New Materials and Contexts

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Bwa peoples, Burkina Faso, façade in the form of a plank mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Just as monuments draw upon the past to articulate a revised present, so does urban African architecture. In Burkina Faso, a number of urban structures are shaped in the form of plank masks used in initiation and funeral rites in rural communities. The construction of governmental and other national buildings or, in this case, a Catholic Church in the form of a mask, represents appropriation by modern African powers of symbols of tradition, unity, and social cohesion. To co-opt symbols of other religions is a deliberate imperialist strategy. Forms from other religions are evacuated of their meaning through a process of symbolic reduction and placed in the service of Christianity. It is interesting that a mask whose purpose is to mark moments of radical transition, such as the passage from youth into adulthood and from life into death, has been chosen as a metaphor for Burkina Faso’s conversion to Catholicism.