The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

The Functions of Bobo Masks:

The Bobo use masks in three major contexts: masks appear at harvest time in annual rites called birewa dâga. Masks participate in the male initiation, named yele dâga, which is their major function. Finally, they participate in the burial (syebi) and the funeral rites (syekwe) of people who have been killed by Dwo, or of the elder priests of Dwo. This is a secondary function, and not all masks of all Bobo clans attend these rites. Masks seem to participate in funerals much more frequently in the Syankoma area in the south, near Bobo-Dioulasso, than in the north.

Leaf masks representing the initial and universal form of Dwo serve to integrate the individual into human society and to link the community of man with the natural world; fiber masks fix the individual in a social grouping, dedicated to one of the later forms of Dwo. These masks are important agents of socialization. The significance of these lessons is impressed on each new generation in the major institution of initiation.

Each mask is considered to embody the spirit of Dwo, and as a result, may serve frequently during sacrifices as a sort of portable altar of Dwo. Sacrifices may be placed directly on the head of the mask as offerings to the spirits they incarnate. For example, during funerals, in the sibe rite, the molo mask serves as an altar:

"The first time the priest sacrifices a chicken of which some blood and feathers are added to the saliva placed on the base of the nose of the mask; the second time, the sacrifice is repeated, letting some blood run on the same spot. The mask sibe molo can be thought of as a portable substitute for the altar of Dwo which it represents (Dwosa), and which is very dangerous to approach" (Le Moal 1980: 328).