The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Mossi Masks

Style distribution of Mossi masks

Mossi Mask Styles: Valuable descriptions of masks and the contexts in which they appeared were published early in the 20th century in the accounts of travellers, missionaries, and colonial administrators. All describe the performers and the masks they wore as ouango. In more current orthography, wango is the Mooré word for all masks, from any area, regardless of material or function.

Lieutenant Lucien Marc, a French colonial officer in southern Mossi country before World War I, provides a useful description that has often been overlooked by scholars of African art:

"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... The `Ouangos' comprise a rather mysterious fraternity. They have a secret language, and while they are singing, anyone who utters a word will certainly die within the year... I feel that it would be most interesting to attempt to study the `Ouangos' and their customs in greater detail than I have been able. I feel, in fact, that it is a question of a really ancient tradition, antedating the arrival of the Mossi [nakomsé] in the basin of the Volta, which these peoples found among the peoples they conquered. They preserved it, undoubtedly not daring to fight against it. In fact, one finds `Ouangos' everywhere among the gurunsi, and the `Dou' seen by Binger among the Bobos seem to me to be of the same origin. The totemic mask dancers depicted in certain photos from Desplanges remind me very much of the Mossi `Ouangos'" (1909: 152, 155).

The Mossi writer A.A. Dim Delobsom provides an additional description of masks he saw in the region of Ouagadougou in about 1930:

"The `Waongo' is a mysterious being, half-animal, half spirit.

Origin of the Waongo: Tradition states that it was found one day all alone on a plain. Those who first saw it were afraid and fled. They returned home to describe it to the village elders, who recruited an large number of young men, armed with arrows and clubs, to go capture this strange being. It was no longer to be seen at the spot where it had first been seen. It had taken up residence farther away. The villagers encircled it and the elders, having brought along a rooster, began to question it: if they led it to their homes would it provide food for the inhabitants? Would it bring them misfortune? They sacrificed the rooster, which, it is said, was not accepted.

The elders returned to the village and brought back a white rooster (norapelega), a male goat (boega), and a dog (baga). Addressing the `Waongo', they said, `Perhaps a little while ago we were mistaken, perhaps you wanted something more than the rooster we just offered. If, in becoming our host, you can bring us well-being, health, and children, accept these offerings.' They sacrificed the rooster and the goat, killed the dog. This time the sacrifices were accepted...

It carried with it, as tradition tells us, a `toabga' (sort of magic hatchet) and the `tibo' (sacred object, fetish). They took it and placed it in a safe place, but what purpose would it serve them? No one knew. It was something unknown and therefore powerful" (Delobsom 1932: 170-2).

Delobsom's account is of particular interest because of its mention of the origin of the masks, the sacrifice of a dog, which is normal practice only in the southwest (not in Yatenga), and the mention of the name of the group which uses the masks--nyonyosé/Sukwaba. Like Marc, he mentions the use of a secret language.

Each mask represents an animal, wild or domestic, commonly seen in Mossi country. In some cases they represent human beings. These characters, whether animal or human, are all totemic, for they participate in the myths of origin of the clans that own them. In the southwest, the smaller Ouagadougou style masks worn by the tengabisi may represent any of several animals, and the masks are addressed with the name of the animal represented, preceded by the contraction for wango, the word for mask. These totemic masks include the wan-silga (hawk), wan-pesego (ram), wan-nyaka (small antelope), wan-wid-pelego (large antelope), wan-rulugu (hornbill), wan-mwegha (human albino), and many others. In Yatenga, the tall, plank-topped masks carry over the facial portion of the mask the head and horns of the antelope that are the totems of the major tengabisi clans in Yatenga. Yatenga style masks with bird forms above the face represent the bird totem of a Mossi clan in the same area . The head with short, S-shaped horns represents the small antelope that the Mossi call nyaka (Gazella rufifrons), and the head with longer, straight horns represents the larger antelope called wid-pelego (Hippotragus koba). This contrasts with information published by F.-H. Lem (1949: 19-20) that the mask with straight horns is male while the mask with curved horns is female.

The mask bears the name of the animal or person it represents, preceded by the prefix wan-, the contraction of wango, mask, so that the albino mask is called wan-mwegha, and the gazelle is wan-nyaka.

The Mossi are a diverse people. From one geographical region to the next, cultural differences between Mossi subgroups may be more striking than the differences between the Mossi and their neighbors. Cultural diversity is reflected in the great variety of Mossi sculptural styles. The boundaries of these style regions correspond approximately to the boundaries of the several Mossi kingdoms as they existed at the arrival of the French, I have used the names of these kingdoms as convenient "handles" for the mask styles. I have also given their corresponding compass coordinates. IT IS POSSIBLE TO USE THE MAP OF DISTRIBUTION OF MOSSI MASK STYLES AS A MAP OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF PEOPLES IN THE REGION BEFORE THE NAKOMSÉ CONQUEST IN 1500. IN THE CASE OF THE MOSSI, ART SERVES AS A PRIMARY DOCUMENT IN UNDERSTANDING MOSSI HISTORY, WHERE NO OTHER DOCUMENTS, ORAL OR WRITTEN, EXIST.

There are at least three major Mossi mask styles and two additional substyles, plus innumerable local idiosyncratic traditions. These mask styles are:

a. The Ouagadougou (Southwestern) Style 

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

b. The Northern Styles b.1. The Yatenga (Northwestern) Style b.2. The Risiam (Northcentral) Style b.3. The Kaya (Northeastern) Style

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Yatenga style mask at a funeral, 1976. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

c. The Boulsa (Eastern) Style

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Boulsa style masks in the village of Zeguedeguin. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Southwestern Style corresponds to the ancient kingdom of Ouagadougou. Masks are small and represents animals, or occasionally, humans. The Northern Styles are divided into three substyles, corresponding to the ancient kingdoms of Yatenga, Risiam, and Kaya. Larger than Southwestern masks, those from the north are surmounted by a long, thin plank. Occasionally a figure is carved in front of the plank, or replaces it. Finally, the Eastern Style, in the Boulsa area, includes masks with semi-cylindrical faces painted white. All masks are worn with a fiber costume that varies in form from area to area.

Very few masks in collections outside of Africa retain any traces of the blackened fiber costume (bindu) with which they are worn in a traditional context. The costume is made by knotting long strands of fiber to a net foundation, which is in turn fastened to the mask through holes around the base of each mask. The same fiber is used by all peoples in Burkina, and is prepared in exactly the same way. The branches or twigs of the wild hibiscus (Hibiscus cannabinus), which the Mossi call beranga, are soaked in water to loosen the bark. The plants are then beaten with wooden mallets to separate the bark from the wood, and the long, stringy fibers obtained are blackened by soaking in mud at the bottom of stagnant pools. Some of the strands are twisted together to form cords from which the netted foundation garment is made, and to form a knotted collar around the base of the wooden mask. Otherwise, the strands of fiber trail loosely downward and the black costume completely hides the mask wearer so that the ensemble resembles an animated black haystack . In some villages the costume falls only to the performer's knees, but usually it extends to the ground.

Frequently both human and animal masks are provided with pyroengraved lines that slant across the cheek from the bridge of the nose. Additional burned-in markings forming a ladder-shape between the eyes and ears, and patterns on the cheeks, chin, and forehead represent traditional Mossi scars, and are generally referred to as such by informants. As is true of all Mossi masks, they are carved of a single piece of wood.