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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

In the past few decades these so-called ancient wooden masks have begun to be transformed by the addition of contemporary motifs, the changing needs for security by the Bwa people. As an example, in 1983 when the Nigerian government passed legislation requiring all foreign workers to leave Nigeria, several young Bwa man who had been working on oil platforms in the Niger River Delta were forced to flee Nigeria. During that time that they had lived in Nigeria they had become followers of Mamy Wata.

Joseph Chukwu (ca. 1900-1986, Utu Etim Ekpo, Abak, Akwa Ibom State)
Mami Wata figure, ca. 1975
Wood, fiber, pigment
59.69  x 50.8  x 20.32 cm (23 1/2  x 20  x 8 in)
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, Gift of Pamela J. Brink, RN, PhD, 1991.225

Mamy Wata is an African spirit of fertility, abundance, and personal achievement. She seems to have come into being along the coastal areas of Africa in the 18th or 19th century. It is clear that her invention was a response to the arrival of Europeans on great sailing ships bearing enormous quantities of European luxury goods. Mamy Wata represents the efforts of Africans to acquire these luxury goods, sometimes at the expense of their effective participation in traditional communities in which labor on behalf of the group rather than the individual was valued. Mamy Wata is a jealous goddess who requires her followers to be faithful only to her. Her followers may not marry, and if they are unfaithful to her she will destroy them. Because the life of ease, and the luxury goods that were so admired by Africans often were associated with European women, Mamy Wata was frequently imagined to be a white woman. Because in the 18th and 19th centuries the ships that brought these luxury goods were often sailing ships with carved wooden figureheads of mermaids, Mamy Wata is often depicted as a mermaid with a fish's tail. Decades ago Africans discovered a photograph of a snake charmer in a German circus. This photograph showed the woman with long straight hair, with a large serpent draped over her shoulders. Very quickly this image was adopted as a representation of Mamy Wata. The photograph was sent to India where thousands of color prints were made from it which were then sent back to Africa to become images of Mamy Wata herself.

As followers of Mamy Wata in Nigeria these young Bwa men would have seen the representations of the spirit as a white mermaid with a long flowing hair. When they were forced to flee Nigeria in 1983, they carried the worship of Mamy Wata back to the Bwa villages in Burkina Faso. This new religion was quickly introduced in the villages, but rather than replacing the traditional wooden masks for which the Bwa are so famous, the image of Mamy Wata was carved in low relief on the backs of the tall plank masks.

Mamy Wata mask, Nyumu family, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


In the early 1980's I saw many plank masks in the towns of Boni and Dossi in central Burkina Faso which had been decorated with images of Mamy Wata with their arms raised above her head in the common of Bwa gesture of praise. In the years since my research in central Burkina Faso the Bwa have begun to incorporate a variety of new forms into their masks. In 1984 following the rise to power of Thomas Sankara, many plank masks incorporated the initials of the political parties, and even political slogans. Other masks represented images of oxen drawn plows as symbols of development, and AK-47 as symbols of resistance to neo-colonialism.