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

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Among the Voltaic peoples, including the Bwa, Nuna, Winiama, and Mossi, masks bear geometric patterns in red, white and black that are symbols in the language of the spirits--an initiatory language in which these people become more adept with increasing age. The patterns are combined on masks to represent the prohibitions, rules for proper conduct of life, and requirements of the spirits the masks represent--they are visible forms of the soser of the Lobi. The colors of the patterns and of the mask costumes themselves refer to spirits, for the color red is associated with danger, especially in the form of spirits from the bush, which are almost always thought to be red. 

When a mask takes the form of a broad disk with a plank that rises vertically above the face, as among the Bwa, it is easy to keep in mind that it is representative of a supernatural being. When a mask is clearly a representation of an animal such as an antelope or a bush pig, it may be more difficult to understand why the antelope's horns face forward, rather than back, or why the bush pig is combined with the powerful features of some other animal. Such creations may seem irrational and illogical unless we understand their meaning. A mask with human features may have added to it forward-curving antelope horns and a great bird's beak because it represents a spirit that does not take human or animal form. Similarly, animal shapes do not mean the mask represents an animal, but recall the invented spirit which saved the founding ancestor of the clan. Allegorical and nonrepresentational, the masks incarnate the invented spirits.