The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Masks of Farmers:

Bobo farmers use masks of leaves and of fibers. They have also acquired, from smiths, the right to use leaf and fiber masks that have heads carved of wood. Some of them also occasionally use cloth masks.

The most typical leaf mask is birewa sowiye, a mask that appears at the beginning of the performance season to sweep all impurities from the community. The head is made of the leaves of the saxada (Guiera senegalensis) and of the nere. The leaves of the West African mahogany form the body, and saxada leaves again form the arms.

These masks are put on early in the morning, then enter the village from the east with the rising sun, leave the west side of the village, and are cut from the performer's body and burned in the evening. As a result, they do not survive to be collected and placed on display in museums.

Burkina Faso; Bobo artist. Fiber mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Masks made of fibers are more sculptural than masks of leaves, for the fibers are more supple and durable, and can be manipulated using basketry techniques into more elaborate and identifiable forms. Originally all such masks were made only of fibers obtained from wild plants, but the Jula introduced the cultivation of the chanvre de Guinea (da) which is now used for all such masks. Several types of fiber masks are distinguished by the shape of the head and the color of the fibers. The older, more traditional colors are red, black, and white, but now fiber masks are also dyed yellow, green, and blue. The most ancient and important of these fiber masks are called kele. The body of the performer is hidden by a thick fiber costume knotted to a net foundation.

Masks with heads made of plaited fibers are called kele notune. The head is a sort of hemispherical helmet whose form can vary following the owner's imagination. The helmet is always surmounted with a crest, which sometimes is decorated with feathers. These masks never have horns (Le Moal 1980: 182, fig. 8).

Masks called kele kwe include the same costume of soft fibers. The head and torso are enclosed in a stiff, cane work cylinder from which only the arms protrude. The cane cylinder rises above the head of the performer, increasing the height of the mask. A large and striking coiffure of fibers completes the mask (Le Moal 1980: 192, fig. 10).

There are, in addition, other fiber masks that are less important, including masks called gwarama and tere, that participate in certain steps of initiation.

Masks with wooden heads (kele byekoma) are often called syêkle, after the name of the Syekoma group which are widespread (especially in the center of Bobo country). Farmer clans that use wooden masks have the right to do so because these masks were revealed to them by Dwo. The heads must be carved by smiths, and in terms of style, they are indistinguishable from the older and more important wooden smiths' masks. One cannot easily tell by looking at a wooden mask in a museum if it was used by farmers or smiths.

The basic syêkele is characterized by a very long, trapezoidal face which is bisected vertically by a thin, straight nose. The head is a large, spherical helmet, always surmounted by thin, straight horns. The eyes are high at the intersection of the planes of the cheeks and the brow, and the mouth is placed so low on the chin it almost disappears. There are large, rounded convex semicircles that represent the eyebrows. Farmers' syêkele occur in many variations on the same basic forms and there are many atypical syêkele. The most common variation is the addition of a long, rectangular plank. Two additional characters appear represented by syêkele: the buffalo (tu), with large, vertical, flat spreading horns, and the hornbill (kuma), with a massive curving beak that projects from the face, and horn shapes that may curve forward (Kurumani) or back (Muna) .

These variations are the result of minor alterations that are always made in a mask before it is transferred--whether exchanged, sold, abandoned, given, or even stolen--from clan to clan. A mask is never passed on in exactly the form in which it was originally acquired. The new mask itself becomes the prototype for the clan that has acquired it. In contrast, the mask of a particular clan is reproduced without the slightest change when it is necessary to replace it. Unlike fiber masks, masks of wood are kept by the clan, even when they are no longer used in performances.