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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa


While among the Lobi the spirits are made visible by carving wooden figures that represent them, these figures have the disadvantage of being placed on shrines, on which they appear static and immobile. Among other Voltaic peoples in contrast, the spirits are represented by masks which have the advantage of being able to perform in the village to participate in the life of the community and to bring the spirits to life. Among all of these Voltaic peoples including the Mossi, the gurunsi, the Bwa, and the Dogon, in Mali, masks bear the intricate patterns of geometric lines colored red white and black, which are one of the most common Voltaic style characteristics, and which among all of these people communicate important spiritual messages. 

Throughout Burkina Faso masks allow invented spirits to come to life and take part in the life of the community. Masks incarnate spirits which may appear to man in any number of guises. Some appear as natural animals which can be identified by their horns, snout or other physical features. The masks that represent these spirits are naturalistic. Other spirits appear in unrecognizable, abstract forms, because the spirit they represent did not appear as a natural animal. 

The power of the masks is called upon to solve special problems. The most common request addressed to the spirits represented by masks is for human fertility. Numerous informants state that there were no children in their family, or that all the children of the community had died of disease, so a spirit was contacted through a mask and the problem was solved through the blessings and intervention of the spirit. When children are born with their fists clenched or their eyes closed or the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck their father may have a mask carved that he will wear and pass on to the child after initiation. When problems of disease, famine, or infertility trouble a family or clan a mask may be carved.