The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Mask Manufacture:

Burkina Faso is a land of masks; most of the major peoples in the region, with the notable exceptions of the Gurmantché and the Lobi, use masks. The materials and techniques used to fashion masks are quite similar throughout.

Although several types of wood are used to carve masks and figures, most masks throughout the region are carved from the wood of the Ceiba pentandra (Linn.) Gaertn., which is called "cotton tree","silk-cotton tree", or "ceiba". The wood is fairly soft and fine-grained, like pine, so it is easy to carve. It is very light, which makes it suitable for masks that are to be worn, especially big masks such as the tall Bwa serpent or enormous plank masks. Unfortunately, the wood is very susceptible to insect damage, and masks must be carefully protected by annual soaking to kill insects. These trees are becoming rare in central Burkina because of the carving of many masks, both for traditional use and for the tourist trade, and artists are obliged to travel long distances into game preserves or toward the north to find trees of a useful size. In contrast to earlier reports in the popular literature on African art, no group in Burkina use the wood of the kapok or baobab trees, for the grain of their wood is far too coarse and prone to splitting.

Among most of the peoples in Burkina Faso, masks are worn with a thick costume made of the fibers of the Hibiscus cannabinus or Cannabinus indica, which is called in French, "chanvre de Guinea" and in Jula "da", and kenaf in the United States. The plants are cultivated in fields of millet, and are harvested just before the annual period when masks perform. Bundles of the woody stems are carried to wet swampy areas where they are soaked, held down by stones, until the bark and pith rots, leaving only the fibers (bpon in Nuni). The loose fibers are plaited into cords which are knotted into a netlike body stocking. Bundles of loose fibers are then bound to the net to form a bulky costume that the Nuna call wankuro, "the fur of the mask." The fibers may be dyed before assembling the costume. Black is obtained from the fermented seed pods of the Acacia nilotica. Red is from the dye concentrated at the joints of the stalks of the millet Penisetum colorans. These costumes are usually renewed every year, and their manufacture is the major task of the young men's initiation groups. During periods of extreme drought, as in 1984-5, there is not enough standing water to make new costumes, and fewer masks may dance, or the costumes become rather disheveled.

Burkina Faso, village of Dossi; Bwa artist. Plank masks with head musician, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy. 

Masks are covered with complex compositions of triangles, rectangles, crescents, dentate patterns, and other geometric shapes, which are carved or pyroengraved, and then colored red, black and white using natural vegetable or mineral pigments.

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Geometric patterns on Bwa masks, village of Dossi, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The most widely used mask pigments in the region are red, white, and black. Before the 1983 revolution the country's flag bore three horizontal band of red, black and white. The Bwa call red boré, white is opuni, and thin black is bobriay. For fifteen years I have questioned Mossi, Bwa, and gurunsi informants about the source of the white pigments used on masks, and I have been told consistently that traditional white is made by gathering the excrement of lizards (among the Mossi) or of the sacred Bwa serpent. Both may be found concentrated in dens or nests. Nontraditional white is made by grinding schoolroom chalk. Red is simply iron-rich (hematite) stone ground to a powder and mixed with a binder. The most widely used binders are egg and gum Arabic, which is gathered from acacia trees. The Bwa use a thick black that is expensive to produce, called gbonkahû, and a thin black that is less expensive called bobriay. The Bwa, Mossi, and gurunsi make thin black with powdered charcoal mixed with egg binder. The thick black is made by boiling the seed pods of the tree Acacia nilotica which the Mossi call pernenga and the Bwa call nyaoh, into a thick, tarry liquid.

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Close-up of the face on a Bwa plank mask, village of Dossi, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Each year, after the crops are harvested but well before the performance season begins, all the masks in the village are carried to a swamp or river and are soaked, weighted down with large stones, for several weeks. Soaking kills the insects that could quickly destroy the masks, and removes the red and white pigments. Only the thick black remains, for it is not water soluble. Each time the masks are repainted by the young initiates, the black pigment grows thicker. To some extent the thickness of the black paint is an indicator of the age of the mask (but this can be deceptive).

In some villages masks are now being painted with European enamels, but this does not mean that the masks are necessarily new, any more than the thickness of the black indicates the adge of the mask. The Bobo have been using European pigments for decades, and many ancient Winiama and Nuna masks have been repainted recently.

In the basin of the Volta River, masks are owned and used by families. Masks are carved by artists from smith clans. Performances are organized by the families that own the masks, and the young men of each family wear their father's masks. The dry season is punctuated by numerous mask performances and dancers sometimes travel great distances to attend family or clan celebrations. Masks appear at the burials, funerals, and initiations of family members, and at other important occasions in the annual cycle of family life. Often masks perform purely for the enjoyment of the villagers, especially on market days.