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 graphic patterns that cover masks in Burkina Faso comprise a system of communication in which the combination of signs or symbols transmits rules about the moral conduct of life. Each of these masks represents a spirit which is invented by Voltaic peoples when a particular need arises. This process of inventing spirits and creating masks to represent them continues to be very active to the present day in the lives of Voltaic peoples in Burkina Faso. As new challenges a rise, new spirits are invented, and new masks are carved. This process means that the types of masks and the styles of masks that appear are constantly subjected to change. 

It is important that we understand that these changes to art that we call traditional do not represent some period of decline, some sort of decadence, or as Leo Frobenius called it Das Sterbende Afrika, the “Death of Africa.” African art was never intended to be static, to be unchanging, or to represent unchanging traditions. African art, like everything else in Africa, is always changing. This is why the great Roman historian Gaius Plinius Secundus, wrote in 79 AD, "semper ex Africa aliquid novii" (there is always something new out of Africa). Africa is characterized by constant change, not by a tradition or conservativisim. Why should we expect art in Africa not to change when everything else changes quickly? And so in Burkina Faso where masks have been used by different peoples for centuries as a means of communicating important messages about the relationship to their spirit world and to the world around them, the masks that communicate these messages change as quickly and as frequently as the messages themselves do.