The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

The Bobo:

Bobo masks are helmet masks. The head is a hemisphere surmounted by a sagittal crest. From this an elongated face projects downward, reaching the chest of the performer. The heavy, spherical helmet is surmounted by horns or a plank, which is usually broken into a complex outline by negative triangular spaces. In contrast to these Bobo style conventions, Bwa masks are two dimensional face masks: the performer's face is surrounded by a thick, oval rim that projects from the back of the mask, but does not cover the top or back of the head. This rim is pierced by holes for attaching a fiber cowl that covers the dancer's head and shoulders.

Bobo masks are painted with rather haphazard patterns, usually triangles, in brilliant enamel colors. These geometric shapes are very rarely carved in low relief on the mask, and disappear if the paint is removed. In contrast, Bwa masks are covered with numerous geometric shapes carved in low relief and painted red, white, and black, using traditional mineral and vegetable colors, so that, when the colors have been removed or obscured by smoke, the shapes remain visible in relief. Bobo masks never bear the Voltaic target motif, which is ubiquitous on Bwa masks. Finally, Bobo masks' fiber costumes are dyed with bright aniline red, yellow, blue and green (at least in the south), while Bwa masks' costumes are more frequently traditional, dull red or black.

None of these general rules for attribution based on style are to be considered definitive, for there are numerous exceptions to many of them. It must be remembered that in many Voltaic areas there has been a free exchange of sculptural styles and traditions of use and meaning, so that a visitor to a Winiama performance in Uri may see, among a dozen distinctively Winiama style masks, one object which looks very Bwa. Finally, many masks and other objects are produced in "Centers of Style" (Roy 1985: 3-7). Clans of blacksmith carvers, like the Konaté in Uri, may carve masks for several neighboring peoples, resulting in stylistic nonconformities that confuse scholars.

Isolated in one relatively small geographical area, Tauxier and Schweeger-Hefel associated the Nyonyosé and their masks only with the Kurumba (Fulsé) while in another area Marc and Delobsom knew only the animal masks that were survivals of Nuna and Léla (gurunsi) traditions. Other scholars working among the Bwa, Bobo, or gurunsi are not aware of the cultural relationships between peoples in the absence of broad, cross-cultural surveys. This calls to mind Kipling's story of the three blind men and the elephant. Each blind man touched a different part of the elephant, and, familiar with just one "region" each "saw" the elephant quite differently. To this day, contemporary Mossi rarely know anything of Mossi traditions beyond the village or small region in which they were raised, and based on geographically restricted data, Mossi scholars continue to make false generalizations about "Mossi" cultural characteristics and history. Scholars of Africa cannot hope to understand the peoples among whom they work if they fail to look over the horizon to see what is going on even a short distance away.

Finally, the map of mask styles in the Volta River basin illustrates the importance of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural surveys in Africa, whether by the art historian, historian, or anthropologist, if we are to pretend to understand an ethnic group as a whole.