African Masks

Many African societies see masks as mediators between the living world and the supernatural world of the dead, ancestors and other entities. Masks became and still become the attribute of a dressed up dancer who gave it life and word at the time of ceremonies.
In producing a mask, a sculptor’s aim is to depict a person’s psychological and moral characteristics, rather than provide a portrait.
The sculptor begins by cutting a piece of wood and leaving it to dry in the sun; if it cracks, it cannot be used for a mask. African sculptors see wood as a complex living material and believe each piece can add its own feature to their work. Having made certain the wood is suitable, the sculptor begins, using an azde to carve the main features, a chisel to work on details and a rough leaf to sand the piece.
He then paints the mask with pigments such as charcoal (to give a black colour), powders made from vegetable matter or trees (for ochre/earth tones) or mineral powders like clay (to give a white colour).
African peoples often symbolize death by the colour white rather than black; at the same time, many African cultures see white as the colour that links them to their ancestors, and it can therefore have a positive meaning.

The second face.

I am not myself.

According to the anthropologist Frank Herreman:
One of the most dramatic manners whereby the contact between humans and the supernatural acquires a visible form is at the moment that spirits under the form of masks appear. According to our understanding, the mask is a means of partially or wholly covering the face or the body to render it unrecognisable, and through which the masker acquires another identity. In large parts of the world the original function – associated with the supernatural – has declined, and masking has evolved into a form of profane recreation coming to the fore only once or at most a few times per year, for example during carnival. In West and Central Africa, the function of a number of masks has remained much closer to its original significance. Consequently, such masks still manifest at crucial moments during the cycle of the seasons, and within the course of an individual’s life cycle as well. The mask wearer in this context is, therefore, a more important person than someone who masks for purely recreational motives. In the African context the mask wearer is always an initiated person whose identity is not made known. He undergoes not only a physical, but also a psychic transformation. He comes under the spell of the spirit that he incarnates, and one believes that he so disposes of the supernatural characteristics of the latter. Since the supernatural stands outside the law of the living, one supposes that the mask acts according to its own whimsy. In these acts, however, sits a structure that is dictated by the priest, the magician, the society, the elders, or other forms of the power structure. They must watch over the observance of religious rules, the common law, and the maintenance of various rituals which must be carried out within the scope of events in life’s cycle. Thus, the masks are important instruments that aid in the consolidation of the position of power of the various authority structures.


The attributions of the origin of the objects shown is based on their stylistic and physical characteristics and/or on the data provided by the seller and/or experts, but of course certainty cannot be reached.

The objects shown variable age, artistic quality, and degree of authenticity.

Some of the pieces are available for exchange for instance, due to an increasing lack of space.

Angola or Zambia or Congo / DRC / formerly Zaire

Bachaukwe / Bachokwe / Badjok / Bajokwe / Bakjokwe / Batshioko / Batsjokwe / Chaukwe / Chokwe / Ciokwe / Cokwe / Djok / Djokwe / Jokwe / Kioko / Kiokue / Quioco / Shioko / Tchokwe / Tschokwe / Tsjokwe / Tshokwe / Tsjaukwe / Tshioko / Tsonge / Tuchokwe / Watschiwokwe  tribe/people

mwanaphwo / mwanapwo / mwanapwevo / mwana phwo / mwana pwo / mwano pwo / pwo / phwo / pwevo / p’wo face masks

This type of mask represents the archetypal, ideal young female beauty.
Most pieces show

  • traditional facial scarification patterns; markings / motifs that represent tattoos,
  • filed teeth,
  • remarkable hair styles.

About the tattoos the following has been written:

  • The cruciform tattoo with triangles on the forehead is known as cingelyengelye.
    Originally, cingelyengelye occurred as a necklace in the form of a cross, cut from tin plate, and worn by the Chokwe as an amulet. During the 17th century, Capuchin monks from the Order of Christ of Portugal had distributed medals in the form of a cross throughout Chokwe country, and this cross was probably the prototype for cingelyengelye.
  • Another type of tattoo is known as cijingo, in combination with a cross. Cijingo denotes a spiral brass bracelet.
  • A tattoo on the forehead and extending to the temples is  known a mitelumuna, or “knitted eyebrows,” an allusion to discontentedness or arrogance.
  • Tattoos under the eyes are known as masoji, signifying tears.

Some masks have white kaolin around the eyes, which may represent the ability to see into spiritual realms.

In some masks including one shown here, the eyes are placed in large, concave sockets.

This type of mask is used to teach newly circumcised boys during their initiation rites/ceremonies and during other important occasions to bring fertility and prosperity to the village.
They were danced with older and wise male counterparts, named Tchihongo.
The rites are very exclusive and they are conducted in a private lodge outside the village. They learn secrets about mask rituals which women are forbidden to know, sex education (including proper ways to relate to women, and skills needed to support a family).
Exactly how this mask is used in the ceremonies is unknown.
It probably represents the woman/mother from which every boy is taken away, a physical and mental separation, as part of the initiation rite. The roles of the boys as children are killed, and they are reborn as men in society, independent from their mothers.
A costume of roots covers the dancer completely.
Attached to the headpiece using strings, is a torso with carved breasts and legs.

Chokwe women typically wore a hairstyle entirely coated with red earth and known as tota.

Many masks of this type have been created, of course at various levels of artistic quality, and can be admired in musea and books.
For instance, a few photos are printed in

Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, Lucien Stephan,
L’art et les grandes civilizations: L’art africain.
Paris : Editions Mazenod, 1988, 620 pp.

An exhibition devoted to the sculpture of Angola was held in Lissabon/Lisboa/Lisbon and in Antwerp/Antwerpen, with the following catalogue:

Marie-Louise Bastin
Sculptuur van Angola.
Lissabon : Instituto Portugues de Musea, Antwerpen : Stad Antwerpen, Ethnografisch Museum; Electa, 1995, 191 pp.

On the WWW site of the National Museum of African Art in Washington, USA, in 2004, we can read the following:
“This mask represents a beautiful young woman adorned with tattoos, earrings and an elaborate coiffure. The original Chokwe name (pwo) referred to an adult woman who had given birth. The more recent name, mwana pwo, probably adopted under European influence, emphasizes youthful, feminine beauty.

Pwo or mwana pwo is one the most popular dancing masks among the Chokwe. Because they follow matrilineal descent, the Chokwe dance pwo to honor the founding female ancestor of the lineage. A male dancer is dressed like a woman in a costume of braided fiber that completely covers his body and hides his identity. He wears a loincloth, carries a fan and moves in slow, precise steps to emulate a woman. When the mask becomes unusable, it is discarded. When a masquerader dies, the mask is buried with the dancer.”

“Chokwe and related peoples:
Bantu-speaking ethnic groups, especially the Chokwe, Lwena, Songo and Ovimbundu, occupying much of Angola and parts of Zaïre and Zambia. These groups are related by origin and history. Their major art forms are wood sculptures, stools and wood and resin masks, though they also produce metalwork, basketwork and ceramics.
According to their oral traditions, these peoples were formed in the beginning of the 17th century as a result of an earlier migration of some Lunda aristocrats and their supporters from the Kalanyi River area of south-east Zaïre. Having conquered the indigenous peoples, the Lunda gradually assimilated with them, adopting many of their customs, while at the same time organizing them into separate tribal areas, each ruled over by a sacred chief. The Lunda conquerors do not seem to have brought with them an important artistic tradition, but the system of chiefs and chiefly courts they established, comprising both lay and religious figures, provided the inspiration and impetus for the development of the pre-existing indigenous sculptural traditions. The courts of the chiefs became the major sources of patronage for the arts.
The Chokwe, Lwena, Songo and Ovimbundu are farmers, hunters and small-scale pastoralists. Their society is matrilineal, with inheritance passing from uncle to uterine nephew. In keeping with the socio-political traditions of the Lunda, the chief’s successor inherits his supernatural power, name and kinship bonds through rites of investiture. The Lunda dynasty of Mwata Yamvo retains pre-eminence by seniority, the chief of the eldest lineage ruling over the Kalanyi River area where the tombs of the ancestors are located.
Everyone among these peoples knows how to work in wood, and many people carve small objects for their own pleasure. There are, however, a number of professional sculptors, trained through a system of apprenticeship, who are held in high regard. They produce a wide variety of such ceremonial and utilitarian objects as statuettes, stools, pipes, snuff-boxes, combs and musical instruments.

Chokwe Masks:
There is a great variety of Chokwe masks. Whether modelled in resin or carved in wood, all Chokwe masks incarnate spirits. They may be divided into three categories.
The first is the Chikungu sacred mask worn by the chief for his investiture and at a ceremony during which he makes propitiatory sacrifices to the dynastic ancestors, seeking their blessings for the well-being of the community. Chikungu’s face is modelled in resin. He wears an impressive winged headdress, similar to that depicted on Chokwe statues.
The second category of masks includes the numerous examples connected exclusively with the Mukanda initiation rite. They are also made of resin. The most important and visually distinct of these masks is Chikunza, the patron of the boys’ camp, who represents a benevolent spirit responsible for fertility and the hunt. Its name refers to the grasshopper, while its tall, conical and ringed helmet refers to the horns of the roan antelope. All these masks draw in their symbolism on aspects of nature. Their role is to govern the different phases of the ritual and to keep the female world at a distance.
The masks in the third category are always used by maskers performing in public in village squares. The two most important, Chihongo and Pwo, were originally made in resin but are now usually carved in wood. Chihongo is the male mask, auspicious for well-being and wealth, and was formerly worn by a chief’s son. It levied a sort of tribute and took part in judicial matters. Pwo, the female mask, evokes the ancestor of the lineage associated with fertility. Representing the feminine ideal, the dancer teaches women graceful manners and refined attitudes and gestures. The sculptor takes great care in making this mask, trying to produce a portrait of a woman whose beauty he admires. He imitates the proportions of her features, her scarification patterns and her hairstyle (e.g. Tervuren, Mus. Royal Afrique Cent.; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Afr. A.). There are no documented examples of Chokwe masks carved before the 20th century.”
(source = Marie-Louise Bastin, in the Grove Dictionary of Art)

“The Mwana Pwo mask is said to bestow fertility upon people who witness its dance. Decorative scarification designs appear on the mask’s forehead, nose, cheeks, and chin, including the cruciform cingelyengyele and the dotted, curvilinear mitelumuna “wrinkles” design.

The costume is a body sheath of netted fiber, fitted with wooden breasts for the male dancer. Carvers often model their Pwo masks on particular young women’s faces. The spiritual representation, however, is an ancestral woman. Pwo perform from village to village. In some areas, the acrobatic dance is performed on a tightrope twenty-five feet high.”
(source = WWW site of the Yale University Art Gallery, 2005)

“Chihongo possède un pendant féminin qui symbolise un idéal de beauté. Pwo, «la femme» et mwana pwo, «la jeune femme», restent activement produits et joués dans toute l’aire chokwe. Contrairement à chihongo, pwo peut être fabriqué et exhibé dans un contexte ouvert touchant davantage de monde. Dansé par des hommes, comme le sont les autres masques, le personnage de pwo mime les tâches féminines de même que l’acte sexuel, suggérant ainsi l’importance de la fécondité et de la perpétuation des membres du groupe. (Dapper, 2010)

Pwo mask with long hair


Bought in Antwerp, Belgium, on an auction of traditional African art.

small Pwo mask

Bought in Antwerp, Belgium, on an auction of traditional African art.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is located at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, with national boundaries drawn by the French during the colonial era.
It is a dry, landlocked country.
It is independent since 1960.
Burkina Faso is one of the most economically impoverished countries in the world.
In terms of cultural traditions and diversity, it is one of the richest places on earth.
Burkina Faso’s population is made up of more than sixty different ethnic groups, including Bwa, Bobo, Kassena, Lela, Lobi, Mossi (Moossi, Mosse), Nuna, Nunama, Tousian/Tousiana/Toussian/Toussiana/Tusia/Tusyan, Turka, and Winiama.
The art of Burkina faso has been described clearly and well structured by
Christopher D. Roy, Professor of Art History, The University of Iowa,
The Art of Burkina Faso,
a text that has been available free of charge through the WWW
However, only few photos are included.

“The peoples of Burkina Faso create a wide range of objects, diverse in form, function, size and scale, and employing many different materials and technologies. Within their original contexts, art works are valued not only for their aesthetic qualities, but also for their functional efficacy. In Burkina Faso, art is not just something to look at, but also serves life-sustaining purposes, vital to the well-being of individuals and the larger society.
When Mossi cavalrymen established their kingdom over the central plateau region of what is now Burkina Faso centuries ago, they subjugated indigenous populations. Even today, within Mossi society, descendants of the cavalrymen known as Nakomse tend to hold political power while descendants of the original population known as Tengabisi tend to hold religious authority.
Masking traditions are associated with the Tengabisi among the Mossi, and with the fiercely independent, politically decentralized peoples to the south and west who were never conquered by the Mossi, including the Bwa, Bobo, Kassena, Lela, Lobi, Nuna, Nunama, Toussian, Turka, and Winiama.
In Burkina Faso as elsewhere in Africa, with few exceptions, only men wear masks. In rural regions, masquerade performances take place on various occasions including for village purification ceremonies, during initiations, at market-day celebrations, and for funerals and harvest festivals. In recent decades, masks also have begun to perform in urban settings at popular new celebrations as at the biennial national mask festival, for national holidays, and at FESPACO, the Pan-African film festival held every other year in Ouagadougou, the capital city.”

Mossi / Moossi people

The Mossi are the largest tribe living in Burkina Faso, with more than 2 million people.
Burkina Faso is the new name of Upper Volta / Haute Volta since 1983.
They live mainly on the central plateau of Burkina Faso.
They cultivate millet and cotton, and rear cattle in the northern savannah regions.

The art of the Mossi tends toward a simplification that is not found among their neighbors.
The blacksmiths-sculptors formed a separate caste and lived in separate quarters; they married exclusively within the caste.

The Mossi are neighbours of the famous Dogon people.
Their art shows many similarities, such as the creation and use of plank masks, that is face masks with a high vertical superstructure.

A chapter is dedicated to the Mossi in
Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat, Lucien Stephan
L’art et les grandes civilizations: L’art africain.
Paris : Editions Mazenod, 1988, 620 pp.

Detailed scholarly information can be found in the text by
Christopher D. Roy, Professor of Art History, The University of Iowa,
The Art of Burkina Faso,
available on the Internet.

“Mossi: Voltaic-speaking, agricultural people, numbering about 2.3 million, living in central Burkina Faso, West Africa. Art-historically best known for their wooden dolls, they also produce masks and crests, wooden and brass figures and a variety of other arts. Examples of Mossi art are held in numerous public collections.
The diversity of Mossi art styles reflects the diverse origins of the Mossi people. Rather than creating art forms in one major ethnic style, which can be illustrated as ‘archetypal’ or ‘textbook’, the Mossi have created three major styles and several substyles, whose geographical distribution mirrors that of the several groups of farmers who were conquered by invaders in about 1500 and amalgamated into a new group called Mossi.
Mossiland is flat and dry, with clay soils and just enough rainfall in the months from May to September to grow millet, sorghum, maize and groundnuts. Traditionally, the Mossi were organized into exogamous, polygynous, patrilocal clans and were politically centralized, with a number of small kingdoms and a system of chiefs owing allegiance to the Mossi emperor in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Each chief controlled a pyramidal, official bureaucracy responsible for the various districts, the military and the royal tombs.
The Mossi kingdoms were founded at the end of the 15th century when several small bands of mounted warriors, perhaps the younger sons of rulers from northern Ghana, rode north into the upper basin of the Volta rivers seeking new lands to occupy and peoples to subjugate. These horsemen, called nakomse, encountered four major groups of farmers: in the south-west they fought and gradually conquered peoples they called ‘Gurunsi’, including the Nuna, Winiama and Lela. In the north, they conquered and either assimilated or drove off the Dogon and the Kurumba. In the east, they conquered large numbers of Gurmantche.
In each area the invaders imposed their language on the defeated groups, but left most of the existing social structure intact. Where there was any pre-existing political authority, the local leader was incorporated in the new Mossi society as the ‘earth priest’, a ritual specialist who, by right of first occupation of the land, held the right to distribute farming land to local families. The original inhabitants retained the power to manipulate the forces of nature, especially lightning and tornadoes, so as to strike their enemies; the descendants of the invaders still fear the magical powers of their subjects. Among the most important social institutions the invaders found in place was the use of masks to represent spirits. The descendants of the conquered peoples, who are now called nyonyose, or ‘the ancient ones’, continue to carve masks that are stylistic survivals of the masks carved before the conquest in 1500.
Masks and masquerades:
The best known Mossi mask style is found in the north-western Mossi kingdom called Yatenga, an area once occupied by the Dogon. Here, the nyonyose who remained behind when the majority of Dogon fled to the Bandiagara cliffs were amalgamated into Mossi society. Their descendants carve masks that are vertically orientated, with a tall, slender plank that rises above the face of the mask and is decorated with red, white and black geometric patterns. The face of the Mossi mask is a concave oval, bisected vertically with a dentate ridge, the face painted white. Dogon masks are concave and rectangular, with a similar vertical ridge. Certain Dogon masks are surmounted by a vertical plank that is similar to the plank on Mossi masks from Yatenga. In addition, there are types, such as the mask surmounted by a female figure, that occur among both groups and are stylistically related.
In other northern areas to the east of Yatenga, groups of Kurumba were conquered and assimilated into Mossi society. The masks of their nyonyose descendants include the same oval, convex face and complex plank that appear on southern Kurumba masks. Geometric patterns are painted roughly, just as they are among the Kurumba who live to the north.
In the south-western Mossi area, in the kingdom of Ouagadougou, ruled by the Mossi emperor from the capital city, the nyonyose are descended from ancient Nuna, Winiama and Lela farmers. These Mossi carve red, white and black animal masks that lack the thin, vertical plank of the northern Mossi styles. These masks appear to represent such animals as the antelope, bush-pig, hawk, hornbill, crocodile and hyena, as well as human characters such as the Fulani woman or albino, or spirits that take no recognizable animal or human forms but which combine the features of many creatures. These masks are related stylistically to the animal and human masks of the contemporary Nuna and Lela who now live to the east of the Mossi. There are certain style traits that serve to distinguish the masks of the south-western Mossi from those of their neighbours. The Nuna and Winiama use patterns of concentric red, white and black circles that do not appear on Mossi masks.
Finally, in the far eastern Mossi area of the kingdom of Boulsa, the Mossi carve masks that consist of a half-cylinder of wood worn vertically, with a thick costume of red or black fibre. These are exceptions to the rule that Mossi masks are survivals of the carving styles of the ancient inhabitants, for in this area the ancient inhabitants never used masks, and the style has entered Mossi country from the south.
The Mossi use masks at burials, funerals and initiations, and at annual year-end ancestral sacrifices. They represent spirits from the wild bush areas surrounding the village, which may appear to humans as animals. Men and women encounter these spirits while hunting or gathering firewood, and spirits that play an important role in the history of the lineage or clan are honoured by being represented by masks. Clan members will not kill or eat the flesh of the animal spirit, for when such an animal dies, a member of the clan will also die.
When masks are not being worn in performances they are placed on ancestral shrines in the kimse roogo, or ancestral spirit house of the family that owns them. Sacrifices may be made on the mask to obtain the blessings of the spirit that the mask represents. Men and women, adults and children alike have access to the masks for sacrifice, although all sacrifices are administered by a man. The spirits protect the family from disease, accident and natural disaster, its crops from insects and drought, its women from infertility, and generally ensure success in life.
Mossi masks appear most frequently at funerals, when masks that belong to the clan of the deceased appear to honour the dead and to participate in the blood sacrifices that free the spirit of the dead to leave the world of the living and travel to the world of the ancestral spirits.”
(source = Christopher D. Roy in the Grove Dictionary of Art)

Facial portion of a wan-zega mask of the Mossi people
living in the Boulsa Region of Burkina Faso


Wood (with traces of white kaolin), fibers and textile.

Bought on an auction of primitive, tribal art by Bernaerts, in Antwerp, Belgium.

Not available.

From the text quoted below and from photos of pieces in museums, we learn

  • that the thin pole on top of the mask is covered with fibers when the mask performs,
  • that from the pole hangs a large, heavy sack of traditional medicine which swings freely when the mask dances

Most of the similar masks published have lost the sack of traditional medicine that is still a part of this particular mask.

A long text with links to some photos entitled
The art of Burkina Faso
is offered through the WWW
by Christopher D. Roy
Professor of Art History, The University of Iowa

The following are quotes from Roy:

C. The Eastern (Boulsa) Style:

The eastern Mossi near Boulsa use masks which are stylistically very distinct from other Mossi masks . The semi-cylindrical facial portion is bisected by a ridge or nose. Parallel slits on each side of the nose permit the performer to see. The mask is painted white with kaolin clay, and has small red surrounds at the eyes. The performer wears a complex, carefully tailored fiber costume. The performer holds a split reed between his teeth and alternately sucks and blows air through it to produce a high or low toned whistling sound. The mask speaks to its assistants, but in a language that only the initiated can understand.

Within the Boulsa style area, three types of masks are used, which differ in both the form of the wooden mask and the construction of the fiber costumes. All three mask types are referred to collectively as gur-wando.
The most common masks are the tall masks, worn by adult men, with red fiber costumes called wan-zega (“red mask”). The visible portion of the mask is about 35 cm. long and 20 cm. wide. It is painted white with red surrounds at the eyes. A tall (ca. 100 cm.), thin pole extends from the top of the mask. The pole is covered with a thick layer of long red fibers, and from it hangs a large, heavy sack of traditional medicine which swings freely when the mask dances. The body of the performer is covered with a close-fitting red costume. Wan-zega carry a long knife and a club in the left hand. However, I never saw a mask actually use either of these weapons. Both of these masks carry long, flexible whips made from the branch of a neem tree. The masks frequently strike out at spectators with these whips (sabaga).

Boulsa-style masks are used by the Nyonyosé in the northeastern corner of Mossi country, in an area that corresponds closely to the traditional Mossi state of Boulsa, except in the southwest, where it extends into the traditional state of Boussouma, around the towns of Boussouma and Korsimoro. The southern limit seems to be the swampy, low area near Nyégha, 20 km. south of Boulsa. South of this area, in the kingdoms of Koupéla and Tenkodogo, the Mossi (i.e. the Nyonyosé) do not use masks. To the north is the Sahel, inhabited by the Fulani, and to the east are the Gurmantché, who do not use masks of wood. A few masks of this style are sometimes seen in the area south of Ouagadougou, near Manga and Saponé. Here, however, they are scattered, less numerous than animal masks. The fact that there are no apparent connections between these areas leaves unresolved the question of the origins of the style.

Function of Mossi Masks:
Masks play a fundamental role because they are the reincarnation of the animal totem, the spirits of the important dead elders, and of the collective spirits of the ancestors of the clan.
In the south west (Ouagadougou style) and in the north (styles of Yatenga, Risiam and Kaya), each male head of a Tengabisi lineage may own a mask, in the form of the clan’s totemic animal, on which he and his family may make sacrifices to the spirits of the ancestors. These personal or lineage masks are kept in the spirit house of the lineage or in the owner’s own house. The oldest mask is referred to as the wan-kasenga, or “big mask”, the chief mask at all funerals and year-end sacrifices. The remaining masks of the clan, almost identical in form to the senior mask, are referred to collectively as wan-liuli, or “bird masks”. This does not mean that these masks represent birds in form, but refers to their function at funerals and other mask appearances as agents for crowd control. In the east (Boulsa) this function is performed by the large, red wan-zega. The major masks of each clan appear much less frequently than do the other, less important masks. Wan-kasenga rarely travel to other villages to appear at the funerals of clan members who have moved away from the primary clan residence.
Masks appear at burials, and at funerals of clan elders. They protect and aid the members of the clan, and they protect the harvest of wild-growing fruits. Finally, they are portable altars on which the blood of animals may be offered as sacrifices to the ancestors of the clan.

Because masks are owned by lineages and clans, all of the members of these clans have access to the masks for purposes of sacrifice to the ancestors during funeral rites. Young and old, male and female alike participate in mask appearances. It is quite normal to see women dance alongside and embrace the masks. In contrast to the other areas, in the Boulsa region women and children are excluded from mask performances, and young boys who dare to attempt to watch are chased and whipped by the masks.  

Protection of the Clan:
Totemic masks also serve as direct lines of communication to the ancestors of the clan to which they belong. The mask, stripped of its costume, which is stored separately, becomes the personal ancestral altar of the owner and his lineage. Sacrifices are made directly on the mask, seeking the aid of the lineage ancestors in providing many healthy children, good wives, abundant rainfall, good crops, and success in any endeavor to be undertaken by the supplicant.

Some masks, in some areas, perform for secular celebrations. For example, in the Boulsa region, the tall, red guard masks occasionally appear at secular festivals, such as the National Independence Day or at rituals in honor of the political chief, but on these occasions the more important masks remain behind in the clan spirit house.
It is important to understand that secret mask societies do not exist in Burkina Faso. Some authors have described secret societies among the Mossi, based on Tauxier’s or Lucien Marc’s descriptions of “mysterious brotherhoods”, and “secret languages”. Mask performers are always men who have been initiated into the knowledge of masks’ meanings and origins, and in the Boulsa area, women are excluded from performances. But elsewhere family members have access to masks by right of birth into certain families. There is nothing to imply a relationship between masks and secret societies, such as a “wango society”. In fact, all rites are open to members of the families who own the masks.”
end of quotation

Photos by Christopher D. Roy:


“This type belongs to the group of ‘Gur-Wando’ masks, they are used for funeral ceremonies of earth-priests and are danced by adult men; they do represent an aggressive male character and have a function as guardian and police in contrast to the ‘Wan-Sablaga’ masks who represent a more reserved female type.”
(source = Tribal Art Auctioneers Zemanek-Münster, 2005

Mask representing the head of a duck / canard

Bought from a collection of African art in Brussels, who received this mask from a student from Burkina Faso.

Totem mask

Bought on an auction of African art in Antwerpen, Belgium.

Toussian / Tousian / Toussiana / Tusia / Tusian / Tussian / Tusya / Tusyan tribe

Loniake / Loniaken / Ionake / Sira kono / Mpie mask

Bought on an auction of tribal art in Antwerp, Belgium.

Not available.

The Toussian are a small group living in the Southwestern part of Burkina Faso (formerly called Haute-Volta).
They form a smaller people than their neighbours, the more famous Senoufo/Senufo.
This type of mask was used in initiation ceremonies.
The masks were made by blacksmiths.
They were made of one, more or less square piece of hardwood, very two-dimensional, named Loniake. Two diagonals are indicated with incrusted red (abrus?) seeds.
On top comes the head of a big bird (the Calao) or horns, that symbolize the spirit of the clan / totem of the initiated boy.

A mask of this type is shown and described on pp. 76-77 in
Werner Schmalenbach (Editor)
African Art from the Barbier-Mueller Collection, Geneva.
Munich : Prestel, 1988.

A mask of this type is shown on p. 72 in
Douglas Newton,
Sculpture: chefs-d’oeuvre de Musee Barbier-Mueller.
Geneva : Musee Barbier-Mueller, 1995, ISBN 2-7433-0076-0.
There is explained that the masks are locally named Sira kono or Mpie. When they were not worn, the masks were sometimes suspended outside of the house, so that everyone can admire them.

A photo of the masks in the field plus the mask of the Musee Barbier-Mueller are also shown on p. 93 in
B. Geoffroy-Schneiter
Primal Arts: Africa, Oceania and the Southeast Asian Islands.
New York : Thames & Hudson, 2000; original edition Assouline, 1999.

Detailed scholarly information can be found in the chapter on the Tusya in the following book
Roy, Christopher
Traduction et adaptation en Français F. Chaffin
Art of the Upper Volta rivers
384 pp.
325 ills & 16 col. plts.
Cloth, d/j.
Text in English and French

P. 363 shows a similar mask.

Similar texts are available as
The Art of Burkina Faso, by Christopher D. Roy, Professor of Art History, The University of Iowa, available on the Internet and cited in 2003 in the following:

The Tusyâ People:

The Tusyâ are a small group of about 22,000 that lives in the extreme southwestern area of Burkina Faso between Orodara and Banfora. They are surrounded by the Sembla and Bobo who live to the northeast, the Karaboro and Tyefo (Senufo peoples) to the southeast, the Turka and Syemu to the west, and the Senufo to the north. The Syemu are closely related to the Tusyâ, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them.

Their major town is Toussiana on the road from Bobo-Dioulasso to Banfora. Other large villages are Kurignon, Tapoko, and Tagalédougou. About half of the population of the town of Orodara, in Syemu country, is Tusyâ.

Like most of the peoples in Burkina Faso, the Tusyâ are heterogeneous, with numerous variations in cultural characteristics despite their small population. The northern Tusyâ are the oldest inhabitants of the area, and call themselves Tento. The southern Tusyâ, near the large town of Toussiana, call themselves Win. However, the Jula name Tusyâ (people of Toussiana) is used widely. To avoid confusion between Win and Winiama, I will use the more widely-published Tusyâ.

The Tusyâ are closely related to the Senufo, and they speak winwen, a Voltaic language very similar to their Voltaic neighbors. Their villages, kinship patterns, political systems and religious beliefs are similar to those of the Senufo-related peoples who are their neighbors to the west.

The Tusyâ produce masks and crests or helmets of wood that are well represented in public and private collections. They also cast small brass figures that are very similar to Senufo brasses.


Tusyâ masks, called loniakê, are very two-dimensional, rectangular plaques of wood with a bird head projecting from the center of the upper rim, and a broad triangle projecting downward from the lower rim. Small, round eye holes are carved close together high on the face and are surrounded by wax into which red seeds are set. A similar cross of seeds divides the face diagonally into quarters. The sides and lower edge are pierced with holes for attaching a fiber fringe. Some examples bear mirrors on the face that form large eyes. The mask is surmounted by an animal head or horns, which symbolize the totem of the clan.


Masks are worn during initiations.


The initiations were held only once a generation, and contact with European culture has made them even more infrequent. The last performance in which masks were used took place in April, 1933 “just before the tracks of the Abidjan-Bobo-Dioulaso railway reached Bobo” (elder informants in Toussiana and Jean Hébert, Du marriage toussian. Notes et documents de l’I.F.A.N. 23, nos. 3-4. pp. 697-731, 1961: 717). The masks are carved by a blacksmith during the initiation period, and each initiate is then allowed to keep his personal mask.

Initiation has been held in two major steps: every young man and woman is initiated at the lowest level in ceremonies held every two years. Those who are not initiated may not marry. During the initiation each boy receives an initiatory name that is never used in the village and is kept secret from women and children. In order of importance these names include the heron (most important), song bird, hare, stork, partridge, kingfisher, panther, cat, monkey, bush pig, bush buffalo, and elephant (the last and most junior level). The name the young man receives may be represented by the crest that surmounts his mask. Young women are not given masks. The young men are instructed in their roles as adults in village society, and are given religious training.

The most senior initiation was held every forty years, and is marked by dances in the bush in which each initiate wears a mask that represents his family’s protective animal spirit, indicated by the crest that projects from the top of the mask. The initiates go through the training and perform in the final dances naked. No costume except the short fringe on the mask is worn during the performance.

end of quotation

Loniake masks have probably inspired the famous surrealist artist Max Ernst (1891-1976) in the creation of for instance his sculpture The King playing with the Queen.

The mask shown here corresponds better to the description of Loniake masks by Prof. Roy than the masks made far away from the original region for the tourist market.

A similar mask that is part of the collection [accessed 2006].


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