The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

C. The Eastern (Boulsa) Style:

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Eastern (Boulsa) style masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The eastern Mossi near Boulsa use masks which are stylistically very distinct from other Mossi masks.

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Eastern (Boulsa) style masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The semi-cylindrical facial portion is bisected by a ridge or nose. Parallel slits on each side of the nose permit the performer to see. The mask is painted white with kaolin clay, and has small red surrounds at the eyes. The performer wears a complex, carefully tailored fiber costume. The performer holds a split reed between his teeth and alternately sucks and blows air through it to produce a high or low toned whistling sound. The mask speaks to its assistants, but in a language that only the initiated can understand.

Within the Boulsa style area, three types of masks are used, which differ in both the form of the wooden mask and the construction of the fiber costumes. All three mask types are referred to collectively as gur-wando.

The rarest and most important masks are called yali. Two horns project upward on each side of the face. The mask is worn with a carefully tailored, three-piece fiber costume that so completely covers the wearer that only the soles of his feet are exposed . The costume consists of a pair of trousers, a shirt that hangs to the knees, and a cowl that is attached to the mask and falls around the wearer's shoulders. All three pieces are constructed on a close-fitting knotted fiber foundation garment, into which are tied masses of long fibers that are clipped short so that the ensemble resembles a deep-pile shag rug.

The yali is short; usually less than five feet (1.5 m.); because it is intended to represent a dwarf spirit from the bush. Of necessity it is worn by a small boy, although the Mossi never admit this.

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Eastern (Boulsa) style red fiber costumes. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The most common masks are the tall masks, worn by adult men, with red fiber costumes called wan-zega ("red mask").

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Eastern (Boulsa) style red mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The visible portion of the mask is about 35 cm. long and 20 cm. wide. It is painted white with red surrounds at the eyes. A tall (ca. 100 cm.), thin pole extends from the top of the mask. The pole is covered with a thick layer of long red fibers, and from it hangs a large, heavy sack of traditional medicine which swings freely when the mask dances. The body of the performer is covered with a close-fitting red costume. Wan-zega carry a long knife and a club in the left hand. However, I never saw a mask actually use either of these weapons. Both of these masks carry long, flexible whips made from the branch of a neem tree. The masks frequently strike out at spectators with these whips (sabaga).

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Eastern (Boulsa) style black mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The third mask type, which I saw only in the northern part of the Boulsa area, in the town of Zeguedeguin, is called wan-sablaga, the black mask. It is clearly part of the Boulsa style, but is quite different from the yali or the wan-zega. The basic form is similar to the yali, but with a tall pole above the face. A semicircular nose projects dramatically from the face which is covered with bright red seeds and beads set in a layer of beeswax. Strands of white cowries set off the nose and the forehead and surround the facial area. Four round mirrors placed in pairs on each side of the nose are the eyes of the mask. The performer sees through small slits between each pair of eyes. The tall pole that extends from the top of the mask is tightly wrapped in braided strands of fiber, and is partially covered with loose strands of cowries and red cloth. The basic construction of the costume is similar to the other masks except the performer is provided with a tightly-fitting black fiber skirt that extends to the ground and resembles a woman's cloth wrapper. The performer does not carry weapons.

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Eastern (Boulsa) style female mask in Zegedeguin. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Boulsa-style masks are used by the nyonyosé in the northeastern corner of Mossi country, in an area that corresponds closely to the traditional Mossi state of Boulsa, except in the southwest, where it extends into the traditional state of Boussouma, around the towns of Boussouma and Korsimoro. The southern limit seems to be the swampy, low area near Nyégha, 20 km. south of Boulsa. South of this area, in the kingdoms of Koupéla and Tenkodogo, the Mossi (i.e. the nyonyosé) do not use masks. To the north is the Sahel, inhabited by the Fulani, and to the east are the Gurmantché, who do not use masks of wood. A few masks of this style are sometimes seen in the area south of Ouagadougou, near Manga and Saponé. Here, however, they are scattered, less numerous than animal masks. The fact that there are no apparent connections between these areas leaves unresolved the question of the origins of the style.