The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Masks: Leaf masks, called bieni, that represent the spirit Do are used throughout Bwa country, in the north and south as well. In the most southern area called Kademba, near the gurunsi, inhabited by the "scarred-Bwa" or nyaynegay, people use the wooden masks for which the Bwa are famous. Wooden masks represent characters in family myths and have nothing to do with Do. 

Leaf Masks:

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Leaf mask with elder woman, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


Leaf masks are made of wild vines that are wrapped around the body tightly enough that the costume will not slip, but loosely enough that the performer's movements will not be restricted. To this wrapping of vines are bound small bundles of green leaves so that every inch of the human body is concealed. A crest of dried grasses called bwosonu (Loudetia togoensis) is bound to the head, or in some villages may be made of white "eagle" feathers gathered in the bush .

Wooden Masks:

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Crocodile mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy. 

Bwa wooden masks represent a number of characters in the myths of their families and clans. Masks represent numerous animals including the antelope, bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile, and fish of several types. The serpent, and insects including the butterfly appear, as do birds including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the leper, and the crazy man and his wife. Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms.

Masks are either representational and depict animals, or are abstract, and have a stylized face surmounted by a tall, rectangular plank.

Bwa masks are face masks, worn attached to a fiber costume that covers the head. The performer bites hard on a thick fiber rope that passes through holes in the mask, and so secures the mask to his face. Bwa masks, especially the plank masks, tend to be two-dimensional, and do not extend to the back of the head. The fiber costumes worn with masks are traditionally either red or black. Red is much more common and the Bwa have begun to use bright European dyes to produce green, yellow, and purple fiber collars or mantles to be worn with red shirts and trousers.

Animal Masks:

The name of a mask type may vary from village to village as variations in languages occur, for mask names are usually the names of the animals they represent. For example, the snake mask is called doho in Boni and honu in Pa.

The many different animals that are represented can be identified by the shapes of the horns or by the form of the face, which is basically similar from one type to another. The head includes a long muzzle, which, in the case of the buffalo mask, takes the form of an open triangle, with large round eyes surrounded by concentric circles. The antelope and the buffalo are distinguished by their horns, the crocodile by its body covered with scales. The serpent's body projects high into the sky. The bird masks and butterflies are the most abstract, consisting of a broad, horizontal plank, decorated with large concentric patterns. The mouth projects from the center and there is a large hook representing the hawk's beak or circles representing the patterns on the butterfly's wings. The elders of the Kambi clan in Dossi call the masks with broad white wings duho, which means hawk, or duba, which means vulture. These do not represent butterflies, as has been erroneously reported by J.-L. Paudrat (Huet 1978: 103). Butterfly masks, called yehoti in Boni, have eight enormous target patterns spread across their wings. In Pâ, just east of Boni, the elders of the Lamien clan (especially Lamien Nikiebé, mask chief) named the following masks that participated in a harvest festival on March 21, 1984: the hyena is inaburu, bird--icayn, serpent--honu (doho in Boni), monkey--haru, buffalo--lalo, "koba" antelope--, plank with many hooks--bayiri, fish--basi, and plank--kano.

The segment of Bwa society called the kaani, the endogamous blacksmith caste, uses the mask type named kobiay, the rooster, with an everted square mouth and a very large round crest. Although the best-known style of kobiay is produced and used by the smiths of the Didiro clan in Houndé, the mask is also used by smiths in many other Bwa villages, including the Konaté smith clan in the Winiama village of Ouri. In Ouri the rooster mask is named hombo after the society of smiths who offer sacrifices to the spirit that protects them. The smiths of the Didiro clan in Houndé first encountered this hombo spirit when they were forced to flee their home village because they had sacrificed a boy and a girl, buried alive beneath their anvil. In fleeing, they were trapped at the edge of a swamp. The spirit of the swamp, named hombo, in the form of an electric eel, allowed them to cross but destroyed their pursuers. In annual celebrations of this event, a number of masks, of which the most numerous are kobiay, perform in the smith neighborhood. Most of the kobiay in western collections are from Houndé because the smiths of Houndé are deeply involved in the sale of masks on the antiquities market, and few of their masks have escaped theft.

Abstract Masks:

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Nwantantay (plank mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


The most impressive Bwa masks are the great plank masks, named nwantantay, that are used in the southern villages. These are carved on two basic patterns: the majority of plank masks consist of a large oval facial area with a protuberant round mouth through which the performer can see. Below the mouth are three black leaf shapes (triangles), and above are two great target eyes. The face is connected to the plank by a diamond or lozenge from which protrudes a downward-curving and very prominent hook. The plank is a large, vertical rectangle marked with geometric patterns in black and white, and sometimes red. This is, in turn, surmounted by a large crescent with the opening turned up.

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The second major plank-mask type has a diamond-shaped mouth and the great plank is bisected horizontally by the carving of negative "V" shapes that form a large lozenge at the center of the plank, effectively forming two smaller planks. Most of these masks include a small vertical projection that extends from the center of the crescent. The planks are covered with geometric patterns, especially "checkerboards" and large "X"-shaped crosses.

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


The elders of the Kambi clan in Dossi claim that the plank masks represent flying spirits and are associated with water. These spirits can take the form of insects that mass around muddy pools after early rains, or of larger birds, including owls and ibis. The key to understanding plank mask forms is that these masks are not representational, but embody supernatural forces that act on behalf of the Bwa clans that use the masks.