The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

a. The Southwestern (Ouagadougou) Style.

The Mossi masks that are today produced in greatest numbers and that are most readily recognized by most Burkinabé have frequently been misattributed by Western art historians to peoples other than the Mossi, usually to the Bobo.

Although published descriptions of Ouagadougou Style masks are rare, they occur in the earliest descriptions of the Mossi. Lieutenant Marc, in his thesis on the Mossi, writes:

"The `Ouangos' are dancers whose costume is made up of a large robe fabricated of fibers covering the entire body, and surmounted by a wooden mask painted red and black, representing, most frequently, the head of an animal. The masks that are used by the Mossi in the traditional kingdom of Ouagadougou southwest of the White Volta River, are small, wooden, animal masks, worn over the face or as crests on top of the head, or slanting on the forehead. They are decorated with geometric patterns burned into the wood and painted dark earth red, black, and matte white... The masks of the `Ouangos' are constructed in the greatest secrecy. They must be made from just one piece of wood, and the carver must not be seen before the work is completed" (1909: 152).

Throughout his description of Ouagadougou style masks, Marc uses the word ouango (or, in more current orthography, wango) to describe both the masks and the group that uses them. The same usage of the word by Tauxier in his 1917 publication, Le Noir de Yatenga, was the source of the idea that Mossi masks are used by a secret "Wango Society." In fact, wango is the Mooré word for any mask in any material, context, region, or function. Although the people who wear masks are very secretive, masks belong to families, not to secret societies such as exist elsewhere in Africa.

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Ouagadougou style mask, ca. 1912. Photo by Leo Frobenius.

In 1930, Dim Delobsom described masks from the same region:

"The `Waongo' consists of a mask, normally representing the head of an animal, and of a `bindou,' a kind of long cape, made from the fibers of a bush called beringa, which are kept under water for a long time to blacken them, or of the fibers of the baobab" (1930: 171). 

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

Although these descriptions are too general to provide much information on style, they are supplemented, happily, by a remarkable photograph taken between 1907 and 1908 by Leo Frobenius in the Ouagadougou area (Frobenius 1923: pl. 39, ill. ).

Masks in this style are generally small, between 35 cm. (14") to 65 cm. (25") long. Most are not provided with eyeholes, for they are not worn over the face. The exceptions are masks from the northwest area of this region, from the villages around Yako and Arbolle, which are rather more abstract than the animal masks near Ouagadougou, and which are often provided with three slits over each eye and are worn over the face. 

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Ouagadougou style masks belonging to three generations of one family. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Each of these masks is a stylized, abstract representation of an animal, but the degree of abstraction may vary considerably. The most stylized come from the area of Yako and Arbollé. On many masks the planes of the surface are quite flat and angular, and the anatomical characteristics of the animal represented are so generalized that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the type of animal that the carver intended to depict. In most cases, however, some feature of the animal's anatomy is clearly emphasized and serves as a visual key to the identity of the mask. Thin, S-shaped horns, round in section, with a narrow, pointed snout are found on antelope masks. The ram can be identified by its thick, crescent-shaped horns, often triangular in section, and by its heavy snout. One of the most common features on Mossi masks from this area is a trilobed crest that sweeps back from the top of the head. Combined with a beak, this is a characteristic of a bird mask. On rooster masks, the central lobe of this crest is ribbed to represent a rooster's comb. On hawk or eagle masks the central lobe is smooth and represents the bird's head-crest feathers. The same trilobed crest occurs on anthropomorphic masks, when the crest represents the lobed hairstyle commonly worn by women throughout the Western Sudan. The coiffure and carved crest are called gyonfo.

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist

Warthog helmet mask (Ouagadougou style)

Wood, pigment, fiber

H. 67.3 cm (26 1/2")

Photo by Jerry Thompson

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A., Gift of Thomas G. B. Wheelock, 2012 (2012.529.1)

Masks from the southwestern Ouagadougou style area are heavily decorated with geometric shapes outlined with "poker-work" and colored red and white with flat-finish, mineral based pigments. Spiral markings on horns and broad geometric shapes are blackened with heated metal blades. The most commonly used shapes are rectangles sectioned by diagonals with alternating sections painted red and white, and alternating red and white triangles .

All traditional Mossi masks are provided with holes that permit the attachment of a fiber costume, but in the southwest there are no other provisions for straps, cords, bars of wood, or other means by which the masks might be firmly attached to the wearer's head. The masks are simply draped over the wearer, perched on top of the head with the heavy costume falling on all sides and holding the mask securely in place by its weight alone.

Small, red, white, and black animal masks in the Ouagadougou style are used in the Mossi regions southwest of the valley of the White Volta River. In this area, the limits of Mossi occupation are defined by a dramatic drop in elevation from the higher, more open Mossi Plateau to the lower, moister areas occupied by older peoples. In the region south of Manga, where the Red and White Volta rivers approach and eventually join, the low areas were very sparsely inhabited because of endemic onchocerciasis (river blindness) that blinded the population after long exposure, and which has only recently been eradicated by the use of insecticides.