Nature, Spirits and Arts in Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Mamy Wata mask, Bwa peoples, village of Boni, Burkina Faso, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy. 

Among the most common of graphic patterns are the alternating black and white rectangles that form what looks like a checkerboard. The Bwa associated these with the value of spiritual knowledge and the importance of lifelong learning. In contrast to our own systems of symbols, in which white represents the light of knowledge and black the darkness of ignorance, for the Bwa, who are themselves black, black represents knowledge and white is ignorance. When every young Bwa man and woman leaves the initiation camp he is given a newly cured, white goat hide on which he sits during every mask performance. These are stored between sacred performances in the smoky kitchens to keep them safe from insect damage. With increasing use and increasing knowledge, the new white hides become a rich, sooty, glossy black.