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Behind the Mask

/ Art Shots

Emily G. Hanna, Ph.D.
Senior Curator, Arts of Africa and the Americas
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

This spectacular mask, over six feet tall, comes from Burkina Faso, a small land-locked country in West Africa. It was made by Yacouba Bonde, a sculptor who belongs to the Bwa ethnic group. During graduate school, I was privileged to live in several small Bwa villages between the years 1989 and 1991, and wrote my doctoral dissertation on the purpose and meaning of Bwa masquerade, and how the tradition continues to evolve. I came to know Yacouba and his family, and returned to the villages numerous times throughout my teaching and museum career, last visiting in 2004 with my husband Tony Bingham.

Plank Mask (nwententay), late 20th century, Yacouba Bonde, Bwa people, Village of Boni, Burkina Faso, West Africa, wood, natural pigments, Museum purchase with funds provided by Martha Pezrow, 2004.54

Masks such as this – vertical, wooden planks with carved and painted geometric patterns – are the focal point of rituals and ceremonies that mark important community transitions. They embody the community’s relationship with its ancestors, and with divine forces of nature that shape the environment. The Bwa are farmers, and completely dependent on the land to sustain them.

Among the most important mask performances are funerals and memorial ceremonies marking the passing of esteemed elders. Masks appear immediately following the death of an elder, but also at memorial celebrations that take months and sometimes years to plan. Here below are two photographs, one of a plank mask in a solemn procession with male members of the Bonde family, marking the death of the eldest male member of their family. The second image depicts community members and masks paying respects at the deceased man’s house.

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The performance of masks is key to another important community transition – the rite of passage marking the shift from childhood to adulthood. The culmination of initiation (the process of educating people into their community responsibilities) features days of mask performances. These ceremonies occur during the dry season, when people can afford to take time away from their agricultural work. Plank masks, such as the one in the BMA collection, together with animal masks, perform by the dozens, generally first appearing in the late afternoon and dancing late into the night. The masks are owned by large, extended families, and are worn by the initiated men in that family. The graphic patterns are symbols that encode Bwa cultural wisdom and values.

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Sculptors such as Yacouba Bonde make masks for use in their own village communities, but also for family members who are invited to perform at secular, cultural expositions in the capital of Burkina Faso, and occasionally abroad. Like many groups across the globe who continue to practice ancient community traditions, the Bwa face innumerable cultural and economic pressures. Bwa masks are particularly appealing to the western art market, and are often copied by artisans throughout the continent who make a living sculpting decorative copies of African art for sale to the western collectors. Other collectors seek only historic masks that have much evidence of wear and use in the community. All of these market forces have an impact on Bwa society.

In order to support a living artist who continues to make work for his community, the mask in the BMA collection was purchased in 2004 directly from Yacouba Bonde, and was selected by him for the museum. It is currently on view in the African gallery. Yacouba, and his village community of Boni, are proud that his work is in a museum in Birmingham, and that Bwa culture is represented alongside the great art traditions of the world.