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


The encounters between Bwa ancestors and the invented spirits that are embodied in Bwa masks are recounted in numerous stories told among Bwa families. Bwa wooden masks represent a number of spirit characters in the myths of their families and clans. Masks represent numerous animals including the antelope, bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile, and fish of several types.

Crocodile masks, Lamien family, Bwa artist, village of Dossi, Burkina Faso, 1984.  Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The serpent, and insects including the butterfly appear, as do birds including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the leper, and the crazy man and his wife. Among neighboring Voltaic peoples common human characters include the Samo warrior (Dogon) and the Fulani woman (Mossi). Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms. The elders of the Kambi clan in Dossi claim that the plank masks represent flying spirits and are associated with water. These spirits can take the form of insects that mass around muddy pools after early rains, or of larger birds, including owls and ibis. Bwa plank masks may be seven feet tall and two feet wide, with an enormous round, flat face surmounted by a rectangular plank that terminates with a crescent. A downward-curving hook protrudes from the base of the plank above the face. The key to understanding plank mask forms is that these masks are not representational, but embody supernatural forces that act on behalf of the Bwa clans that use the masks.