The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

b.1. The Yatenga Style

The tall, vertically oriented, concave-faced masks which are used by the Mossi in the traditional state of Yatenga have, for decades, been considered the epitome of Mossi sculptural traditions.

These masks vary from 100 cm. (38 in.) to 220 cm. (84 in.). They consist of a concave, oval facial area painted white and a long, narrow vertical plank. The face of the mask is bisected vertically by a narrow dentate ridge, and is pierced by two triangular eye holes. The sides of the mask are frequently decorated with incised "ladder" patterns that imitate traditional facial scars. Above the face of the mask, and just in front of the plank, are carved the head and horns of an antelope. The front and back of the plank bear low-relief geometric patterns painted red, black, and white. The plank usually terminates in a truncated triangle. Invariably, the cheeks of the mask are pierced by a stick that is clamped firmly between the performer's teeth to help steady the mask. A series of smaller holes around the rim or back of the mask provide for the attachment of the tailored cap or thick cowl of fibers that cover the performer's head. The performer wears a belt of knotted and twisted cotton strands to which are tied a number of small, iron rattles. The rest of the mask costume consists of the traditional tailored Mossi shirt (fugu) and short, baggy trousers (kuiriga). The costume is scanty compared to the heavy fiber costumes worn by masks in other areas of Mossi country, or among other peoples in central Burkina Faso. It is much more similar to the brief costume of red fiber skirt and traditional trousers worn by Dogon mask performers in villages in eastern Mali. No attempt is made to hide the fact that the mask is being worn by a human, and it is often quite easy to identify the performer.

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

A second type of mask, in the same style, combines the wooden figure of a woman with the basic mask form described above . The figure is placed above the face of the mask, and either stands in front of the tall, thin plank, or entirely replaces the plank.

A few additional mask forms based on the same regional style are occasionally seen. The tall plank may be replaced by the figure of a bird in flight, or the plank is intersected at right angles by shorter planks, resulting in a form that very closely resembles the kanaga masks of the Dogon, who live only fifty kilometers northwest of Ouahigouya, the capital city of Yatenga. There are, in addition, masks in which the plank has been turned 90 degrees and curves dramatically forward .

Yatenga style Mossi masks are found in the northwestern corner of the Mossi Plateau. Yatenga style masks are also found widely scattered in a few nyonyosé communities south of Yatenga, in the traditional Ouagadougou state. The transitional zone between the Ouagadougou style and the Yatenga style corresponds to the low, brushy areas around the headwaters of the White Volta near the town of Niessega. This is the same area that has traditionally marked the boundary between the Mossi kingdoms of Ouagadougou in the south and Yatenga in the north. The transitional zone between the area of the Yatenga style and the next style to the east, in Risiam, is very broad. Concave-faced Yatenga style masks may be found deep within the Risiam style area, most notably in the towns of Kongoussi and Tikaré.