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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

If you visit a Lobi farmstead and ask the permission of the head of the family to see the shrines on which the boteba are placed he may give you permission, or he may consult a diviner who will in turn ask the spirits. In my experience this was usually accomplished by twisting the neck of a very small chick, one of the little fuzzy yellow ones we see at Easter, and then observing which way it lay when it expired: if it was on its back the spirits gave their permission. You then are guided to a very dark corner of the home, often a small room as far as possible from the front entrance, where a shrine is covered with dozens, even hundreds of figures, large and small, usually in male/female pairs, some with two heads or three, some with both arms raised, some with an arm stuck out to the side, in a variety of poses. These embody all of the many spirits whose help is required by the family, lineage, clan and congregation to survive the many threats to well-being encountered in Burkina Faso. It is eloquent evidence of the many threats of all kinds the people must face that so many spirits, embodied by so many figures, must play a role in protecting them.

Most of these figures are distinguished in particular ways from naturalistic and representational figures, of ancestors for example. Some of them have two heads, some of them are posed in aggressive stances, some of them are engaged in sexual acts, and almost all of them appeared in male and female pairs. All of this again is intended to remind us that these are portraits of spiritual beings, not of the ancestors or other natural beings.

"Boteba can save people in the following ways: They can protect them from witches and sorcerers. These boteba are called "boteba witches" (boteba duntundara). The term here also includes the sorcerers. They mourn, so that the members of a house later on don't have to mourn themselves, i.e. they don't have to experience great sorrow. These boteba are called "sad bateba" (boteba yadawora). Sad or mourning boteba are distinguished by gesture, they hold their hands behind their backs in the Lobi attitude of mourning. They fulfill various temporary tasks such as finding men a marriage partner, helping women conceive children, and helping to prevent certain illnesses or healing them" (Meyer 1981: 20).