43 " TALL X 10" ACROSS THE CULTURES THAT INHABIT THE DRY SAVANNA OF BURKINA FARSO, THE BOBO,
THE BWA, THE GURUNSI AND THEIR RELATED TRIBES, HAVE ALL OVER THE CENTURIES DEVELOPED RITUALS THAT REVOLVE AROUND MASK THAT ARE ESSENTIALLY USED TO INVOKE THE VARIOUS ANCESTORS TO PROTECT AND PROVIDE, IN THE PROVISION BEING MAINLY RAIN AND ITS CELEBRATION MARKING THE NEW GROWING SEASON. IN THIS TRADITION, CONFUSION HAS ALWAYS REIGNED OVER THE ATTRIBUTION OF MASKS BELONGING TO A BROAD CATEGORY FROM THESE GROUPS. OF THE THREE BROAD
CATEGORIES OF THESE MASK AS DESCRIBED IN :"TRADITIONAL SCULPTURE FROM UPPER VOLTA" (AFRICAN AMERICAN INSTITUTE, 1978)
THE SECOND CATEGORY MAY BE DESCRIBED AS THE "'PLANK' MASKS BECAUSE OF
THE VERTICAL SUPERSTRUCTURE MOUNTED ON A FLAT DISC LIKE OR ANIMAL FORM HEAD....THE 'PLANKS' ARE DECORATED WITH CIRCLES, TRIANGLES, ZIG-ZAGS AND CHECKERBOARDS AND MAY BE ADORNED WITH ADDITIONAL THREE DIMENSIONAL HUMAN FIGURES OR BEAK LIKE PROTRUSIONS".
The Bwa historically has been under constant attack by outsiders who tried to take advantage of their independently organised villages. In this way the Bwa lands in Mali were occupied by the Bamana empire (Segou) when they came to power. The invaders forced taxation upon the Bwa and raided the unconquered areas. However the Bamana empire declined in the 19th century but was immediately replaced by the Muslim Fulani from the north. The Fulani also carried out raids into Bwa territory destroying their crops and villages, capturing slaves, rustling the animals and women and press-ganging men into their armies. By 1887 the French had arrived and they co-opted the Fulani to become mercenaries on behalf of the French. Then in 1915 the Bwa rose up in revolt against the French and their demands for military recruits. The French responded by destroying all the offending Bwa villages. They are famous for their impressive wooden plank masks, which are found in the southern villages. Sculptures representing divination and fertility are also produced.
Wooden masks are found only among the Bwa in the south. The southern Bwa are called nyanegay , or "scarred Bwa" because their face and torsos are heavily scarred by patterns applied during initiation. Such masks represent nature spirits that family elders encountered in the wilderness and which watch over their families. The patterns on the masks represent the moral code that the followers of these spirits must obey if they are to receive the blessings of the spirit. The eyes set off by concentric circles are intended to recall an owl, and the hooked shape extending from its forehead alludes to the hornbill. The mask is worn in front of the face. The dancer looks through the open hole of the mouth. These masks are thought to be inhabited by supernatural forces, which act to benefit the clan, that possess them. The masks are used in initiation of age-grades, at market day entertainment dances, at funerals, and at renewals of the annual ritual cycle. Tall plank masks such as this one, called Nwantantay, represent flying spirits from the bush. These spirits have no natural shape and hence are portrayed in abstract geometric form. The spirits embodied in the masks bless the families that own the mask and dance it in public. The patterns on the mask have meanings known only to initiates: the large Xs refer to the sacrification marks on the foreheads of initiated men; the checkerboard pattern represents the separation between good and evil, wise from stupid, male from female; the large white crescent on top of the plank denotes the "moon of the masks" that shines during the seasons when the masks perform. These tall headdresses transformed the dancer into a supernatural being. They were used by the Do society at dances to promote fertility of the fields and at funerals of Do members. The geometric designs all have meanings. The checkerboard pattern symbolizes the separation of light from dark, good from evil, and female from male.