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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

The famous Lobi figure in the Kerchache Collection [now at the Louvre] is an excellent example of the way gesture communicates the meaning of the object and the effectiveness of the spirit that embodies it in dealing with adversity. The figure was for years described as "the prisoner of war" because it stands with its hands behind its back, as if they were bound, and its face turned downward with a sad expression. I, too, thought of it as a prisoner of war when I first saw it for sale in New York, and later when it was published. In 1984 I attended my first Lobi funeral when I realized that most of the Lobi gathered around the home of the deceased elder were standing in the same pose as the Kerchache piece. They stood looking at the ground, with their hands clasped behind their backs in the common Lobi pose of mourning. The figure stands sad and mourning to take sadness on itself, so that its owner will not have to mourn. It takes death and adversity on itself to free its owner from suffering.

In the same way the gestures of other Lobi figures express thorough pose, gesture, or composition their particular talent or skill in protecting their followers from disasters or solving their problems. A female figure stands with an infant tucked in its arm so that those women who follow it will be able to bear children. A thil takes the form of a bird so that it will be able to fly quickly to warn its owner of threatening danger, even if its owner is working in a distant field or is away from the community on a trading trip.

As an example of the way the Lobi invent spirits to deal with problems and represent them though art, the unusual boteba which appear to be seated on a chair, wearing a French officer's hat, smoking a pipe represent the French colonial medical officer Lerousique who worked for many years early in the 20th century in Gaoua, building a hospital to isolate cases of sleeping sickness and teaching the Lobi how to cut brush that harbors Tsetse flies. Lerousique was so effective in dealing with the threat of sleeping sickness that when he left Gaoua the Lobi began to carve small wooden figures to represent him and the power he had to protect them of this disease. Lerousique was transformed into a thil and was represented by the boteba with a French officer's kepi (hat).