The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Signs and Symbols in African Art: Graphic Patterns in Burkina Faso

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

Ethnic map of Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is a land inhabited by two races of beings--by spirits and humankind. In the difficult physical environment of Burkina Faso, which is almost devoid of natural resources, people are constantly threatened by endemic diseases, frequent and devastating drought and starvation. Burkina Faso is ridden with parasitic diseases that devastate the ability of the people to resist other diseases that are less often serious in heavily developed countries. What would our own lives be like if we were threatened with schistosomiasis (a liver worm) when we swam in a fresh water stream, or onchocerciasis (an eye worm) if we lived or farmed near a river, or trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) from the bite of a black fly?

Spirits protect man, they ensure success in life, providing the smallest measure of security in an otherwise fragile world. Figures and masks make the spirits visible, giving them shape and substance. Figures make the spirits visible. Mask performances give the spirits life, as each performer acts out the history of first encounter between the spirit and the founding ancestor, and the performance recreates the characteristic movements, actions, virtues and vices of the spirit. 

These spirits are also made visible by figures that permit communication between the natural and supernatural worlds. Figures are the tools of the diviner. They are placed in front of the diviner during the divination process to represent the spirit beings with which communication has been established.