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The Significance of Masks to the Cultures Indigenous to the Region of Burkina Faso
Masks are ubiquitous to cultures around the world and may range in use and
significance from one culture to the next. In some cultures the use of mask may end at art
or entertainment while in others masks are important elements in folk and traditional
ceremonies. Burkina Faso, a country in the region of West Sudan Africa contains many
ethnic groups in which the use of masks hold deep significance and spiritual importance.
There are about thirty five different ethnic groups in this country which belong to the two
major families of either voltaic and Mande associations. These family affiliations may
cause slight differences in the stylistic representations of the mass but they are
fundamentally the same. It can be said that behind every mask lies a story, but in Burkina
Faso we see that within every mask lies a story. The masks themselves represent a host
of things that incorporates a belief in spirits, forces of nature and the social forces of the
villages.1The visual elements tell the true story of the masks including the ethnic styles
and ancestral history. Also the masks are incorporated in dances which complement the
overall meanings and purpose of the masks.
What do the visual representations mean?
At first glance one might look at the geometrical patterns on the mask and regard them
as insignificant details which add to the beauty of the mask on a whole. However, after
careful consideration we see that triangle on a mask is no ordinary triangle or the number
of concentric circles goes way beyond mimicking the physical attributes of an animal or

11

Roy, Christopher D. The Spread of Mask Styles in the Black Volta Basin. African Arts Vol. 20,
No.4( Aug., 1987), pp. 40-47+89-90 Regents of the University of California ,http://links.jstor.org/sici?
sici=00019933%28198708%2920%3A4%3C40%3ATSOMSI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N

spirit. The visual elements included in masks are rich in symbolic meaning that helps to
tell the story of the mask. These decorative representations include about a dozen
geometric motifs: dot, circle, semicircle, crescent; straight, curved, interupted, winding,
lines; triangle, diamond, square, and rectangle(Fig.1). Sometimes highly stylized
figurative motifs are incorporated into the geometrical designs: bows, spears, hoes,
spoons, anvils, chameleons, and serpents.2 One can say that the mask in itself contains
language that can tell the deeper meaning of the mask when decoded. According to the
research of Michael Voltz:
The triangle is one of the most commonly seen geometric motifs. It can have the
following meanings: 1) in superficial knowledge, it is usually called the "footprint of
the Koba" or the "trail of the Koba (hippotrague or antelope-horse)"; 2) in
intermediate knowledge, it symbolizes "male sex," "male element"; triangular objects
are masculine, as is the number "three"; 3) in deep knowledge, it is the "rhombus,"
"the civilizing demiurge" (the Bwa refer to it as Do, the Dogons as Nommo, the
Kurumba as Yirige). The rhombus, sent to man by the sky god, is the most sacred
hierophant of the civilizing spirit. It is a piece of sheet iron, triangular or slightly
ovoid, which is made to twirl and vibrate by turning it rapidly on the end of a rope.
This produces a humming sound which represents the word of the Demiurge
transmitted through the voice of the mask.3

Voltz, Michel. Voltaic Masks The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks. (Winter, 1982), pp. 3845. The MIT Press. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0012-5962%28198224%2926%3A4%3C38%3AVM
%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6
3
Voltz, Michel. Voltaic Masks The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks. (Winter, 1982), pp. 3845. The MIT Press. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0012-5962%28198224%2926%3A4%3C38%3AVM
%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6

More meaning may be added to the geometric patterns when the shapes are included in
different numbers and patterns:
Meanings of Numbers are, Three: Number related to men, Male sex, Life-giving
power. Four: Number related to women, Female sex, fertilized element. Simple
numbers are combined to create more complex figures for example; Seven: Union of
male and female elements, the fecundity of man, the fertility of fields, the harmony of
the cosmos, the taboo number of the civilizing demiurge believed to be bisexual,
androgynous. Nine: abundance of masculine strength, supreme religious power,
taboo number of the sky god believed to be the creator and ruler of all things. An
example of meanings associated with the color red: Blood, strength, life, vital forces
which animate the cosmos and the taboo color of the civilizing demiurge; the use of
red, particularly in clothing, is very strictly controlled. For the color red, for instance,
blood is the best conveyor of vital forces which the demiurge possesses in the highest
degree. In addition, close correspondences exist between the three categories of signsgeometric shapes, colors, and numbers. For example, the number seven and the color
red have the same value; they are symbols of fertility, fecundity, vital forces, and the
civilizing demiurge. Vertical and horizontal correspondences between these signs
create a multidimensional language which is both complex and harmonious.4
Though the symbols and colors on the mask seem to be disconnected with the overall
form of the mask portrays, they in turn help to lend the mask their power. The symbols
help the mask become a sort of organizing force. The masks also examine daily reality
and in recreating it, they gain control of life-giving cosmic forces.
4

Voltz, Michel. Voltaic Masks The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks. (Winter, 1982), pp. 3845. The MIT Press. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0012-5962%28198224%2926%3A4%3C38%3AVM
%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6

How do the visual elements help to tell the story of the masks?
The visual elements of the masks may be used to either represent animals or spirits
combined with human characteristics (Fig. 2). Among the gurunsi masks are carved
representing spirits that dwell in the bush around the villages, and masks make these
same spirits come to life. The bush spirits sometimes take animal forms, which, as
represented by wooden
masks, tend to be more naturalistic among the Nunuma and Nuna and more stylized
among the Lela and Wniama. Some masks are abstract, representing bush spirits that
have not taken recognizable animal forms, though they may incorporate some animal
features.5 There are many similarities among the animal masks of the various peoples of
Burkina Faso. The visual elements of many of the masks are used to represent many
animals as shown by Christopher D. Roy who observes:
The heads of animal masks are basically similar in form: only the shapes of the horns
and ears allow the animal to be identified. The antelope, buffalo, bush pig, hornbill,
hyena, and serpent occur most often. When seen from the front, the snout is
frequently triangular, the two sloping sides being rectangular planes marked by
intersecting diagonals in black and red, with the interstices painted white. The rim of
the masks may be decorated with small triangles carved in low relief, with the
shallow interstices colored red. Eyes may be red, white, and black circles, or they
may be covered with beeswax into which red seeds are stuck.6
5

Roy, Christopher D. The Spread of Mask Styles in the Black Volta Basin. African Arts Vol. 20,
No.4( Aug., 1987), pp. 40-47+89-90 Regents of the University of California ,http://links.jstor.org/sici?
sici=00019933%28198708%2920%3A4%3C40%3ATSOMSI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N
6
Roy, Christopher D. The Spread of Mask Styles in the Black Volta Basin. African Arts Vol. 20,
No.4( Aug., 1987), pp. 40-47+89-90 Regents of the University of California ,http://links.jstor.org/sici?
sici=00019933%28198708%2920%3A4%3C40%3ATSOMSI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N

The shapes on the masks themselves and also protrusions i.e. the ones that represent
horns, give form to the animal that is portrayed. Another variation of the masks is seen in
the plank masks carved by the Nuna and Nunuma that represent the spirits that have taken
abstract, non-natural forms. They are short and broad, and display very complex outlines
and elaborate geometric patterns which including triangles and rectangles forming a
design very much like checkerboards. The plank bears a series of curving hooks on the
front and the back. Its overall rectangular shape is broken by figures that connect it with
the head. The masks also have a series of parallel lines emanating from the eyes.7 The
visual elements are extremely important in giving the masks shape and meaning but one
would question why the creators of the mask created the masks in the first place. It would
not seem that the complex patterns and carvings are simply used to represent a particular
spirit in animal form without it holding deep significance for the villagers.
As stated before by Christopher D. Roy the range of masks includes the antelope,
Cayman, snake, lion, hornbill, cock, ram, buffalo, and hyena. These zoomorphic forms in
masks are widely used and not exceptional, but their choice is not arbitrary; it stems from
a desire to integrate past experience and present problems into a reassuring, harmonious
system in the villages. Aspects of the mask form itself also have meanings. For example,
the hook that protrudes from the joint between the plank and face of the mask represents
the beak of the hornbill, a bird associated with magic, divination and witchcraft.8 The
first three masks relate to the founding of the village, the crucial circumstances on which
the community's continued prosperity depends. The people relate:
7

Roy, Christopher D. The Spread of Mask Styles in the Black Volta Basin. African Arts Vol. 20,
No.4( Aug., 1987), pp. 40-47+89-90 Regents of the University of California ,http://links.jstor.org/sici?
sici=00019933%28198708%2920%3A4%3C40%3ATSOMSI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N
8
Roy, Christopher D. Bwa and Gurunsi Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press,
http://www.groveart.com/

"Because of drought and famine our founding forefather was forced to leave his
native land to find a more favorable place. A mysterious antelope led him to the top of
a hill. From there, he saw a fertile valley situated between the hill and a flowing river
where there were many, many caymans. The ancestor built his abode near a great
baobab tree where a good spirit lived, who sometimes showed himself in the form of
a serpent. This spirit presented the ancestor with three masks (antelope, cayman,
serpent) and attached to them black fibers from the bark of the protective
baobab-'the baobab of fecundity.' The spirit promised that for as long as the village
honored and respected the masks, the land would provide abundant grain and the
women would bear many children."9
The masks do not only represent the spiritual signifance of the animal but also the
practical significance. Michael Voltz reports:
Related to the three masks-antelope, cayman, serpent-are three natural areas
important in the village economy which justify its installation on this site: the hill,
covered by an extensive holy forest, source of plants and game; the earth, fertile and
cultivated; and the marigot, source of water and fish. There is an altar at each of these
three places: on the hill, an altar of green bushes; an altar of fertile earth under the
baobab of fecundity; and an altar of life-giving water on the banks of the marigot.
These three sites have played an important part in the survival of the village, which is
situated near a frontier and continually threatened by marauding border troops. In the
past, the river-cayman constituted a natural defense against incursions, and watchmen
were always on alert. In case of danger the villagers fled to the hill-antelope; those
9

Voltz, Michel. Voltaic Masks The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks. (Winter, 1982), pp. 3845. The MIT Press. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0012-5962%28198224%2926%3A4%3C38%3AVM
%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6

who were unable to run away hid in the baobab-serpent tree which had a hollow trunk
large and comfortable enough to shelter twenty people.10
Here we see the over whelming contribution the masks provide to the villagers in terms
of a feeling of well being and inspiration. The masks also give the community a sense of
heritage since they were passed down from the stories and crafts of their ancestors.
Finally the masks are integral parts of village religions or cults that play important social,
political, economic, and educational roles involving the reduction of social and spiritual
friction, the transmission of values, and the enactment of punishments for those who
violate them.11 These masks are used at the various religious and cult events which lead to
their importance in performance and dance.
How are the performances related to the nature of the masks?
Finally, just like a finishing touch is added to a masterpiece, the mask is assigned a
ceremony and a dancer. The mask can be used in various ceremonies that range from
those that celebrate the mask to funerals and initiations.
Masks play key roles in initiation in both Bwa and Gurunsi villages. Initiates are told
the secrets of the mask cult, are taught how to make the fiber costumes that cover the
maskers bodies and are given instruction in the secret initiatory languages, and
including an analysis of the moral messages communicated by the patterns that cover

10

Voltz, Michel. Voltaic Masks The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 26, No. 4, Masks. (Winter, 1982), pp. 3845. The MIT Press. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0012-5962%28198224%2926%3A4%3C38%3AVM
%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6
11
McNaughton, Patrick R. Is There History in Horizontal Masks? A Preliminary Response to the Dilemma
of Form. African Arts, Vol. 24, No. 2, Special Issue: Memorial to Arnold Rubin, Part I. (Apr., 1991), pp. 4053+88-90. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0001-9933%28199104%2924%3A2%3C40%3AITHIHM
%3E2.0.CO%3B2-D

each mask. Initiation sometimes includes a form of combat between the boys and a
mask and often ends with celebratory performances attended by the entire community
in which each boy wears a mask. Before initiation children are considered to be under
the control of the spirits of the bush, but as initiated adults they submit to the rules for
proper behavior in the village.12
More significantly the masks performances seem to adhere to the nature of the masks
themselves. The dancer may imitate the nature of the mask through various dance steps,
musical accompaniment and movement. In the performances, because masks dancers
imitate the creatures represented, the story of the mask is even more perpetuated by the
dances. An example of such imitations is presented by Christopher D. Roy:
In the Nunuma village of Tisse the bush pig darts rapidly around the performance
area, frequently scurrying through great clouds of dust raised by its dance. 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. Keduneh, a Winiama mask with a single
curved horn, which appears in the neighborhood of Naniebo in 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.13

12

Africa, VI: Art forms 3. Mask and masquerade. Grove Art Online Oxford University Press
2007. http://www.groveart.com/shared/views/article.html?
from=search&session_search_id=1053442490&hitnum=3&section=art.000675.7.3.3
13
Roy, Christopher D. The Spread of Mask Styles in the Black Volta Basin. African Arts Vol. 20,
No.4( Aug., 1987), pp. 40-47+89-90 Regents of the University of California ,http://links.jstor.org/sici?
sici=00019933%28198708%2920%3A4%3C40%3ATSOMSI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N

The dancers that participate in these ceremonies do not only freestyle with the masks.
Some masks are ascribed choreographed moves and steps that must be carefully
followed.
The pair of crocodiles from the southern Bwa village of Boni (Fig. 3) dance in unison
in slow, smooth, watery steps. Each of these masks represents characters in the
histories of the clans that own them. These characters are spirits that can assume
human, animal, or monster forms. Each has a role to play; accompanied by music
played on flutes, drums, and balafons, it appears with props and dances in a
performance that is highly structured, with set patterns and a carefully rehearsed
script. Emphasis is on effective impersonation of the character rather than on personal
creativity.14
The visual elements combined with performances not only tell the story within the
masks, but prove that the masks of Burkina Faso contain a wealth of information along
with intriguing tales of their own. At first glance the mask may seem simple but upon
the unraveling of the history and the symbolism of the masks, we see a complex artifact
that holds untold importance for the cultures that they inhabit.

14

Roy, Christopher D. The Spread of Mask Styles in the Black Volta Basin. African Arts Vol. 20,
No.4( Aug., 1987), pp. 40-47+89-90 Regents of the University of California ,http://links.jstor.org/sici?
sici=00019933%28198708%2920%3A4%3C40%3ATSOMSI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-N