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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa


In an essay written in 1976 Leon Siroto has said: 

"The power attributed to invented spirits was a working force capable of effecting changes throughout the human world; it contrasts with the power of the spirits of the dead, whose power seems to have been mainly persuasive in influencing invented spirits. The association of invented spirits with families, local groups and individuals was of a tutelary nature. The spirit protected its human partners and hosts against their human enemies and against the power of other invented spirits attached to other individuals or groups. It should be noted that the groups associated with invented spirits could be either families of any degree of extension or composite associations composed of different families united in such common interests as maintenance of their village or observance of a non-familial cult" (Siroto 1976: 14).

For people in Burkina Faso the key statement here is that "the spirit protected its human partners and hosts against… the power of other invented spirits." Through appeal to the spiritual beings one might acquire a little bit of security in a very threatening environment. Invented spirits control people's lives. In cultures where science cannot provide the answers to questions about the source of disease and misfortune, health and well-being—cannot tell us "why me, why now?"—invented spirits intervene to protect families from disease and to stave off the disasters that disrupt human life.

These spirits are often given very human characters and, like the social order of many African societies, exist in a distinctive hierarchy, ranked or stratified as chiefs, kings, commoners and subjects. In just the way that the ancient Greeks created the gods in their own image, attributing to them so many human vices and failings, Africans create God in their own image, and think of the spirits as having families like ours, with a spouse and children, and with virtues and vices that must always be considered when communicating with them. 

Distinctions between orders of spirits are vital in terms of supernatural power and its manipulation. In most traditional ideologies that find expression in imagery, supernatural beings exist in hierarchies. A remote creator-god at the apex of the spiritual order allows the affairs of the world to be managed departmentally by lesser deities who, in turn, delegate power over the material world to lower ranks of invented spirits. Most cults show a sense of protocol in setting their sights low in communicating with the higher powers through the mediation of lesser spirits. Images are designed to deal with these otherwise invisible middlemen (Siroto 1976: 14). 

In Burkina Faso, among the Lobi as an example, spirit beings are believed to live in male/female pairs, just as humans do, to have children and to behave in many of the ways humans behave, both relative to their own families and relative to other spirits.