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 most remarkable characteristic of all Voltaic masks, and especially of the spectacular masks carved by the southern Bwa, are the geometric patterns colored red, white and black that cover them.

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist
Luruya (mask)
Wood, pigment, fiber
H. 81.28 cm (32")
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection of African Art, X1990.633

These patterns constitute a system of signs that communicate the rules for correct moral behavior and the conduct of life for the followers of the small-scale religious associations that are focused on each spirit. These symbols are explained to young men and women alike during initiation. Each has an individual meaning, a second meaning in association with other patterns, and a meaning that varies with the level of knowledge of the initiate. The geometric patterns incised on masks are called "scars" by the Bwa, and they are identical to the scars worn by the men and women in the community.

A young artist from the Konate family of smiths in the village of Ouri, Bwa artist, Burkina Faso, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.  

Among the most common patterns is the system of parallel zig-zags, which is called "the path of the ancestors," and reminds those who see it that they must obey the rules established by the ancestors, do things as the ancestors did, in order to succeed. To follow the path of the ancestors shows respect for them, and they in turn act as mediators with the spirits of nature to provide their blessings over their descendants. The same patterns of zig-zag lines appear on masks of all Voltaic peoples, including Mossi masks, Dogon masks (and the walls of caves in the Dogon cliffs), and these Bwa plank masks, and makes "the path of the ancestors" visible to everyone who attends the mask performance. 

Four nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, Bwa artist, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

It is clear that it is difficult to know at every turn what step is correct, and the path is difficult to follow, so the symbol itself is broken and torturous.