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

Among the more unusual masks in both Boni and Dossi are the fish masks. They are unusual because the region around these two villages is usually dry and dusty and is far from the sea and even from the Volta River.

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Fish mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The fish mask performs accompanied by an elderly man with a large basket of the type the Bwa use to catch fish in the swamps and low areas near seasonal rivers and streams. The mask dances and skips across the performance area, accompanied by the drums and flutes that play its music. It pauses to rest, like a large fish resting in the shallows, beating its fins slowly back and forth. The elder man approaches carefully, raising his basket above his head to bring it down over the fish and trap it. At the last moment the fish darts from beneath the basket. The same sequence is performed several times, until, at the end, the fish remains in place and allows the elder to capture it. Elders of the Lamien family in Dossi tell the story of just such a giant fish that allowed itself to be captured by an ancestor who had traveled a great distance seeking new land on which his family could settle and start new farms. The fish gave itself up to feed the elder, to restore his strength, so that he could return to his family and lead them to the new lands he had found, founding the village of Dossi. This sacrifice is remembered trough the performance of the fish mask.

The watery world is also represented by the crocodiles, which are the only masks I ever saw perform as a group in Bwa or Winiama villages. The people of Dossi tell of an ancestor who wandered for days from his home, looking for vacant land to farm. He had become exhausted and famished, and he lay down in the shade of a tree to rest. He was awakened by a sound nearby, and thinking it might be a person who could give him directions he ran toward the sound. He stumbled over the root of a tree and rolled head over heels down the sandy bank of the Black Volta River, stopping his fall just short of the jaws of two enormous crocodiles that had drawn themselves up on the bank of the river. He was about to retreat in fear when he noticed the male crocodile begin to open its jaws slowly to reveal a very large fish between its teeth. The elder crept closer, fearing that at any moment the crocodile would strike and tear him apart, but instead the crocodile allowed him to remove the fish from between its jaws and retreat up the bank, where he built a fire and cooked and ate the fish, restoring his strength so that he could return to his family and lead them to the place. When he returned home the local diviner told him what he already knew, that the crocodiles were not real animals, but were spiritual beings that would protect him and his family if he honored them. And so he commissioned masks to be carved, which by their performance honor the crocodile spirits and communicate the story of this magical encounter from one generation to the next.