The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Function of Mossi Masks:

Masks play a fundamental role because they are the reincarnation of the animal totem, the spirits of the important dead elders, and of the collective spirits of the ancestors of the clan.

In the south west (Ouagadougou style) and in the north (styles of Yatenga, Risiam and Kaya), each male head of a tengabisi lineage may own a mask, in the form of the clan's totemic animal, on which he and his family may make sacrifices to the spirits of the ancestors. These personal or lineage masks are kept in the spirit house of the lineage or in the owner's own house. The oldest mask is referred to as the wan-kasenga, or "big mask", the chief mask at all funerals and year-end sacrifices. The remaining masks of the clan, almost identical in form to the senior mask, are referred to collectively as wan-liuli, or "bird masks." This does not mean that these masks represent birds in form, but refers to their function at funerals and other mask appearances as agents for crowd control. In the east (Boulsa) this function is performed by the large, red wan-zega. The major masks of each clan appear much less frequently than do the other, less important masks. Wan-kasenga rarely travel to other villages to appear at the funerals of clan members who have moved away from the primary clan residence.

Masks appear at burials, and at funerals of clan elders. They protect and aid the members of the clan, and they protect the harvest of wild-growing fruits. Finally, they are portable altars on which the blood of animals may be offered as sacrifices to the ancestors of the clan.

Funerals: Whenever a head of a household dies, immediately after the burial, they block the door to the house where he was lying and they open another exit, so that if he tries to return he will be confused. If it is a question of an important individual, a great funerary ceremony is held to which are invited all of the villages of the region. It is at these ceremonies that the "Ouangos" appear (Marc 1909: 152).

The masks appear at the burial of any male or female elder of a tengabisi family and escort the corpse of the deceased to the grave, serving as an honor guard and witness on behalf of the ancestors to assure that all of the burial procedures are properly carried out. The masks do not "dance" or otherwise perform at the burial, where the emphasis is on mourning. Their role is secondary to that of the people in charge of the digging of the grave and the interment. No sacrifices are made on the clan's masks at the burial, although important sacrifices are made in the kimse-roogo or clan spirit house. Burials are, by necessity, held very soon after death.

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Ouagadougou style mask at a funeral near Yako. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

From several weeks to months after the burial, during the dry season, the major funeral or memorial service is held for each member of the clan who has died during the preceding year. At this time the masks that belong to the clan of the deceased play a major role. 

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


Delobsom explains the role of masks in funeral ceremonies:

"One day the villagers had gone to celebrate the `Kouré' (funeral) of an elder and were returning. They were the `Warba' dancers. Singing, they approached the hut of the `Waongo' which suddenly burst out. The terrified dancers fled. Only one singer had the courage to remain.

He continued to sing the songs and the mask followed him to the dwelling of the deceased, where it began to dance. It was concluded that the mask was something for funerals. Since that time at the death of an elder or an old woman of the nyonyosé/sukwaba, the `Waongo' is called out. It does not dance, in fact, for any deceased young people" (Delobsom 1932: 170-2).

The masks emerge from the kimse-roogo to honor the deceased clan elder and to escort the animative spirit (sigha) of the dead into the world of ancestral spirits. Here the emphasis is on the celebration of the spirit, which is finally free to join the ancestors; the parents, brothers and cousins with whom the elder was raised as a child. This is a joyful, rather than a sad occasion. Following sacrifices of chickens, dogs, and millet beer (ram, or dam) on the masks themselves in the house of the deceased, the spirit is free to leave the family dwelling and take the long, smooth, straight road through the bush to the sacred cavern in the hills above the village of Pilimpikou, where the spirits reside, and where, every market day, one can hear the sound of drums as the spirits gather in their cabarets to drink ram. Following these important sacrifices the masks emerge from the family dwelling and perform for the clan members and other guests at the funeral, swirling, bobbing, and imitating the characteristic movements of the animals they represent. The masks perform to the music of traditional Mossi whistles (wiré) and long wooden drums (gangaado).

The many wan-liuli of the clan hover like a flock of birds around the wan-kasenga ("big mask") during its appearance to prevent the non-clan guests at the funeral from approaching too closely to the clan's primary mask.

The elders recruit young men (ca. 20-30 years) of the clan to wear the masks at these rites. The performers are selected by the elders from young initiates who have already demonstrated their talent for wearing the masks.

Because masks are owned by lineages and clans, all of the members of these clans have access to the masks for purposes of sacrifice to the ancestors during funeral rites. Young and old, male and female alike participate in mask appearances. It is quite normal to see women dance alongside and embrace the masks. In contrast to the other areas, in the Boulsa region women and children are excluded from mask performances, and young boys who dare to attempt to watch are chased and whipped by the masks.

The clan earth-priest (Tengsoba) does not play a significantly more important role than other clan elders at mask sacrifices or at funerals, because his concern is the earth and life, not ancestral spirits or death. The death sacrifices are the responsibility of the oldest male members of the clan or lineage.