The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Risiam style masks at funeral east of Yako, 1977. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


b.2. When Risiam style masks are compared to Yatenga style masks, we usually find that the planks of Risiam masks are shorter and broader than on Yatenga masks. The antelope head and horns are larger and more prominent on Risiam masks, and the facial portion of Risiam masks is convex, rather than concave. The hemispherical face is bisected vertically by a notched or dentate ridge flanked by round (or occasionally triangular) holes. In Yatenga the eyeholes are almost always triangular. 

The same geometric signs are used on the masks from each style region, the same red, white, and black pigments are used to paint the signs. The rather scanty black fiber costumes worn with the masks in each area are quite similar and are attached to the masks in the same way.

There are several minor variants in the area, represented by a limited number of masks. The best known but most enigmatic of these are a group of masks surmounted by two parallel, slender planks joined at the top and bottom . These masks are clearly part of the northern Voltaic style which includes the masks of the Dogon, Kurumba, and northern Mossi. The convex face and lack of incised surface detailing lead me to believe that they were produced by a carver in the Risiam style area or farther north among the Kurumba, or by a small group or "school" of carvers in a single village. It is quite common for an individual carver to sell his work to families belonging to all three peoples . In writing of the mask in the Tishman collection, Anne-Marie Schweeger-Hefel has correctly noted the important relationship between the mask and the myths of origins of the families that own them, as well as the importance of weaving in Mossi mythology. It is very unlikely that the curving planks represent the long shed-sticks or weaving-swords that are used by women on broad, vertical looms, however, because among the Kurumba only men weave on very narrow, horizontal men's looms. In the rare cases when supplementary shedding devices are used, they are always quite short and are not curved.

I have examined many of these masks, and although there are numerous obvious tourist pieces, carved in Bamako, there are also many masks that bear all of the signs of manufacture and long use in a traditional village context.

The geographic area in which convex-faced Risiam style Mossi masks are found corresponds to the area of the traditional Mossi states of Risiam, Ratenga, and Zitenga. All of these states once owed allegiance to the ruler of Yatenga. This area is defined in the south by the White Volta River, and in the north by the area occupied by the Kurumba and the Sahel, which is the land of nomadic Fulani and Tuareg herders. To the east and west the transitional zones with the Yatenga and Kaya styles are broad and vague--the result of the mixing of ancient Dogon inhabitants in the west and the Kurumba who were moving into the region from the east before the nakomsé conquest. South of the White Volta, in the area of the Ouagadougou style, a few villages where Risiam style masks are used are scattered among the communities that use small animal masks. The most notable of these is Kirsi, east of Yako, where I have carried out research .