Rituals of Healing

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples

Nwantantay (plank mask)


H. 250.2 cm (98")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.516

While the performer’s interpretation of the different characteristics of the spirits may illustrate important moral issues, the messages of the dancers and the musicians is further reinforced by designs and symbols on the masks. Among the Bwa, graphic patterns on plank masks, such as this example, represent a system of writing that is learned during initiation. These patterns describe the rules for the moral and ethical conduct of life, the religious laws established by the spirits that must be observed by their congregations. While some masks include zigzag designs, representing "the path of the ancestors," others incorporate checkerboard patterns that represent the value of education—the black squares refer to wisdom, the white squares to ignorance.

Four nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.



Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Plank Masquerade. Video by Christopher D. Roy.