The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

The Mossi:

The Mossi produce not just one mask style, with a tall plank, but make and use three major styles of masks, with several substyles as well. The heterogeneity of these styles reflects the complexity of the ethnic composition of the Mossi people. The distribution of the mask styles used by the Mossi reflects the distribution of the many peoples who were conquered by the invading horsemen from the Kingdom of Dagomba.

Throughout the area now occupied by the Mossi the invaders or nakomsé, encountered and married the daughters of peoples whose descendants now refer to themselves collectively as tengabisi ("children of the earth") or nyonyosé ("the old ones"), without regard to ethnic origin. These conquered peoples included groups of Dogon, who are referred to in Mossi oral histories as kibsi, and Kurumba, called Foulsé. Most of the Dogon population fled before the approach of the nakomsé cavalry, to the cliffs near Bandiagara, where the Mossi horses could not follow. In the southwest the nakomsé confronted and conquered the Léla, Winiama, and Nuna, whom the Mossi call gurunsi.

In each of these regions the conquered peoples had cultural traditions that the invaders feared or respected, and which therefore survived amalgamation into a new Mossi society. In the north and southwest the tengabisi use masks to control the forces that effect their lives, and the mask styles in those regions are survivals of the styles carved by their Dogon, Kurumba, Léla, Winiama, and Nuna ancestors.

Southwestern Ouagadougou style Mossi masks are related stylistically to the red, white, and black animal masks used by the Léla, Winiama, and Nuna. Masks produced by the Mossi and the gurunsi share a long, heavy fiber costume that hides the performer from head to toes, and stylized representations of wild and domestic animals, including antelope, buffalo, roosters, and sometimes of humans. Plank masks occur among the Nuna and Winiama but not among the Léla or southwestern Mossi. The major distinguishing characteristic is the absence among the Mossi of the series of concentric circles around the eyes, a common motif among the gurunsi. The tri-lobed crest that represents crest feathers on bird masks or the gyonfo hairstyle on human masks among the southwestern Mossi and among the Léla does not appear among the Winiama or Nuna. In the southwest, Mossi masks are not provided with bars of wood or fiber cords that the performer clamps tightly between his teeth, in contrast to northern Mossi masks.

In the Yatenga style area, Mossi masks are vertically oriented, with concave, oval facial areas bisected by a vertical ridge. These masks are strikingly similar to animal masks used by the modern Dogon, some of whom live in northern Yatenga, but most of whom occupy villages nestled in the Bandiagara cliffs, a long day's walk from the borders of modern Burkina Faso. Both styles are characterized by the use of red, white, and black geometric patterns on both animal masks and on vertical plank masks. The karansé masks used by the Mossi in Yatenga most resemble the Dogon type called sirigi, but there are remarkable similarities between other types as well, especially the masks surmounted by female figures, called satimbé by the Dogon and karan-wemba by the Mossi. Mask costumes are very similar, and both peoples use a bar of wood that the performer clamps between his teeth to secure the mask. The most striking style difference between the Mossi and the Dogon is the rectangular face of Dogon masks and the oval or round face of Mossi masks. Such differences are the result of 500 years of divergent stylistic development. In terms of use and meaning of masks there are numerous similarities. Both Dogon and Mossi masks are essentially totemic, representing spirits that play roles in the founding of clans. They are used similarly in burials and funerals, and in infrequent but regular general ancestral sacrifices. Again, there are differences in use and meaning, but these are often less important than differences that occur between villages inhabited by the same group.

Kaya style masks, in the northeast, are very similar to the plank masks produced by the southern Kurumba. Both peoples produce convex-faced masks with elaborate, branching planks that rise above the face. Both peoples decorate their masks with rather rough, geometric shapes painted white. While it is true that the ancestors of the Mossi who use masks in this small area were Kurumba, it is patently false to conclude that Mossi art is or was made by the Kurumba. It is also a mistake to associate all Mossi art with the nyonyosé, or to speak of a nyonyosé tribe or style. Not all nyonyosé are descended from the Kurumba, not all Mossi sculpture is made by the nyonyosé, and no nyonyosé exist outside the context of Mossi society. By definition, all nyonyosé are Mossi, but not all Mossi are nyonyosé.

The stylistic dissimilarities between southwestern Mossi masks and the masks of the Nuna and Léla make it quite clear that in the five hundred years since the nakomsé invasion and the integration of the gurunsi farmers into Mossi society the mask styles of the descendants of those autochthonous peoples have developed largely independent of the stylistic influences of their neighbors to the west. Although the owners of the masks in the southwest may be descended from the gurunsi, the masks they use are recognizably Mossi, not gurunsi.

While the general rule that Mossi mask styles resemble the mask styles of their regional ancestors holds true in the north and the southwest, it is not valid in the east, for there the ancient Gurmantché populations never used masks, and the modern Gurmantché, who live in towns under Mossi influence, have adopted Mossi (nyonyosé) mask traditions and carving styles, rather than the reverse. It is possible that the origin of the Eastern, or Boulsa style is the area south of Ouagadougou, including Manga and Saponé, where a few masks in this style are to be seen. The style may have moved north parallel to the Volta River into the area of the Boulsa kingdom. There is no other ethnic group near the Mossi that uses masks in this style, so it is now impossible to find the link between the nyonyosé who use the style and some autochthonous, pre-nakomsé conquest group.

This survey of Mossi mask styles shows the importance of combining stylistic and historical studies when attempting to understand the origins and development of a cultural group. While Mossi oral histories mentioned in vague terms the encounters between the kibsi in the northwest, the Fulsé in the northeast, and the gurunsi in the southwest, there has not been adequate data to draw a map of the pre-nakomsé distribution of peoples in the basin of the White Volta until the map of Mossi mask styles showed us where those peoples originally lived.