the cities of Nouna and Tougan in the north, south as far as Boromo. There is an important concentration of Dafing villages along the valley of the Sourou River. The Dafing moved into an area occupied by the Samo and Bwa soon after 1600 as a result of the destruction of the Mali Empire in the valley of the Niger and Bani. The valley of the Sourou, which joins the Black Volta just north of Dedougou, seems to have been the primary route followed by the Dafing when they penetrated the area they now occupy.

The Dafing are typical of groups that have penetrated the upper basin of the Volta Rivers and adopted the cultural institutions of peoples they encountered, superimposing the traditions of these peoples over older beliefs, forms, and styles.

In contrast to the leaderless groups among whom they settled, the Dafing created small-scale, politically centralized states, with a chief in charge of several villages. The position of village chief was achieved, rather than inherited: an elder who had demonstrated his skill as a warrior, trader, and diplomat was selected from a council of local lineage elders. During the 18th and 19th centuries such a state, centered at Ouahabou encompassed several southern Bwa and Winiama villages and extorted taxes from the conquered peoples (Tauxier 1912: 409-13).

Dafing merchants have specialized in trade in cloth, salt, beef cattle, and (formerly) slaves, that were sent south to Ghana and Ivory Coast in exchange for gold and kola nuts. Slaves and gold from the gurunsi and Lobi areas were also traded north to San, Segou, and Jenne. Dafing merchants carried salted fish from the Niger, Bani, Sourou, and Black Volta Rivers to the forest areas in the south. Vegetable butter from the karite was carried south in large quantities to trade for kola nuts, but this trade ceased with the development of the palm oil industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. [20]


[20] I would like to speculate that the Dafing and the Jula, including the Jula of Kong, share a common origin, and that the trade each group carries on stems from common needs and common accessibilty of markets.

The people in rural Dafing villages are predominantly traditional animists. Like the Nunuma, the Dafing, especially in the remote hill villages between Bagassi and Safane, are feared and respected by their neighbors as dangerous and powerful magicians.

Dafing masks are a stylistic pastiche: a blend of the sculptural styles of their Mande relatives in Mali and the decorative styles of their Voltaic neighbors in Burkina. The face is oval, with a heavy, horizontal brow and a large, straight nose. The intersection of the nose and brow forms a very distinctive “T”. The planes of the cheeks are flat, with the small, square eyes placed high in the angle of the nose and brow. The ears are large and extend horizontally like handles, and the mouth protrudes, just above a broad, triangular beard. The face is surmounted by a crest that may be complex, including crescents, short dentate planks, or a pair of horns that frame an animal form. This crest curves toward the back. These style traits are very similar to the characteristics of Mande style masks, especially the n’domo masks of the Bamana.

Over the basic Mande sculptural forms are superimposed distinctively Voltaic geometric patterns, including triangles, chevrons, checkerboards, and especially the “Voltaic target motif”. The decorative patterns are colored red, black, and white resulting in a much more colorful palette than is common in Mande sculpture. These very typical masks are called barafu, and have often been misattributed to the Bobo.

The Dafing also use masks of leaves (koro) and straw that are very similar to the Bwa leaf masks of Do. [21] I suspect that the leaf mask tradition was carried into the valley of the Sourou by the Dafing when they penetrated the Bwa area. [22]

Although Dafing wood mask formal characteristics are typically Mande, the use and meaning of masks conforms to stereotypes in central Burkina. As among all groups in Burkina, masks are family oriented, with each clan taking responsibility for the carving of masks that represent animal and supernatural characters in the clan’s histories. Like the Bobo, and in contrast to the Bwa, a single clan can use masks of wood or of leaves. The wood and leaf masks never dance together, although they may appear on the same day for the same event. Leaf masks represent Do, the spirit of the bush and of plant life. Masks in wood must open and close every mask performance. Masks of wood represent spirits from the bush that watch over the families and protect them from sorcery. Dafing wood and leaf masks appear at annual renewal or village purification ceremonies, at funerals of male and female elders [23] and at the initiations of young boys. There are no secret associations.


[21] Dafing leaf masks that I have seen from Mana, just north of Bagassi, are very similar in style to the leaf masks of the northern Bwa near Dedougou. Rather than a crest of feathers and a protruberant cylindrical mouth, as in Boni and Bagassi. Dafing leaf masks have a large circular, sagittal crest of thick dried grass.

[22] In The Art of the Upper Volta Rivers (1987) I said “I suspect that the leaf mask tradition was adopted by the Dafing from the Bwa when they penetrated the Bwa area.”  Although there is evidence for either solution, it seems most logical that, as a Mande group, the Dafing brought the use of leaf masks to represent Do with them when they penetrated the valley of the Sourou.

[23] In February, 1983 I attended the funeral of a male elder of a Dafing family named Tamani in the Bwa village of Banu, near Bagassi. Four leaf masks and two wooden masks from Mana participated in the funeral to honor the deceased and send his spirit on its journey to the land of ancestors. The leaf masks appeared early in the morning, arriving from the bush east of the village. Each mask was called by drummers, and was greeted by young men of the clan. Each mask danced in turn on the tomb before everyone left the compound for a performance in the open area in front of the Tamani home.

Late in the afternoon, two masks of wood emerged from a straw enclosure at the center of the village and repeated the actions of the leaf masks. A mask with a crocodile framed by curving horns, named bamba, accompanied by an antelope mask (ghun), performed in the courtyard and on the tomb of the deceased. The oldest son of the deceased followed holding a framed photograph of his father as a young husband surrounded by his wives and children. Just before sundown the wood masks made their way up the rocky path toward their home village of Mana, ending the ceremonies for the day.

The Tusyan People:

The Tusyan are a small group of about 32,000 that lives in the extreme southwestern area of Burkina Faso between Orodara and Banfora. They are surrounded by the Sembla and Bobo who live to the northeast, the Karaboro and Tyefo (Senufo peoples) to the southeast, the Turka and Syemu to the west, and the Senufo to the north. The Syemu are closely related to the Tusyan, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them.  They are followers of Dwo, who is sometimes called Lo, the same spirit that is so important among the Bobo and the Bwa.  With the northern Senufo, or Tagwara, who have adopted Komo, they are another example of a Senufo people who have adopted a religious idea that is fundamentally Mandé in origin.

The major southern Tusyan town is Toussiana on the road from Bobo-Dioulasso to Banfora. Other large villages are Kurignon, Tapoko, and Tagalédougou. About half of the population of the town of Orodara, in Syemu country, is Tusyan.

Like most of the peoples in Burkina Faso, the Tusyan are heterogeneous, with numerous variations in cultural characteristics despite their small population. The northern Tusyan are the oldest inhabitants of the area, and call themselves Pentobe. The southern Tusyan, near the large town of Toussiana, call themselves Win, and their language is Winway. However, the Jula name Tusyan (people of Toussiana) is used widely. To avoid confusion between Win and Winiama, I will use the more widely-published Tusyan.

The Tusyan are closely related to the Senufo, and they speak Winway, a Voltaic language very similar to their Voltaic neighbors. Their villages, kinship patterns, political systems and religious beliefs are similar to those of the Senufo-related peoples who are their neighbors to the west.

The Tusyan produce masks and crests or helmets of wood that are well represented in public and private collections. They also cast small brass figures that are very similar to Senufo brasses.

I was fortunate enough to visit Toussiana in 1984.  In the years since, Susan Cooksey, from the University of Florida, has carried out research and written her doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa on Toussiana divination.  Dr. Cooksey has been generous enough to send me a lengthy personal note based on several years of research, the most recent in April, 2006.


Tusyan masks, called loniaken, are very two-dimensional, rectangular plaques of wood with a bird head projecting from the center of the upper rim, and a broad triangle projecting downward from the lower rim. Small, round eye holes are carved close together high on the face and are surrounded by wax into which red seeds are set. A similar cross of seeds divides the face diagonally into quarters. The sides and lower edge are pierced with holes for attaching a fiber fringe. Some examples bear mirrors on the face that form large eyes. The mask is surmounted by an animal head or horns, which symbolize the totem of the clan.

The helmets or crests represent the protective animal spirits of the clan. Only the Tusyan whose totem is the buffalo make their helmets of wood. The helmets of other clans, made of fibers and other perishable materials, have not survived in collections. Tusyan wooden helmets named kablé, are surmounted by very stylized figures of bush-buffalo. From the rectangular head projects a pair of broad, flat, curving horns. Long, slender legs flank the head and connect it to the hemispherical helmet. The head is connected to the hind quarters by a long, tubular body. The hindquarters are large and blocky, with a tail that projects vertically.

Susan Cooksey’s main informant has been Madeleine Traoré, who is northern Tusyan or Pentobé.  Her uncle Sylvain was the main informant for the French scholar Jean Hebert.

According to Mrs. Traoré, masks are worn during initiations, while helmets are used in village purification rites and at funerals.  Rectangular plank shaped masks participate in the annual planting and harvesting cycle.  They ask the ancestors for a successful planting and a good harvest.  Men and women participate in small initiations which are held every year, and in the great initiation which is held every forty years.  Masks only appear in the great initiations. There have been two such initiations in the 20th century, in April, 1933 “just before the tracks of the Abidjan-Bobo-Dioulaso railway reached Bobo” (elder informants in Toussiana and Hébert 1961: 717), and again in 1989[9]. The masks are carved by a blacksmith during the initiation period, and each initiate is then allowed to keep his personal mask.

Initiation has been held in two major steps: every young man and woman is initiated at the lowest level in ceremonies held every two years. Those who are not initiated may not marry. During the initiation each boy receives an initiatory name that is never used in the village and is kept secret from women and children. In order of importance these names include the heron (most important), song bird, hare, stork, partridge, kingfisher, panther, cat, monkey, bush pig, bush buffalo, and elephant (the last and most junior level).


During this ceremony, initiates are given a name by the leader of Do. [10]  The characteristics of the initiate are matched with those of animals in a selected set. An elder told me his name was N’sera, the name of a small bird with a curved beak who is thought to be able to foretell misfortune. The name the young man receives may be represented by the crest that surmounts his mask. Young women are not given masks. The young men are instructed in their rôles as adults in village society, and are given religious training.[11]

The most senior initiation was held every forty years, and is marked by dances in the bush in which each initiate wears a mask that represents his family’s protective animal spirit, indicated by the crest that projects from the top of the mask. The initiates go through the training and perform in the final dances naked. No costume except the short fringe on the mask is worn during the performance.

According to Adama Ouattara, an elder of Tebenaso, once the initiates don the masks, they assume the attributes of the animal in their performances. The warthog, for example is known as a gluttonous and boisterous animal who takes everything he wants, hens, maize, and so forth, and when he enters the dance area “all must let him pass.” [12].


The initiation lasts for a month and a half and takes place in the bush. A sacred grove and a small house near the house of the village chief are also sites of Do rituals. masquerades and feasts that accompany the initiation.  It is a cathedral-like space enclosed by the foliage of tall trees and vines, and houses a number of sacred sites marked by piles of stones and masses of white feathers from sacrificed fowl. [13]

Village Purification:

According to the research of Jean Hebert, the kablé helmets are associated with village purification ceremonies that drive out malevolent forces and bring numerous children, good health and bounteous crops to the community. The head of the lineage dances before the entrance to his house. The celebrations last for fifteen days. Married women and adult men are allowed to participate, but unmarried women are excluded for it is feared that to see the performance would make them infertile.

When the masquerade is over, the masks are hung on the outer wall of the home of the initiate, as Bienvenue Coulibaly, a local priest for the spirit Boro, noted, “…it is forbidden for anyone to see them or touch them. The owner has to protect them for forty years. They are especially dangerous for women to see.” [14]



Crests bearing the special animal or protective spirit of Tusyan clans also participate in funerals for male elders held during the dry season from October to May. Once, the head of each household owned such a crest, but now they are more rare, in part because some families have become Moslem.

Divination Figures:

Diviners may inherit their skills from their parents, or they may be chosen by a spirit from a swamp or from the bush. Only someone who has undergone the senior initiation can become a diviner. A great mask that resembles a beast from the forest and that swallows everyone who crosses its path appears during the investiture of a diviner. The music of a very large, magical balafon accompanies the performance. Throughout southwestern Burkina, diviners use brass and wooden figures to consult spirits, both ancestral and supernatural.


Finally, Dr. Cooksey adds:

The Pentobé have preserved many older rituals, including masking, that the Win have not, due to Christianization of the Win, especially in Toussiana.  Win still have masks, but masquerades are not as elaborate and perhaps not as consistently done as among the Pentobé.


Figures in wood and brass

Each of the peoples who live in Burkina Faso makes figures that represent spiritual beings.  Among Mossi royals these spiritual beings are the spirits of deceased chiefs. Among other peoples they are the spirits that watch over the community, family, or individual and battle the forces of darkness.

Mossi diviners called bouga cast cowry shells to consult protective spirits about client’s problems. These spirits are often localized in wooden figures that are coated with thick layers of magical material which give them supernatural power.  The figures can be used to destroy malevolent forces, especially witches, the “eaters of souls”. Each diviner may own a stone or wooden figure that symbolizes his relationship to the spirits that taught him divination and gave him magical power.

The invading cavalry who founded the Mossi states brought their language and their military and bureaucratic traditions north with them into the basin of the White Volta, but they adopted many cultural traditions from the peoples they conquered, and it is very possible that they acquired the use of royal figures from the magical figures of the conquered Nyonyose. This may account for the fact that many royal figures are female or bisexual, although Nakomsé informants have also told me that the bisexuality of the figures refers to the need of the chief to represent all of his subjects, male and female alike.

Among the gurunsi peoples (Nuna, Nunuma, Winiama, Lela, Kasena, Sisala) wooden figures represent spiritual beings.  Many figures are placed on family shrines and serve as visible, tangible links to the world of spirits that have a profound impact on peoples lives. While wooden masks are used by almost all peoples and are highly visible in gurunsi villages, the numerous spirit figures are much more private and difficult to see. Figures are kept hidden in private homes, on family altars or on the shrines of diviners, and their use is restricted to their owners.  I certainly have seen far fewer figures than masks in the years I have spent in Burkina Faso.

Like masks, wooden figures represent spirits that men encounter in the wild bush, far from cultivated fields. The most powerful and dangerous spirits appear to men who possess special skill as manipulators or users of supernatural forces. These men are called vo koma in Winié, vuru in Nuni. They are able to consult with spirits to solve clients’ problems and to read the future. They are greatly feared in their communities because they can use their powers both to help their clients and to harm their enemies, powers that they used effectively against Mossi invaders in the 16th century. There are entire Nunuma villages that have widespread reputations as communities of magicians. Travelers fear to pass these villages during the night for fear that their own souls will be captured and eaten by diviners. I can vividly remember driving in my Peugeot at night with my friends past a certain village north of Ouri when my friends pleaded with me not to stop or even slow down for fear of the powerful witches in the village.

Each diviner may possess one or several spirits that he or his male ancestors encountered in the bush, and that are embodied in magical objects. The objects may be simple balls of sacrificial materials and concoctions of clay, animal and plant parts, and manmade objects such as bottles or iron or stone blades, canes of various shapes with carved figures, or they may be figures of wood or brass.  If we were talking about the art of the Kongo these power objects would be called minkisi, for they serve the same functions minkisi serve in Kongo.

The diviners keep all of these power objects hidden deep in the most remote, windowless rooms of the diviner’s home. In many cases large areas of the figures are covered with thick accumulations of sacrificial and magical material that feeds and give power to the spirit embodied by the figure. The numerous blood sacrifices and bits of animal parts used in the magical bundles create a rather strong odor.

The diviner’s equipment may include long wooden staves, called dambeon in Winié. These have naturalistic human figures partway up the staff that represent spirits. During the divination process, the client and the diviner grasp the handle of a smaller hook-shaped staff or wand that bears a carved figure at the angle of the handle and hook. Winiama diviners call these hooks lopui or poui, and tap them against the ground as the diviner chants, in a secret language, the spirit’s response to the client’s questions.

Nunuma and Winiama figures are quite angular, with heavy brows, flat cheeks, and the head narrowed from side to side, emphasized by a saggital ridge flanked by protruding ears, as in the small figure that surmounts the Winiama heddle pulley, and the twin spirit figures on the Winiama mask. Nuna figures have Nuna scars and tend to be more fully rounded and refined, representing a standing figure with knees slightly flexed, the arms parallel to the torso.

Each year at the end of February the Bwa people of the town of Boni celebrate the beginning of the mask performance season.  They carry a carved wooden female figure through the streets of the village.  The figure is about 80 cm. (32″) tall, with low-relief geometric patterns on the head, shoulders, and arms that are painted red, white and black. The female figure is named mwiha (or muiha, nuiha) and is used in annual sacrifices of purification of the village and consecration of masks. The figure is a symbol of fertility, bestowing good harvests and healthy children. Women who have encountered reproductive health problems offer sacrifices to ask for children.  The villagers carry it from lineage compound to compound, accompanied by the large wooden plank masks, to bless the compounds. At the end of the procession the elders place a chicken on its back on the head of the figure which expires spontaneously. The ancient figure studied by Jurgen Zwernemann in 1955 was stolen in the late 70’s by one of the masons who helped build the new Catholic church in Boni. He carried it to his home in Nouna where he and most of his family are said to have died, victims of the figure’s power.  The Bwa in Boni replaced the original figure and, I have been told, the replacement too was stolen.  The figure that now appears in late February each year is obviously recently carved but performs the same functions its ancestors have done for centuries. You can see the replacement being used in the annual festival in my film “Art as a Verb in Africa.”

The Bwa carve dance staffs in the shape of a T with small figures placed in a row across the head of the T. Young men carry these staffs and dance with them in the empty fields following the harvest in October and November. The purpose of the performance is to bring bounteous crops and many healthy children to the lineage during the coming year. The figures, which include birds, animals, and men and women carrying tools or weapons, represent spirits. They are usually not carved of a single piece of wood but are joined to the staff.

The Bwa use carved wooden figures nyhaben as well as figures modeled in clay on shrines that embody protective bush spirits. The diviner makes use of the supernatural power of these spirits for his clients’ benefit. Diviners use brass or copper bracelets with a pair of small spirit figures standing together and projecting upward from the bracelet. They call these figures mwani in Bagassi or hinobiun in Houndé, and place them next to the larger carved or modeled figures during consultations with the spirits.

The most numerous and best known figures from Burkina Faso are those of the Lobi, who live in the southwest around the town of Gaoua.  There are large numbers of Lobi across the river in Ghana, and to the south in Ivory Coast.  It is very easy to cross the border between these two countries. At some periods of the year the river is dry, and you can just walk across.  At other times boatmen paddle Lobi across for a few CFA.  The Lobi are an excellent example of a people whose lives are so closely controlled by spiritual beings that the very fabric of their social structure is determined by the rules for behavior these spirits have established. In this way they are very much like to original farmer groups in central Burkina who were conquered by the Nakomse in 1500.  The Lobi live on widely scattered farmsteads spread across large areas of southwest Burkina and northern Ghana. Several such farmsteads make up a community, whose spiritual life is organized around a congregation of followers of the spirits of nature which control life in the region. 
I could call these communities villages, except the homes are so widely scattered across farm fields that the word would give the mistaken impression that they are villages like those of the Bwa or Bobo. 
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 for the French during the colonial period from 1897 to 1960.  Even today the Lobi are independent and resist the authority of the central government in Ouagadougou. They are known in Burkina and Ghana as very difficult people to deal with, quick to argue and find offence.  The Lobi fought a protracted and vicious war against the French early in the century, in which thousands of Lobi and dozens of French soldiers were killed. The Lobi used poisoned arrows and the French used machine guns.  There are very few published photographs of Lobi men and women in old books because Lobi men wore only a strap around the waist into which they inserted their foreskins, leaving the testicles dangling.  Lobi women wore at most a bunch of leaves.  I can only guess that the French found this sort of fashion embarrassing.


Lobi life is dominated by spirits they call thil, (pl. thila). 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 religious community in which all inhabitants are followers of the spirit.  We have religious communities such as this in Iowa, where the Amish and Mennonites live in towns all over the state, in Amish and Quaker Pennsylvania, and in Rockland county, New York, where Jews live together under the laws of God.  The most famous religious community in America must be the state of Utah, where so many people are Mormons.


A Lobi 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 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. Many of these prohibitions have to do with 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, and so provide the social glue of the community that is otherwise provided by a chief in centralized political societies.

Men and women encounter thila in the bush when they may find a strange object, usually made of iron, which they take to a diviner who says that it belongs to a thil that has appeared to the person and that the spirit wants to enter his home and receive sacrifices from him. The person must then build a shrine in the courtyard of his house or on the roof, which includes a pot for sacrifices to which he adds the iron object or the stone.


The spirits that control Lobi communities 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 Lobi solution is to make the spirits visible through wooden figures called boteba. The wooden figures become living beings, with the ability to move, strike out against evil 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 do battle with the forces of the underworld, just as the ancient clay figures from West Mexico fight the dark forces of the underworld, just as the Maya hero twins Hunapu and Xbalinque fight the lords of Xibalba, just as the Hero Twins of the Navajo battle the monsters of creation.


During several trips to Burkina I have visited Lobi homes and asked the permission of the head of the family to see the shrines on which the boteba are placed.  Often I was refused, but just as often the head of the family told me he must consult a diviner who will in turn ask the spirits. The usual divination technique is chicken sacrifice.  He may cut the chicken’s throat or twist and break it.  If the chicken dies on its back the answer is yes.  I was then led to a 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. There are large numbers of figures that represent dozens of spirits that can protect against the large number of, dangers, accidents and diseases in Burkina Faso. The numerous figures are 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 them.

Most of these figures are distinguished in particular ways including gesture or unusual composition. Some have two heads, some are posed in aggressive stances, some are engaged in sexual acts, and almost all appear in male and female pairs. Like us, the Lobi create God in their own image. The artist who carved them intends to remind us that these are portraits of spiritual beings, not of the ancestors or other natural beings.

Boteba can protect their followers from witches and sorcerers. These boteba are called “boteba witches” (boteba duntundara). Some figures assume the pose or stance of a human who attends a funeral. 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.[15]  These boteba are called “sad boteba” (boteba yadawora). Sad or mourning boteba hold their hands behind their backs in the Lobi attitude of mourning. 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 with their hands grasped behind their backs, looking down at the ground. This is the universal Lobi pose of mourning. A boteba may stand 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 from suffering.

In the same way the gestures of other Lobi figures express through 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 honor it will be able to bear children. A thil takes the form of a bird like the famous example in the Wheelock collection 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 Colonel Lerousique who worked from about 1910-1930 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 successful in dealing with the threat of sleeping sickness that when he left Gaoua the Lobi began to carve boteba to represent him and the power he had to protect them from this disease. Lerousique was transformed into a thil and was represented by the boteba with a French officer’s kepi (hat).

Just as among other people around the world the Lobi invent spirits to deal with new problems that arise, and abandon spirits for which they no longer have a need.  In the same way poor Saint Christopher and Saint Nicholas have been demoted, while dozens of new saints were created by Pope John-Paul II and Mother Theresa has become Saint Theresa.


Jewelry in Brass and Stone


A century ago most people in Burkina wore bracelets, rings, anklets and pendants cast of brass or carved of stone.  These objects were intended to provide protection against disease and misfortune of all kinds.  Many of them were non-figurative, but a significant number incorporated images of the spiritual beings that were to provide protection to the wearer.  Most Burkinabes stopped wearing such objects in the early 1960s, and now it is very unusual to see any being worn in rural villages or in the city.  In the 1970s tons of old brass bracelets were gathered up by scrap metal dealers and sold by the kilogram to brass casters in Ouagadougou, who turned them into ashtrays and chess pieces for tourists.

Mossi brass casters cast a wide variety of shapes and types,  including kambanga–small bracelets worn above the elbow, kalembanga–made of copper and iron twisted together and worn on the wrist to prevent eye diseases, zouwêra–twisted bracelets of solid silver or copper, karzouri–massive round bracelets that are fitted to the wrist with a great hammer and are almost impossible to remove, zusokadaga–which have a section that separates to permit the bracelet to be removed from the arm (number 383), and kobré–Saturn-shaped bracelets worn by the wives of chiefs. I photographed two women, the wives of a chief, wearing kobré in 1976, and I also purchased several of them from an old man who came by our house in Yako.  Their function was to identify the women as a royal wife so that commoner males would not speak to them and risk severe punishment. Mossi chiefs’ wives also once wore heavy cylindrical anklets called fodo, that covered from 10 to 20 centimeters of the lower leg.  Kasena people in the south also made such cylindrical objects, including numbers 1046, 1091 and 1051.

Mossi brass casters are called nyogsen (sing. nyoga).  They belong to the endogamous occupational caste of smiths.  All casters use the “lost-wax” technique, with separate molds and crucibles. These casters were once essential to the Mossi cavalry because they cast bits, stirrups, buckles, and all sorts of other brass equipment for horses. The nyogsen are still very active, but now they make chess pieces for tourists, rather than bracelets for chiefs’ wives or stirrups for their horses.  There are similar groups of brass casters among the Lobi, Tusyan, Bobo, and gurunsi.

Mossi men who belong to families that use wooden masks once wore cast brass rings that bore tiny models of their masks to secure the protection of the spirit represented by the mask. Similarly  Nunuma, Winiama, and Nuna men  wore cast brass rings bearing tiny masks. These serve the same purpose as women’s cast brass crescent pendants, to secure the blessings of the mask spirit. Casters in Nunuma villages make rings with masks on them which they place on the wooden stems of long tobacco pipes. Some old pipes I once saw in Nunuma villages had up to fifteen small masks. In the past two or three decades casters have made large numbers of these pipes to sell to tourists.

Burkina has been famous since the 1950s because of the large number of mopeds, most made by Peugeot or Motobecane, which are still the most important means of transportation.  These motorbikes have engine blocks cast in a white metal that looks like aluminum, although it is an aluminum alloy.  Casters have been very adept at casting jewelry from this light alloy.  Bwa women wear anklets made of aluminum or brass that are cast for them by Dafing smiths  (number 679 is a fine example, with a Bwa leaf mask seated on the front). These anklets are curved upward at the front and back, and bear on the front a representation of the leaf mask that represents Dwo and an elaborate plaque sometimes decorated with feather shapes at the back.  Bwa women whose families wear leaf masks also wear these anklets for spiritual protection. When a woman becomes ill or cannot conceive a child, her brothers commission such an anklet to provide her with the blessings of Dwo.  Number 385 is a bracelet of the same type.

Bwa and gurunsi women wore anklets with images of the spiritual beings that protect them.  Both number 1071 and 1098 have images of the heads of Guinea hens.

Many Bwa and gurunsi wear pendant brass crescents on the chest. These protect the wearers from disease, and very simple, small examples were still worn in the mid-1980s in large numbers by children. The most elaborate examples, frequently bearing miniature models of wooden masks, are worn by gurunsi women, especially in the north among the Nunuma. These are named tchienê lui ni benê “crescent shape with a figure,” and again, like Bwa anklets, represent the mask owned by the wearer’s family. A woman who is suffering some reproductive disease may consult a diviner, who tells her to seek the help of her family’s protective spirit. She then returns to her father’s home where her brothers commission a crescent bearing the family mask. Her brothers must do this for her, because they are responsible for the family masks.  The mask spirit cures the woman after she returns to her husband’s home. Similar brass crescents are worn by the Senufo, Lobi, Bobo, and other peoples in southern Burkina Faso.

Tusyan (a Senufo-related people) cast groups of three to five small figures in brass that surmount a flat, triangular base. These are used in divination and to protect the wearer from disease caused by dangerous spirits. Diviners shake a bowl or otherwise manipulate small brass figures, cowries, and other objects and toss them on the ground reading in the way they scatter the responses to the client’s problems. The diviner may then prescribe a small brass pendant to be worn by the client to secure the blessings of whatever spirits have caused problems.

In the past, most Mossi men wore armlets called kaka above the elbow that were carved from a black stone with intricate white marbling (number 1105). These were intended to protect the owner from disease, to make him handsome and attractive to women, and to give his wife many healthy children. The marbled stone from which they were carved comes from Hombori, in Mali northeast of Bandiagara. The Mossi call Hombori “Manogo,” and so the armlets are called manogokaka, or sometimes kugukaka (kugri=stone). The stone armlets are very expensive, and now merchants sell large numbers of imitations, made of black and white glass by the Nupe glass-makers of Bida, in northwestern Nigeria.  In the 1980s I collected several of the stone bracelets, and several pairs of glass imitations.  Some of the glass bracelets had been rubbed with sand to turn the glassy surface matt, so it would more closely resemble stone.


There are dozens of intricate and attractive bracelet and anklet shapes that were once made in various places all over Burkina.  While many were intended to provide some sort of protection to their owners, the way some Americans wear copper or iron bracelets, many others are worn because they look nice. Fashion plays a big part in this role,.  A style that is made by a Mossi caster may become fashionable among Fulani or Bwa women, and hundreds of them may be worn only by women in those groups.  They come to be called “Fulani bracelets” whether or not they were made by a Fulani artist.  Such bracelets are still very common in many parts of Burkina, and are proudly worn by very beautiful and elegant women.  Although few people wear bracelets for spiritual protection these days, lots of people still wear them to enhance their appearance, just as in our own culture.


Decades ago almost all the people near the Mouhoun River wore ivory ornaments taken from elephants they killed in the wild, heavily forested areas near the river.  Lobi and gurunsi women wore ivory lip labrets, gurunsi women wore nose ornaments that were suspended from the septum, and women in the same areas wore large bracelets above the elbow carved from a rectangular section of ivory tusk (number 1293).  Lobi men wore pendants on their chests called thungbubiel carved in the shape of whistles.  All such objects have been collected years ago and are now in public or private collections outside Burkina.  In about 1980 I visited the famous art dealer Mert Simpson in NY who showed me thirty or so of these whistle-shaped pendants, in colors from white to orange to red and black.  As late as the 1980s when I asked in Nuna villages about old things people showed me nose ornaments in ivory, but by that time absolutely nobody wore them.  In 1984 I photographed a lovely old Lobi lady who still wore an ivory lip plug.
FLUTES 2 pages  one field photo of men using flutes
HOUSE HOLD OBJECTS  5 pages  one photo of stools or other objects

DOLLS  5 pages  photo of girls with their dolls
Mossi Dolls:


Among the most widely collected and best known works of art from Burkina Faso are the small wooden dolls made by Mossi smiths.  These are toys used by little girls who play pretend with their babies, called biiga or infant in Moore.  It is very common to see them for sale in rural markets, and to see little girls playing with them in their homes.

The basic shape of a Mossi doll is a simple cylinder, with a disk-shaped head and pendulous breasts.  Very few have carved arms or legs.  All are female. The head is a D shape turned with the flat side down.  All of these figures are carved with the elaborate crested hairstyle called gyonfo which was ubiquitous in Mossi country forty years ago but has now almost totally disappeared.  The gyonfo is a crest that extends from the forehead across the top of the head to the nape of the neck. The smaller shapes on each side of the head represent masses of hair closely braided above each ear. Occasionally, a small piece of light-colored metal, intended to represent a comb, is inserted into the hair. The carver burns thin lines into the wood with a hot knife blade to represent braids and facial and body scars. In addition, there is always a small hole in the base to represent the anus, and the labia and vulva may be indicated. Some dolls are wrapped in hide to give a more naturalistic appearance.  One of the most beautiful Mossi dolls anywhere is number 479b, a real masterpiece, with an elegant curving line to the breasts, a lock of hair that hangs over the face, and elaborate scarification patterns.

Although the smiths who carve these objects often leave out any but the most obvious details, they are intended to look like a young Mossi mother. The breasts are elongated by a massaging technique called peebo (“to draw out”). After the birth of the first child, the older women of the family vigorously massage the mother’s breasts to ease lactation. The stretched breasts are a proud badge of motherhood. In addition, incised markings on the chest and stomach of the dolls accurately reproduce the scars that every Mossi girl once received as she approached puberty.  Scars that radiate from the umbilicus were added following the birth of the first child.  I have not seen a Mossi woman with these scars in thirty years.

Doll styles: Mossi smiths carve these dolls in a variety of styles, each of which can be traced to a particular town or region of Mossi country.  These objects move from one village to another over the course of their lifetimes because when women marry, they take their favorite dolls with them to their new home.  As a result, the village where a doll is seen or collected is often not the same village where it was carved.

Ziniaré style: The style that is seen most frequently in collections outside Burkina is carved in the village of Ziniaré, northeast of Ouagadougou. The head is a semicircular disc, without facial features, and with a smaller half disc on each side forming the hairstyle. The neck is short and the torso is a simple cylinder mounted on a low base. Large numbers of these dolls were sold every day in the Ouagadougou market in 1976-77, but by 1983-5 they had disappeared, because all the carver’s production was being purchased by local art dealers, who spoil the new dolls with grease, soot, and dirt to make them appear old and ship them out of Ouagadougou to sell in “antiquities” boutiques. I donated one of these dolls to the Smithsonian Institution where it is on permanent display in the “African Voices” exhibition.  I paid twenty-five cents for it in the Ouagadougou market in 1976.  Number 982 is a fine Ziniaré doll.

Northern Styles: Dolls from the Risiam area in the north have very small, disc-shaped heads, and the breasts form an inverted-V when seen from the front. Other dolls from the north have small disc-shaped heads and pendulous breasts but appear much more thin and stretched than dolls from the south.

A large number of dolls are carved in the city of Kaya, in the northeast. The head is placed far forward on the neck so that the line of the back and neck, extending upward and over the top of the head, is an unbroken curve.  Many Kaya style dolls are wrapped in leather.  The small pendant over the face that can be seen on many dolls represents a lock of hair that little girls wore over their foreheads.  Married women used to wear this at the back of the head.  Numbers 607 and 608 in the Wheelock collection are excellent Kaya pieces, with long breasts and an unbroken line up the back and over the head.

Eastern Style: Among the largest and most distinctive dolls are those made in the Boulsa area. The head is flattened from side to side and is quite thin, with the concave face scooped out of the front side of the disk.  The neck is a long cylinder, and the torso comes to a point at the umbilicus. The breasts hang downward from very blocky shoulders. A large number of these dolls were carved by Somyogedê Koudougou in the village of Bonam, north of the town of Boulsa in the 1970s. He frequently sold his dolls in the Boulsa market. His father, Zimwomdya Koudougou, made many dolls of the same style. He died in the early 1970’s.[16]  Number 962 is a superb example of this style, with fine scarification patterns, a large disk-shaped head, and a long neck.

It is possible to distinguish two types of dolls: some, with dusty gray surfaces, are used by little girls as toys, others, with glossy, dark surfaces, are carried by women as aids to conception.  The earliest published account of the use of Mossi dolls is Eugene Mangin’s note that:

…the little girls have their wooden dolls, and on important festival days they politely come to show them with great solemnity, and whoever takes the doll to hold for a moment must give the child a few cowries when it is handed back (Mangin 1921: 37).

I have seen dozens of dolls in Mossi homes, where they often lie abandoned in a corner, dusty, abraded, and a uniform, unattractive dull grey.  They appear to have been kicked around on the ground for years. Little girls play with dolls their parents have purchased or that they or their parents or older sisters have manufactured from found objects. Dolls may be made from roughly carved sticks, short sections of millet stalk with a blob of mud for the head, rolled-up cardboard, or a corncob with the dried husks braided into an elaborate hairstyle, very similar to 19th century American corncob dolls. Many children in wealthy families, especially in the larger towns, play with more prestigious plastic baby dolls imported from Taiwan or Ghana. I was astonished in March 2006 when we visited the Mossi town of Dablo to discover how many of these dolls are still made and used.  I saw a little girl with one, and asked that all the other children show me their dolls.  In a few minutes there were two dozen little girls showing me their dolls.

Although the dolls look like adult women or mothers ma (“mother”), they are still called biiga (“child”), and the little girls who carry them say that they are their babies. They give them boys and girls names, cover them with scraps of cloth, and bounce them on their knees. The little girls even practice giving an enema, called yamde, that is a common feature of Mossi child-rearing. Until a child reaches the age of three, his mother administers an enema twice daily, injecting the liquid mixed with red pepper with her mouth.  Older women use the dolls as teaching aids, instructing the child in how to care for and feed an infant, but they realize that little girls are easily distracted by other children or daily tasks in the family home, and the doll may be left aside while the girls play with her friends.

Many Mossi mothers say that the doll depicts the child as she hopes someday to be. The doll is a stereotype of the ideal Mossi woman, even now, when that stereotype has changed so much in so many communities.  The child dresses her plaything in bits of cloth and cheap earrings just as a child in our own culture dresses her “Barbie” doll. Mossi girls, like American girls, relate easily to images of beautiful women, which serve as gender models with which they can act out their dreams about the future.

Although many of the dolls are simply toys that aid the education of the child, others are of greater importance for adult women. When a woman leaves her father’s compound for the home of her new husband, she carries along her favorite doll ; it permits the wife to become pregnant within a month of her first intercourse. A woman who has not been able to conceive a child after a reasonable period cares for the doll as if it were a living infant, even to the point of feeding it, washing it, clothing it, and carrying it in public tied on her back in a baby wrapper. As soon as the umbilical cord of her first child has been cut, the wooden doll is washed and rubbed with Shea butter and placed on a mat beside the mother, followed a little later by the newborn infant. The first drops of the mother’s milk are offered to the doll, and before the new baby is placed on his mother’s back for the first time, the wooden figure is tied there for the last time.

Mossi dolls are carved by smiths during the dry season, when the craftsman has plenty of time free from work in his fields. Made in the smith’s compound, they are then carried from one local market to another, or sometimes to important markets great distances away (but where the vendor can still identify their origin). They may also be carved on special order. A dozen figures or more may be displayed at once in some markets, for smiths produce them in large numbers in their spare time. Prices for new dolls ranged from 10 to 75 CFA in 1976 (five to thirty-five cents US) depending on their size. Although many were created solely for the tourist trade, these rough and ugly copies are easy to identify.


SPOONS, LAMPs, COMBs and PIPES 2 pages
DOOR and DOOR LOCKS 1 page one photo of door with lock

Stools and Chairs:


During the thirty-plus years I have spent in Burkina Faso I have often seen beautifully carved stools, chairs, doors, locks, bracelets and many other household objects being used actively, in spite of the very large numbers of Muslim Jula traders who regularly go through villages offering to buy anything “old.”  Indeed, many of the finest and oldest were sold decades ago, but the artists of Burkina continue to produce large quantities of these objects in the “old” styles, and people continue to purchase them.

Throughout the region, stools and chairs are used by men and women. As is true throughout the Western Sudan, men’s chairs have three legs, and women’s chairs or stools have four legs. Men’s chairs are intended for lounging in the evening, when the sun is low in the sky and the air is cool. Then the male elders in Nuna villages light their clay or brass pipes and lean back in the large, carved chairs called dangalo (numbers 16, 820, 1372, 771), or the smaller backed stools, called daon and exchange news of the day or play with their children. Women’s stools are made for work: women sit on them while they prepare food, tend their children, and for everything except relaxing.  Women’s stools are generally smaller than men’s chairs, for they are used when women sit before the cooking fire to prepare a meal (numbers 544a, 1067, 1534).

Large Nuna and Nunuma chairs for men are carved of a single piece of wood, with a sharp bend where the back rises at an oblique angle from the seat. A single, very thick leg extends downward from the front of the seat, and two smaller legs support the back. Occasionally an additional leg projects from the back so the chair can be reversed to be used as a recliner, with the long back parallel to the ground. The back of the chair may be decorated with simple geometric notches or elaborate patterns of triangles, rectangles, and diamonds. Among the best pieces in the Wheelock collection are the exceptional gurunsi long chair number 16, and the elegant deeply curved gurunsi chair number 820, There is also very fine old small stool number 1372, and an elegant, spoon-shaped gurunsi man’s stool number 771. Chairs like these are still being carved in Burkina. Old chairs are treasured as mementos and are passed from generation to generation until the legs have been abraded away.

Among the best-known women’s stools from the valley of the Black Volta are small stools with four conical legs and a head and neck that project horizontally from one end of the rectangular seat. The head usually has very angular facial features that face down, toward the ground, and crescent or semicircular shapes above the ears that represent locks of hair. These stools have been sold to people all over the border area between Mali and Burkina Faso, and so have been attributed to the Bwa, Bobo, Bamana, Mossi and other peoples.  They are made by northern Bwa smiths and are used by Bwa women in the area of Dedougou, Solenso, Sanaba, and Bourasso, close to the Mouhoun River. Two very good examples are the Bwa woman’s stool number 1067, and the exceptional four legged kneeling figure Bwa woman’s stool, number 1534.

Lobi stools are beautifully carved with one head or two to represent the thil or spirits that watch over the stool’s owner. The Wheelock collection includes two fine examples: the beautifully carved but rather recent Lobi stool with two faces, number 1044, and the short double headed Lobi stool, number 1065.  Lobi people can be quite contentious at times.  One Saturday evening in Gaoua, the largest town in the Lobi area, I saw a dozen men walking down the road past me towards a local cabaret where they looked forward to spending the evening drinking millet beer.  Almost half the men carried their own three legged stools over the left shoulder: they sit on these while they drink and if a fight breaks out, as often happens, they have a useful club near at hand.  Lobi stools frequently are placed on shrines after the death of the owner to serve as a link to the ancestor spirit through which members of the family can ask for help.  I saw many such stools on shrines in the 1980’s. The fine single head Lobi stool, number 1053, is similar to many that I have seen being used in Burkina.

The Nuna and Winiama carve beautiful wooden ladles or spoons that are decorated with the heads of protective spirits. The carved heads look very much like masks. These are used to ladle out the sauces that accompany meals of millet gruel, and are intended to protect against poisoning: they change color when they come into contact with poison.  The bowls are a concave leaf shape, with the joint of bowl and handle near the center of the back of the bowl.  The superb Nuna spoon (number 56) with the handle carved in the shape of the head of an antelope is one of the best anywhere.  The Kassena spoon with the head of a hornbill is also very fine (1766).

Stools, ladles, and all other treasured mementos that are no longer used become covered with a thick layer of soot from kitchen fires, while frequently-used objects are washed and rubbed with sand so they are a clean, natural wood color.  It is very common throughout Burkina to see the girls of a family vigorously scrubbing all of the stools that belong to the family.

Door Locks: The Kurumba area is one of the very few regions where it is still possible to see wooden door locks being used in a traditional context. Farther south these have all been purchased by Jula traders and sold on the market.  Throughout the region, the small doors of granaries are secured with locks that have a wooden female figure as the central vertical member. These small locks represent protective spirits that watch over the contents of the granary and protect the millet, sorghum, and maize from rot, damage by insects and rodents, and theft. More rarely, large locks are used to secure the doors of Kurumba homes, but most of these have been replaced with chains and European padlocks, as, with increased contact with non-African culture, the need for physical protection has supplanted the effectiveness of spiritual protection. There are several fine figurative Mossi door locks in the collection, including number 1015. The superb, elegant, graceful lizard shaped lock number 805, from the Samo people northwest of the Mossi is one of the finest African locks I have ever seen.
CHAIRS and STOOLS  2 pages 1 photo of stools

TERRA-COTTA VESSELS  5 pages  2-3 photos of pottery being made
86 pages of text double spaced


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[1] The very best analysis and description of the use of masks in initiations by the gurunsi is the doctoral dissertation of Nao Oumarou at the University of Paris.  Nao is currently director of cultural affairs in the ministry of culture.
[2] Nao, Oumarou  1984 “Masques et société chez les Nouna de Zawara,” Ouagadougou: University of Ouagadougou, Department of History and Archaeology, ms. M.A. thesis.
[3] I use the word “bush” to refer to the wilderness, not to all rural areas, which should be more properly called “the villages.”  In a conversation in April 2006 with Mrs. Bernadette Sanou, former Minister of Culture and current Director of the tourism office, she objected to the use of the word “bush” or “brousse” to refer to rural communities.  She is right.
[4] By the scholar Caesare Poppi, at the University of East Anglia, who has done considerable excellent research in northern Ghana.
[5] On the other hand, the great age of “exploration” of African art, in which young scholars motivated by curiosity to discover where the objects we enjoy seeing in museums have come from, now seems to have passed, and this research may never be of interest to anyone.
[6] Tauxier, Louis Le Noir du soudan. Paris: 1912 Larose
[7] By “clan” I mean a number of families who share the same patronymic and are descended from the same founding ancestor.
[8] By far the most complete description of Bobo initiation is to be found in Les Bobo: Nature et fonction des masques by Guy LeMoal. Paris: 1980, ORSTOM.
[9] Susan Cooksey, Do and the arts of Intiation. Personal communication
[10] Hèbert, Jean. “Organisation de la société en pays Toussian” Notes et document Voltaiques, 5 (Julliet -Septembre, 1972): 26.
[11] Susan Cooksey Do and the arts of Intiation. Personal communication
[12] Interview with Adama Ouattara, December 12, 1998, Tebenaso.
[13] Cooksey, personal communication.
[14] Personal communication, May 1, 1999, Yoya.
[15]  Meyer, Piet Kunst und Religion der Lobi. Zurich: Museum Rietberg Zurich 1981:20.
[16] Mangin, Eugene. Les Mossi: Essai sur les usages et coutumes du people mossi au soudan occidental. Paris: Augustin Challmel.