The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Religion and Myths:

The Bobo creator God is called Wuro. He cannot be described and is not represented by sculpture. Bobo cosmogonic myths, wuro da fere, describe the creation of the world by Wuro and the ordering of his creations, which are placed in basic opposing pairs: man/spirits, male/female, village/bush, domesticated/wild, culture/nature, safety/danger, cold/hot, farmer/blacksmith. The balances between forces as they were created by Wuro are precarious, and it is easy for man, through the simplest daily acts, to pollute his world and throw the forces out of balance. Even farming, in which crops are gathered in the bush and brought into the village, can unbalance the precarious equilibrium between culture/nature, village/bush. The following summary describes the relationship between Wuro, man, and the smith.

Wuro created the earth to begin. It was molded of moist clay. Wuro created the chameleon and the ant. Wuro created water, then he created fish. Next, he created the cat, dog, toad, and mud dauber wasp. Then Wuro created the first man: he was a smith... The smith said to Wuro: `Because you created me alone, you must make a companion for me.' `Yes', said Wuro, `I will give you a companion, but he will not be like you.' Then Wuro created the second man: it was a Bobo [a farmer]... The next day, Wuro revealed Dwo to the smith who was accompanying the cat. Wuro went into the bush with them and showed them the mask made of leaves. The cat dressed himself in the mask and together they returned home singing the song Wuro had taught them" (Le Moal 1980: 97, 102). Wuro is an otiose creator God, for after creating a perfect world he saw he could not improve upon it; the world was perfect, and its balance ideal but fragile. This balance could be destroyed at any moment, especially by some kind of change. Wuro also sought to avoid confrontations with man, the most difficult of his creatures. He withdrew from the newly created world, leaving behind part of his own vital material, his son Dwo, the mask, to help mankind. Dwo is the materialization of one form of Wuro, and his principal manifestation. Wuro also left behind with man his two other sons, Soxo, the spirit of the bush, of vital force, and Kwere, the spirit that punishes with lightning and thunder. Events that followed the creation by Wuro are explained in a secret language that is taught during initiation. For the Bobo two important epochs exist, the time of Wuro, when the universe was created, and historical time, the two separated by the withdrawal of Wuro, when he gave man his son, Dwo. Dwo, Soxo and Kwere partake of the essential force or spirit of Wuro. These three spirits are the links between man and the forces that control his life. Shrines are erected to them in every Bobo village, each shrine controlled by a cult priest, dwobore. Because of their relationship to man and Dwo, smiths are most frequently the cult priests of Dwo, but in contrast are excluded completely from the cult of Kwere, thunder. The Bobo distinguish between the original, universal form in which Dwo was revealed to man, and later forms in which he appeared. The earliest appearance of Dwo dates to the cosmogonic period. This revelation is important for all men; it is in some respects universal.

During the historic period Dwo appeared on many occasions, but to individuals and in special places that people remember to this day. These are villages whose locations are known but which no longer exist. Le Moal calls these numerous appearances "subsequent representations." Among these forms, the Bobo distinguish between the oldest, considered to be the most important, and those that appeared afterward. The first of these "subsequent representations" is, in reality, a triple form, comprising Kwele Dwo, Dwosa, and Sibe Dwo. This form is the object of numerous important cults, and the followers of these cults are called sibe. All other subsequent representations are called Dwosini. Dwo is usually revealed to man in the form of a mask (in leaves for the original form, in fibers for later forms) as bull-roarers and other objects that are kept near the cult shrine.

Because Wuro first gave masks to smiths, smiths continue to control their production and use, whether the masks are made of leaves, fibers, or have wooden heads.

In addition to these major gods, the Bobo world is inhabited by spirits that are secondary in importance because they appeared during the historic period, and invisible (funanyono), dangerous forces that are concentrated in the bush and are harmful to man (nyama), genies (wiyaxe), and the ancestors' spirits.

The funanyono that appear most often in plants, especially the sacred tree, have a supernatural force and power. Duba especially, is an ancient spirit present in every Bobo village, whose shrine is marked by a large wooden post with three branches that cradle a jar. In the jar full of water is the root of a plant (Afzelia africana) that is a receptacle of the spirit of Duba (Le Moal 1980: 149 pl. 8).

The nyama are really forces whose poisonous character is known by all Bobo. They are everywhere, but are most concentrated in certain plants and animals, for example hyenas.

Genies called wiyaxe are very similar to the Mossi kinkirsi bush spirits. They appear in myths that recount the creation of rivers. The wiyaxe are thought of as the elder brothers of man, for they were created before man and resemble him, although they are marked by inversions and doubling, having one foot and hand attached backwards, and two faces or chests. The wiyaxe are not worshiped, but must be respected to secure their cooperation. The shrines of some wiyaxe spirits may include sculpture in wood.

Finally, the ancestors (sapra), especially the ancestor who founded the village, have important shrines (bore) erected in the village. During sacrifices on these shrines the names of all of the deceased clan heads are recited in turn to solicit their aid.

Each of these spirits has a particular role or function to play, including, in the case of Duba, providing healthy children, good harvests, or, most important, identifying sorcerers.

Each and all of these spiritual beings may provide the means for man to control his life. Only Soxo (the bush, and vital force of nature) does not play a role because the bush, in its opposition to the village, does not play a role in village life, and Kwere is not an avenue of recourse from man toward Wuro, for it his role to punish transgressors.

Dwo remains the major spiritual being through which communication between man and Wuro is possible and desirable in his role as the representative of men to their creator. Wuro is a God of action, whose creations are celebrated in the rapid swirling rotation of masks.

I remember a Saturday morning in mid-April, 1985 when I attended a funeral a few miles east of Bobo Dioulasso, and in passing through several neighborhoods at the edge of the city, and a few small villages just outside of Bobo, I saw dozens of masks in almost every community I passed through. The streets were full of people in their finest clothes, animated by the excitement of the masks performances. The sounds of drums and flutes filled the air, and masks of leaves and fibers appeared from wooded groves and disappeared behind walls and buildings in such numbers that it seemed as if the world were suddenly inhabited by a race of supernatural beings.

The Bobo use several words for "mask." In the north masks are called kore (sing. koro), something that is old and venerable; in the center of Bobo country they may also be called sowiyera (sing. sowiye), "a disguised man"; in the south the word siye, "the shadow man," the double. In addition, each mask has its own, personal name.

It is very difficult to categorize the vast numbers of Bobo mask types, for even in a small village there are often twenty or more different masks, each with a name, a role to play, gestures, a dance, songs, an entire character with virtues and vices. Each has a life and a history that must be known if we are to understand and recognize it. Guy Le Moal describes each of the types in great detail, analyzing every aspect of its being (Le Moal 1980). I will attempt, at great risk of oversimplification, to summarize his descriptions.

Burkina Faso; Bobo artist. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Bobo produce masks in leaves, fibers, wood, and cloth. Each of these is used by one or more segments of Bobo society in a range of traditional contexts. The many types of masks are distinguished by the name of the leaves or fibers used, the colors of the fibers, or the shape of the head of the mask. Each of these masks is a manifestation of Dwo.

The earliest, original forms of Dwo are the most sacred and most highly respected. Masks made of the freshly gathered leaves of various sacred trees represent the original forms of Dwo first revealed by Wuro, which are called Kwele Dwo. Masks made of the colored fibers stripped from Kenaf represent later, revealed forms of Dwo, Patamoso Dwo for example. Each of the different forms of Dwo requires a mask that personifies it, that recreates its personal characteristics. The masks that represent a specific manifestation of Dwo must be made of the leaves of a certain tree, or must be of a specific color.