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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Plank masks with checkerboard pattern. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The checkerboard of black and white rectangles on the broad plank represents the separation of knowledge and ignorance. The checkerboard motif is common on the masks of all Voltaic speaking peoples, including the Mossi and the Dogon, but is especially apparent on the great plank masks of the Bwa. The elders of the Lamien family in the town of Dossi explained to me that the checkerboard represents that value of knowledge and the difference between knowledge and ignorance. In our own culture we use patters of black and white to represent ignorance and knowledge as well. We often speak of the "light of knowledge" and the "dark shadow of ignorance." We study the "Dark Ages" when the light of learning went out with the invasion of Europe by nomadic peoples from the east. We often use a lamp as a symbol of learning on university insignia. Among the Bwa, whose skins are a deep, rich black, the association of white with knowledge and black with ignorance does not make sense. For the Bwa, the black rectangles on the checkerboard represent the dark goat hides on which elders sit during mask performances and sacrifices, and the white rectangles represent the new, freshly tanned goat hides that are used by the young men and women of the community. Following graduation from the "bush school" where they are instructed in the meanings of the graphic patterns that appear on masks, the young men and women of the village are given newly tanned goat hides on which they will sit at important religious occasions throughout their lives. As the years pass, and the rolled-up hides are stored in the rafters of kitchens where the smoke of fires keeps them safe from insect damage, they become darker and darker with soot. Each year when they are brought down and unrolled they are cleaned with a cloth, and quickly become the same rich deep black as the skins of the people who own them. Thus, for the Bwa, black is the color of wisdom, accumulated over the decades that men and women participate in the spiritual life of the community, and white is the color of those who have only just "commenced" the long process of learning that continues throughout their lives.