The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Masks of Bobo Smiths:

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

Smiths use masks of leaves, of fibers, and of cloth, but they are most involved with face masks of wood, and also carve such masks for farmers.

There are two major types of leaf masks worn by the followers of sibe. Sibe sowiye, made of the leaves of the néré, is very similar to the birewa sowiye for farmers. It is connected to the cult of Dwosa, and only appears at night. Dafuru combines a body made of the leaves of the néré, mahogany, and shea nut, with a head made of rattan. This mask, dedicated to Kwele Dwo, only participates in funerals.

Burkina Faso; Bobo artist. Masks at a funeral. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The two types of fiber masks are made in the same way as the kele owned by farmers. They are used by the members of the sibe. Forkoma sowiye, made of da fibers, emerges at night so that non-initiates will not see it. It is a very powerful mask. Torosye, called myanea in the north, is a popular public masquerade. Although it has a secondary role as a gatherer of donations, it is greatly respected because of its reputation as a very ancient mask.

Cloth masks, called wuru kore, are secular and dance at night. Their forms are limitless, and the performers, who are initiated, are totally free to choose the cloth, the shape of the costume, and the colors used. Each imitates a chosen subject, including individuals, scenes of daily life, and animals. All feeling and emotions are depicted, from violence to gentleness, with great emphasis on humor, which the audience always enjoys.

These masks are intended to entertain, but still possess a certain sacred character that is present in all masks.

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

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

Among wooden masks the most important types are sacred masks (molo and nwenke), escort masks (nyâga), and entertainment masks (bole). The sacred masks are representative, rather than representational masks, and do not represent any living, tangible being, human or animal. As a result, these masks are abstract and stylized. A mask with human features may have added to it forward-curving antelope horns and a great bird's beak because it represents a character of Dwo that does not take human or animal form. Similarly, animal shapes do not mean the mask represents an animal, but recall the spirit of an animal which saved the founding ancestor of the clan. Allegorical and nonrepresentational, the masks incarnate the spirit of Dwo, the son of Wuro. They have often been revealed in the form of miniature metal masks.

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

Other masks, nyâga for example, are fairly naturalistic depictions. In the case of entertainment masks, the imagination of the artist is free to create innovative forms. 

The two major types are the molo and nwenke. These are the most ancient and sacred of smiths' wooden masks, used in the cults of Kwele Dwo, Dwosa, and Sibe Dwo, forms of Dwo that were revealed in the ancient village of Kwele during the cosmogonic period, that is, after Wuro's withdrawal.

Molo masks are carved of the wood of the sacred tree, lingué (Afzelia africana). These masks have a long, rectangular or trapezoidal face. The head is a spherical helmet with a sagittal crest. Two thick, long horns project dramatically upward from the helmet, and there is no frontal plank above the face. A small handle of plaited fiber beneath the chin permits the masks to be held on the head during acrobatic performances. There are two major styles of molo masks: in the north, around Tanguna, the broad, flat planes of the face are divided vertically by a ridge that bears, in descending order, a short thick nose, a protruberant mouth placed high on the face of the mask, and an umbilicus. The eyes are rectangles. In contrast, the style of molo from Kurumani, in central Bobo country, has a very broad, square face with a long nose that divides the face vertically. The mouth is placed far down very near the chin, and is very broad and protruberant. The face is marked by slanting tribal scars (Le Moal 1980: 224, fig. 18).

The performer who wears the molo mask either wears a costume of the leaves of the tabe (Isoberlina doka) and is called sibe molo, or he is nude, and is called so molo. The wooden head of the mask is always the same--only the costume changes depending on the ceremonies in which it participates.

There is a third type of molo mask, the saxa molo. This is a rare, ritual mask, because it is now only used by a few lineages. The head is a slab of bark of the lingué. The costume is made up of leaves of the same tree.

Burkina Faso; Bobo artist. Nwenke (sacred masks). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Nwenke masks (sing. nwenka) are less important to smiths than molo, but like molo their primary role is in the institution of the sibe. In contrast to the molo which have been acquired over time by farmers, nwenke have remained exclusively smiths' masks. These masks are composed of a very elongated trapezoidal face with a narrow chin, surmounted by a frontal plank (i.e. a plank that is seen fully from the front of the mask). The intersection of the nose and brow form a "T", and the brow is protruberant, with the small eyes high in the angle of nose and brow. The nose is long and bisects the face vertically; the mouth is small and always very low on the face. The heavy helmet-shape is surmounted by a sagittal ridge. The frontal plank is very complex and is pierced frequently with triangles so that it appears to be built up of a vertical series of triangular wings that spread horizontally. The plank is the determinant characteristic of the nwenke type (Le Moal 1980: 217, fig. 16). Nwenke masks wear fiber costumes.

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

The mask called nyanga represents the large antelope, Hippotragus koba. A pair of enormous horns curves backward from a large, rounded forehead. The snout is elongated and curves forward and down in dramatic balance to the horns. The mouth is open and is studded with real antelope teeth. The horns are banded and the eyes hooded with protruding lids. From one region to another there are several styles.

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

The most spectacular, photographed by Le Moal in 1950, was from the village of Muna (Leiris and Delange 1968: 131, center). Another style comes from southern Bobo country: it is a helmet mask with anthropomorphic features and forward-curving horns (masks of the bolo type). The sole function of the nyâga masks is to accompany the nwenke masks. These are no longer exclusively smiths' masks, and are to be seen throughout Bobo country.

Burkina Faso; Bobo artist. Bolo (antelope mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Burkina Faso; Bobo artist. Bolo (ram mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

In addition to masks made for ritual use, the Bobo carve masks used for entertainment, called bole (sing. bolo). These are helmet masks that rest on the shoulders, or cap masks with short faces. They represent people or numerous animals: antelope, rams, monkeys, rooster (Le Moal 1980: 214, fig. 14). These masks are worn with fiber costumes.

Molonwenke, and syêkele are painted the traditional colors, red, black, white. More recently yellow, green, and blue have been used. Colors are applied almost haphazardly in patterns that are most frequently triangular and represent magical amulets (sebe). In contrast to Bwa masks, the geometric patterns are painted but are not carved in low relief, so that very old masks that have been weathered or cleaned by art dealers show no traces of the original painted patterns. The Bobo repaint their masks at the beginning of each performance season. There is no evidence that the painted geometric patterns communicate any moral or initiatory message.

Bobo masks of leaves never "dance." Masks of fibers may dance, but always individually, in turn. Wooden masks also perform in turn, as elsewhere in Burkina Faso. Only animal masks such as the nyâga imitate the movements of the animals they represent. No other masks imitate natural characters. Their dance is abstract, like the beings they represent.

In the region around Bobo-Dioulasso, where I have attended mask performances, wooden masks spin wildly, almost seeming to be out of control, from one side of the open dance area to the other, and then back. The climax of each mask's performance is a tour-de-force rotation of the mask alone, when the performer plants his feet firmly and twists his torso and neck, grasping the small handle that protrudes from the chin of the mask or a band of fiber that is knotted inside the chin.

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

The wooden head of the mask rotates two or three revolutions, then returns, in such a way that the mask may leave the performer's head and is only kept from flying across the performance area by the dancer's tight grip on it. It is quite common to see clearly the performer's head and torso. In the south the performances of fiber masks are the most athletic: unencumbered by a heavy mask of wood, the performers leap across the dance area like gymnasts, executing forward flips, cartwheels, and handsprings.