|Bwa Butterfly mask
Bwa wooden masks represent a number of characters in the myths of their families and clans. Masks represent numerous animals including the
antelope, bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile, and fish of several types. The serpent, and insects including the
butterfly appear, as do birds including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the leper, and the crazy man and his wife.
Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms.
The bird masks and butterflies are the most abstract, consisting of a broad, horizontal plank, decorated with large concentric patterns. The mouth
projects from the center and there is a large hook representing the hawk's beak or circles representing the patterns on the butterfly's wings. The
butterfly mask are decorated with concentric circles, while the hawk mask has a plain white surface.
Butterfly masks, called yehoti in Boni, have eight enormous target patterns spread across their wings. In Pâ, just east of Boni, the elders of the Lamien
clan (especially Lamien Nikiebé, mask chief) named the following masks that participated in a harvest festival on March 21, 1984: the hyena is inaburu,
bird-icayn, serpent-honu (doho in Boni), monkey-haru, buffalo-lalo, "koba" antelope-kâ, plank with many hooks-bayiri, fish-basi, and plank-kano.
The butterfly mask had broad wings covered with eight enormous target patterns to represent the colored markings on the butterflies' wings. The hawk
mask has plain white wings, without decoration. The hawk masks' performance consists of rapidly rotating the mask vertically around the performer's
face, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. The butterfly, which is much larger and heavier, simply rotates rapidly in place horizontally. Butterflies are
symbols of new life brought by moisture in the spring, for they hatch and cluster around pools left by the first rains of the year.
References: The Art of Burkina Faso By Christopher D. Roy
(Additional information on hawk masks further down the page)
For a long time I had this mask listed as a "hawk mask" in error. I had previously had a hawk mask in my collection that I sold when I bought the mask
below. When I put this mask on my website, I mistakenly used the same information as I had from the hawk mask, but my new mask was a butterfly
mask. I hate if I caused any confusion, but I have now corrected my error and this page contains information about both types of masks.
|Bwa butterfly mask
This object is currently in the exhibition: "Native Arts of the World...At Home in Colorado - The Douglas Society Collects"
8 feet long (96 inches or 244 cm)
|The photo above was taken by PNTA Event Services in Seattle at the Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo.
Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo’s 30th Annual Jungle Party in July of 2006 was themed 'Africa ~ Unmask the Mystery'.
The event coordinator for the party contacted me because they wanted to use an image of my Bwa butterfly mask over one of the
entrances to the main tent. The image of my mask above is actually a photograph of my mask that was blown up and placed on
cork board (or something similar). They flanked the entrance with images of other Bwa masks as well but I was told that the whole
design changed at the last minute and they didn't end up using the setup as pictured above. It was still nice to see my mask in a
setting like this.
My mask is now currently on display in the exhibition
"Native arts of the World...At Home in Colorado - The Douglas Society Collects"
in Denver which runs from August 25th to October 27th
|Photo below of a Bwa butterfly mask in use
|Bwa masks, village of Boni. The butterfly mask.
Picture from: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/Burkina_mask_catalogue/index.htm
|Bwa hawk masks
Large wooden masks danced by the Bwa represent protective spirits carved in animal
forms, like the hawk. The hawk's wings use geometric patterns which refer to moral
principles,and the diagonal zigzag lines signify the "path of the ancestors," a difficult moral
path which villagers must follow if they are to succeed in life. The checkerboard pattern
(which is represented on the back of the mask) is a play on opposites: ignorance and
knowledge, dark and light. The mask venerates the spirit of the hawk in order to obtain
protection and blessings, a graphic example of the animist beliefs still practiced in Burkina,
despite the growing Muslim population. The dancer imitates the animated movements of a
hawk in flight, rotating the mask around his face and swooping his body from side to side in
a vigorous dance, accompanied by the beating of drums.
I currently do not have a Bwa hawk mask in my collection
examples below are for reference purposes.
|Mask, 19th–20th century
Bwa peoples; Burkina Faso
Wood, pigment, fiber
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.196)
Bwa masquerades draw upon the stylized features of humans, animals, and even insects. This mask is called duho, which
means hawk (or sometimes duba, meaning vulture). The wings of the primarily two-dimensional hawk mask are usually simply
decorated with white paint. The face of the hawk has been reduced to basic geometric forms. An inverted triangle defines the
"face" and contains a protuberant, conical mouth and two sets of concentric circles for eyes. The outwardly projecting beak
and the hook at the top of the face are two of the few elements that serve as a contrast to the overall planar nature of this
nature spirit representation. Bold geometric shapes repeated in brightly painted designs are often added to enliven the
surfaces of these relatively abstract forms. Bwa nature spirit masks are particularly impressive due to their commanding size
and shape. This hawk mask's horizontal span extends nearly five feet wide; the wingspan of a related representation of the
butterfly (yehoti) may be up to six or seven feet. Despite their daunting scale, these face masks are indeed worn by a
performer, who bites on a thick fiber rope that passes through holes in the mask to secure it to his face. The mask is also
attached to a fiber costume that covers the head and body of the performer. The choreography of the performance is
derived from the movements and behavior of a hawk or vulture.
In Bwa society, the identity and continued well-being of a family are often tied to a nature spirit. The origin of this association
may be a dream or even an encounter with a spirit who materializes in animal form. Upon consulting a priest, a family may
commission a sculpture to embody that nature spirit. The masks appear at important funerals to honor the dead and escort
their soul to the world beyond. They also dance at agricultural festivities to ensure the proper progression of the seasons,
and at initiation rituals to help introduce young men and women to the secrets and responsibilities of adulthood. The masks
are the object of family pride and are also an unofficial means of representing its prosperity and influence. Rival families will
compete to assemble the most innovative and spectacular performances. Consequently, families will commission the carving
of a multitude of masks—as many as nine different masks may represent an individual extended family. The elaborate
decorations, the impressive size and design of the mask, as well as dynamic choreography all add to the grandeur and
prestige of the event.
Many traditional African religions have suffered in the twentieth century due to profound social changes resulting from
colonialism, urbanization, and the spread of Islam. In spite of such developments, the majority of the Bwa have retained a
core of religious and related artistic traditions that feature masks such as duho. Bwa religious life centers on the mythical
figure of Do, an intermediary between the Bwa people and the Creator (Difini or Dobweni). Do represents the wild,
uncultivated bush and its life-giving force, hence the emphasis on masks inspired by nature spirits such as the hawk,
butterfly, or snake among others.
Photograph I took in May 2005 of some Bwa objects in the display at the Metropolitan Museum of New York
|Bwa hawk masquerader
|Pictures below from: http://www.uiowa.edu/~africart/Burkina_mask_catalogue/index.htm
|Bwa people, village of Boni.
Procession of Gnoumou family masks
into the village.
|Bwa masks in the village on Boni,
Gnoumou family. A serpent mask with
five plank masks.
|Wooden Bwa masks function in many of the same ways masks function among the Nunuma and Winiama.
They play an important role in initiations of young men and women, appear at burials and later at a memorial
services. Masks appear at annual renewal ceremonies. Masks appear at many other events during the dry
season, including the introduction of newly carved masks and market day dances. Celebrations, funerals, and
initiations are organized by individual clans, and rather than unifying the members of a village community, they
are actually divisive, for clans compete to give the most elaborate and innovative performances. Bwa hawk
In contrast to almost every initiation that has been described in West Africa, the elders of Dossi state that
young men and women are initiated together, in the nude, in a grove of trees just southwest of the hills that
surround the village. The bush portion of the initiation lasts fifteen days, when the young men and women of
the clan learn the secrets of the masks, the Bwa "X" is applied to their foreheads, the boys are circumcised,
and the girls are excised.
In addition to these physical tests, the young men practice wearing the masks, the young women learn the
songs that accompany mask performances, most of which mock the leaf masks of the other clans in Dossi.
The initiates learn the meanings of the geometric signs that cover the masks, explained by elders, who use the
masks themselves as models, and who also use rectangular boards on which the same signs have been
painted. Initially, each of the signs is explained independently of other signs, using didactic boards. Then the
meanings of the assembled signs on specific plank masks are explained. Here, as among the gurunsi, the
combination of signs communicates a moral or historical lesson that is an essential part of the initiation. These
lessons describe the virtues of the ideal, respected member of the community, and the dangers of straying
from the path of social behavior marked out by the ancestors. They also illustrate the myths of the founding of
the clans. The meaning of each sign can vary depending on the age and level of understanding of the initiate,
for only the oldest understand the most profound meanings of the signs. Meaning also can vary with context,
with a single sign given different meanings on two different masks. As a result, these do not qualify as
elements of a universal language whose meaning should not vary with context, but they are didactic symbols in
an esoteric language open to several interpretations depending on need.
The most important of the "scars" is the cross, called bidaywhê, that appears on the plank masks and on the
foreheads of the Bwa who use masks (Mihin Seouyan, Bagassi, March 19, 1985), and must be cut deeply
enough that it cuts the bones of the skull so that the deceased will be recognized by the ancestors when he
arrives in the afterworld (Didiro Leoho, blacksmith neighborhood, Houndé, April 17, 1985).
A final sacrifice named zefwazunugu is performed by the elders and young initiates before they return to the
village the first time following initiation.
During a funeral organized by the Bondé clan in Boni at the end of March, 1985, the passing of several male
and female elders to the world of ancestors was celebrated. Numerous sacrifices were carried out during the
four days of the celebration to insure the spirits of the deceased a safe journey to the land of ancestral spirits.
The wooden masks of the clan walked, in turn, to the home of each of the dead elders, where a display had
been erected of the clothes and tools of the dead person. Offerings of cowrie shells were given to the grieving
family by mask attendants. Early in the afternoon, two leaf masks from the lineage of a deceased woman from
another village who had married into the Bondé clan performed to honor her passing. Because the Bwa are
exogamous and patrilocal, the woman had left her father's home, where leaf masks are used, at marriage.
These masks danced as members of the clan sang songs of mourning and lament. After the leaf masks had
returned over the Boni hills to their own community, several plank masks, a hawk mask, two monkeys, and
masks representing the "crazy man and his wife" danced in turn, each with its own characteristic dance steps,
music, and songs.
Near the performance area, in the Bondé neighborhood, the elderly women, wives and sisters of the
deceased, mourned, singing laments as tears streamed down their faces.
The Bwa in the large town of Dedougou also use wooden masks in a style that is very different from the style
used farther south.
The plank masks appeared early in the funeral dance. Each performer hopped from foot to foot, kicking the
free foot twice in the air forward and back. After a dozen steps, the performer halted, planting his feet firmly,
and grasped the short handle that projects downward from the oval face of the mask. Twisting his neck and
torso as far to the right as possible, he suddenly rotated his body in the opposite direction in a neck-snapping
twist that made the tall, broad plank rotate on its vertical axis 360_oØ to the left and then quickly back again.
This was repeated two or three times, often with such force that the performer staggered with the momentum of
the great mask. Immediately following each masks' performance the elders in the audience, especially the
women who are relatives of the performer, rushed into the dance area and raised the performer's hands above
his head in a gesture of praise for the skill of his dance.
Harvest celebrations are held in November and December, after the crops have been gathered. Their function
is generally to thank the spirits and the ancestors for watching over the village and providing good harvests.
For this reason, spirits associated with fertility, including the serpent, and the plank mask with numerous
hooks, named bayiri, participate in harvest celebrations. Harvest celebration in Pa
I attended a harvest celebration in Pâ in March, 1984 at which nine masks appeared, including a great
serpent, which twisted his head from side to side so rapidly that his long, flexible body appeared to undulate.
When I asked the elders of the Lamien family why they were celebrating the harvest in late March, they said
that they had just received their cotton checks from the textile mill in Koudougou. They were celebrating the
harvest of the major Bwa cash crop.
Mask consecration in Boni During a mask consecration by the Bondé clan in Boni in March, 1983, nine
newly-carved masks were introduced to the community. The ceremony began when the masks emerged from
the mask storehouse, in which stands the altar that embodies the spiritual power of the masks, the Bwa
equivalent to the Nuna altar to Su. Each performer received a smear of magical medicine on his left foot to
prevent accidents during the performance and to prevent wounds from sharp stones. Two planks, two
antelopes, two bush-buffaloes, a butterfly and a hawk, and a luruya dwarf plank then paraded to the homes of
each of the lineage elders of the Bondé clan to be introduced, to pay their respects to the elders, and to
receive offerings. These masks had been carved the year before to replace masks that had been broken,
stolen, or sold on the antiquities market. Late in the morning the masks returned to the mask house, and each
backed into the house to strip the costume. Costumes and masks were placed in the sun on the roof of the
house to dry while the participants awaited the afternoon performance. After several hours when everyone in
the community consumed large quantities of millet beer, the masks again emerged just before dusk, when the
air was beginning to cool. Plank mask in front of old house, Boni Each danced in turn, ending with the antelope
and bush-buffalo pair. These masks' performance consists of a rapid tossing of the head up and down so that
the mask almost touches the ground in front of the performer, and the tips of the horns almost touch his back,
as the performer steadies himself with two wooden canes held in his hands to represent the animal's forelegs.
The antelopes danced first, and then the larger buffalo. As the beat of the drums and flutes increased, the
buffalo saluted the assembled elders, raising his arms above his head. He then walked through the audience
to a field about fifty yards away and danced to the sound of the distant drums. As he completed his
performance, dropping to his knees, the audience roared with laughter, and I asked an elder why the buffalo
had performed in a field where no one could watch. The response was; "you know, buffaloes are very stupid."
Market Day Dances:
On market days, performances are organized to entertain the villagers and traveling merchants, and to permit
young men to meet young women they might marry. Monkey mask at market day dance
At a market day dance in Dossi, in March, 1985 sixteen masks appeared, including a butterfly and a hawk. The
butterfly mask had broad wings covered with eight enormous target patterns to represent the colored markings
on the butterflies' wings . The hawk mask, here and in Boni, has plain white wings, without decoration. The
hawk masks' performance consists of rapidly rotating the mask vertically around the performer's face, first
clockwise, then counterclockwise. The butterfly, which is much larger and heavier, simply rotates rapidly in
place horizontally. Butterflies are symbols of new life brought by moisture in the spring, for they hatch and
cluster around pools left by the first rains of the year.A new mask in the community was Mamy Wata, imported
recently from southern Nigeria.
Whether the dances are sacred or secular, there is a great deal of competition between southern Bwa clans
that use wooden nwamba to produce more elaborate and spectacular performances than neighboring villages.
When the young men of one village attend a performance nearby and see a mask type that they admire, they
may purchase permission to use the type in their own village. They may purchase the new mask from the
original carver, or commission it from an artist in their own village. An artist in Boni may omit an important detail
in a mask intended for use in Pâ, so that the young men of Boni can claim to have superior masks. An artist in
Pâ may carve a longer, more impressive copy of the Dossi serpent mask so that the young men of Pâ can
claim to have the more impressive serpent, and thereby attract more marriageable young women to their
market day performances. When a clan acquires a new mask type from their neighbors, they may consult a
diviner who retroactively incorporates the new spirit into the myths of the history of the clan. As a result, the
oral history of the clan remains creative and vital.
Meaning of Wooden Masks:
When a mask is commissioned by the elders of a clan, the patterns that are to be carved in low relief are
described carefully to the artist. The combination of the motifs gives the mask its initiatory name, as among the
Nunuma and Winiama. During public performances the initiatory name is not used to address the mask, but
rather a public name is used that is chosen by the owner. The Bwa in Boni have recently begun to carve these
popular names into the back of each plank mask. In many cases, masks have been marred by the addition of
this name to the back of the plank. Among the most interesting is "Mami-Wata"(a goddess of well-being,
fertility, and wealth imported from India through southern Nigeria), suggested by a young Bwa man who worked
for several months on an oil-drilling rig in the Niger River Delta, and was expelled from Nigeria in 1983. It is
important to understand that these plank masks are not representational; they are not intended to look like any
natural being, but they embody supernatural forces that act on behalf of the Bwa clans that own the masks.
As these symbols are taught to the initiates, each has a specific meaning associated with the oral history of the
clan. Each has an individual meaning, a second meaning in association with other patterns, and a meaning
that varies with the level of knowledge of the initiate. The meanings that I give here are only intended as
examples, and reflect my own superficial understanding.
Small black triangles, carved on the plank of the mask, may represent the hoof prints of the "koba" antelope,
the male number three, or the iron bull-roarers that represent Do. A white zigzag line that crosses the plank
horizontally is the path taken by the ancestors to the sacred grove in which sacrifices are offered to the
magical spirit of the masks. A zigzag may also represent the path of proper or improper behavior in village
society. A white semicircle on the upper half of the face of the mask represents the field in which the initiates
first dance with the masks following their initiation. Two target motifs near the center of the plank represent the
sacred wells in Boni that were discovered by the ancestors when they first arrived in the area, and which never
go dry. The mouth of the mask may also represent the sacred wells, whose water may only be used by the
mask clans in the village. On the round facial area of the mask these targets represent the eyes of an owl, a
bird that is a symbol of magical power. A black and white chevron pattern, either vertical or horizontal,
represents the skeleton of the sacred Bwa serpent that lives in remote, high mountainous areas. A broad black
"V" or chevron represents the sacrifice ending the initiation. The checkerboard of black and white rectangles
represent the black and white hides that initiates sit on. The worn, sooty black hide mats are used by the
knowledgeable elders as they sit watching mask rituals, and the white rectangles represent the fresh, new
light-colored hides that their more junior and less wise assistants sit on. The black and white rectangles
represent the separation of knowledge and ignorance, the initiated and the uninitiated. The large white
crescent that surmounts the masks represents the "moon of masks" that shines during the season that the
masks perform. A dark, narrow border to the opening of the crescent is a symbol for the dark of the moon. The
three triangles that radiate downward from the round mouth of the mask represent the leaves of the Kenaf
(mpapunu in Bwamu), that is used to fabricate the masks' costume. Placed on the round face of the mask,
these may also represent the tears that fall to mourn the death of an elder. There are numerous
interpretations of the meaning of the prominent hook that projects from the face of the mask. Elder Kambi clan
informants in Dossi who I feel are dependable stated that this hook represents the circumcised penis of the
initiated Bwa adolescent. Alternatively, Bwa smith informants in Ouri told me that the hook represents the beak
of a hornbill which is a magical bird closely associated with divination. Again, meaning vary from family to
family, from village to village, and from one level of initiation to another.
|Rand African Art
|This object is currently in the exhibition: "Native Arts of the World...At Home in Colorado - The Douglas Society Collects"