The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

b. The Northern Styles

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Yatenga style mask at a funeral, 1976. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The only significant description of Northern Style Mossi masks in use in a traditional context was published in 1917 by the French ethnographer and colonial administrator Louis Tauxier. Tauxier's description has been cited repeatedly over the past seventy years, and has often been badly misunderstood. Tauxier's very thorough and important study was the product of almost three years' labor in Yatenga, from September, 1913 to July, 1916. In the short section devoted to "Religious Societies" Tauxier writes:

"The Mossi [nakomsé] do not have ouangos [masks] (such is the name which is given to the members of religious societies in Yatenga and not only in Yatenga but throughout all Mossi country). It is the Foulses [Kurumba] who form the religious societies, as they provide tengsobas and most other fetish priests. But because the two groups, Mossi and Foulse, are superposed and complement each other, it is possible to say after a fashion that the Mossi have ouangos, being sure to note that in serving for both, they are furnished by the Foulses...

Dances are performed in a special costume composed of a sort of skirt in black fibers, blackened with beredo, manufactured from the local hemp (berenga). It might be described as a long skirt made of the tails of black horses. Large pompom-tassels, made of the same thread but of a pale ochre yellow color are placed around the waist, around the upper portion of the black skirt, and form a kind of rude tutu. Beneath this is worn a kind of small vest without sleeves, rust colored, with two wide holes through which the arms are passed, and a hole for the head. Finally, the dancer places over his face a wooden mask pierced with two holes, with a median line between the eyes, without nose, without mouth. This mask is surmounted by an immense blade of wood between 1.50 and 2 meters in height on which are drawn geometric designs, lines, curves, triangles, zigzags, all marked in white (kaolin) and red. I have forgotten to mention that these masks are also surmounted by vertical horns, straight and tall, which no doubt form the heads of antelopes" (Tauxier 1917: 399-401).

A photograph of three tall Mossi masks taken in 1907 by Leo Frobenius (1923: pl. 38) shows quite clearly that the costume has remained relatively unchanged since the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Northern style masks, ca. 1907. Photo by Leo Frobenius.

Based on their reading of Tauxier, a number of scholars have concluded that the Mossi do not have masks, that all Mossi masks are made by the Foulsé (Kurumba) and that the masks in the area are used by a "Wango Society." In fact, Tauxier meant that the nakomsé political rulers do not use masks, that the Kurumba who have been dominated by the nakomsé and have been integrated into Mossi society make and use masks, and that the masks and the people who use them are called wango or, in the plural, wando. Wango is the Mooré word for mask and the performers who wear them, but masks are owned by families, not secret societies. The "Wango Society" that has often been mentioned in the popular literature on African art does not exist.

Although the Mossi call all masks wango (pl. wando), they use the term karanga (pl. karansé) to distinguish the tall, plank-topped masks from Yatenga from the smaller, zoomorphic masks from the southwest. In addition, the masks that bear a female figure are called karan-wemba ("wemba mask"), karan-neda ("person mask"), or simply wan-neda (a contraction on wango and neda, "person").

There are at least three major substyles in the north that correspond to the zones of occupation of the Kurumba and the Dogon. These substyles are defined by the use of a convex or concave mask face, and by the height and breadth of the vertical plank. 

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Risiam style masks at funeral east of Yako, 1977. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.