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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

During the mask performance the spirits act but never speak. Speech is a human characteristic, and so the human performer who interprets the character of the abstract spirit is forbidden to speak. They may speak through the diviner, who casts cowries, kills a chicken, or manipulates any of a dozen objects as a technique for communicating the spirits wishes and commands. He may then place offerings of food on the figures that are his contact with the spirit world to feed them and to secure their cooperation. 

Although the performers who wear masks do not speak in Burkina Faso or in most other parts of Africa, they have other ways of communicating. They communicate through performance the character of the spirit they represent. The performance interprets the character of the spirit, the way an actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. In so doing they may communicate something of the requirements of the spirit for its congregation. They communicate visually the rules established by the spirits through the diviners for the moral and ethical conduct of life. In Burkina Faso these rules are communicated through the graphic patterns that cover masks, textiles, pottery, the walls of houses, and other objects.

Nwantantay (plank masks), Lamien family, Bwa peoples, village of Dossi, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


In Burkina Faso, among the Nunuma, Nuna, Winiama, Lela, Bwa, and Mossi, and in Mali among the Dogon, masks are among the most strikingly abstract of African sculpture. These masks are abstract because they are portraits of the nature spirits. They are representations of the spiritual beings that give life to the world in which we live. These spirit beings are normally invisible, unseeable, untouchable. But we can feel their presence in the power of nature, in the new life that appears following the first storms of the rainy season. What more effective way to represent an abstract idea than with an abstract portrait. 

Most African art is representative, not representational. Very little African sculpture is intended to recreate the features of a human being, either living or dead. Few objects are intended to resemble a deceased relative or to be a portrait of a distinguished ruler. The invented spirits these figures and masks embody are supernatural, unseen, unknown, incomprehensible, so that the concrete forms that are carved to house them must also be invented.