The University of Iowa University of Iowa

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

by Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

Each mask's unique character is expressed by its dance steps, the musical accompaniment, and its movements. Animal masks imitate, in a very stylized but expressive way, the actions or behavior of the animals they represent. In the Nunuma village of Tissé the bush pig darts rapidly around the performance area, frequently scurrying through great clouds of dust raised by its dance.

Bush buffalo and antelope masks, Nyumu family, Bwa artist, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

It tosses its head as if sniffing the air for a scent of danger. The hyena darts around the performance area acting furtive, hiding in a corner until the drummer calls it to perform. It then become aggressive, dashing at members of the audience who fall back in fear of its enormous jaws. The other masks play along with the bush pig and hyena: when these two masks have completed their performances and sit down next to the antelope, rooster, serpent and other masks, the other masks get up and move to the opposite side of the performance area, because they do not want to be close to the filthy, repulsive and dangerous hyena or pig. At most Nunuma performances one or two monkey masks are worn by young boys who have shown special talent as performers. They provide crowd control, and like monkeys in the wild, frequently mimic human actions in ribald performances that move the audience to laughter and loud applause. The Winiama mask with a single curved horn, kenduneh, in the Naniebon neighborhood in the village of Ouri, is a wild, uncontrollable bush spirit that frequently falls into trances that cause it to weave and sway. The audience falls back in fear as it approaches, for it sometimes strikes out impulsively at those who get in its way.