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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

It is clear from my own research and the work of the French anthropologist Jean Capron, that the famous leaf masks which have been frequently photographed and studied in Bwa villages, are evidence of the influence of the Bobo people on the Bwa. The leaf mask type is well known among the Mande speaking peoples, but is much less well known among the Voltaic Peoples. It is quite clear that the Bwa acquired the use of leaf masks from their Bobo neighbors centuries ago. Until at least the end of the 19th century leaf masks that represent the god Dwo were very common in Bwa villages. In the 1890s a series of disasters struck Bwa villages, including raids by Fulani cavalry looking for slaves, the invasions of the French and their subjugation of African peoples, and finally in the period 1914 to 1918 the the French began to recruit young Bwa men to serve in the French army. This long series of disasters led the Bwa to doubt the ability of the god Dwo to protect them effectively. They turned to their neighbors the gurunsi whom they have admired for their power to control the supernatural world, and they acquired from them the use of wooden masks decorated with red white and black geometric patterns. These are the same wooden masks that the Bwa use to this day. The wooden masks that we have assumed have been used by the Bwa for centuries in fact are a recent creation—an invented tradition.