Bwa plank mask, Burkina Faso

, 20th century

Wood, pigments

89 x 14 3/4 x 9 in. (208 x 40 x 25 cm)


About this object

This large plank mask has a flat circular face surmounted by a vertical plank with a crescent-shape at the top. The black band that bisects the face emphasizes the circular eyes, which are outlined in red and white, and enhance the powerful presence of the mask. The zig-zag parallel lines on the plank are said to represent the path of the ancestors, which is discussed in greater detail below. The hook-shaped nose is associated with the hornbill, while the eyes represent an owl. Both birds are believed to have magical powers. The back of the mask is covered with a black and white checkerboard pattern seen throughout the area; its significance to the Bwa is also explained below.

This plank mask is just one of many types of masks found among the Bwa people of central Burkina Faso and Mali. The Bwa, who are mostly farmers, have a lively and innovative art tradition and constantly borrow from their neighbors, adapting different influences and styles. In the past, they stole masks from a neighboring group and adopted them as their own in the hope of developing greater control over the spirit world.

In the photo below, a Catholic church in a Bwa village has a plank mask attached to the front of the building, with the face element as the door, and the plank as its steeple, with a crucifix at the very top, rather than the more common crescent. People’s practices are equally syncretistic – they go to church on Sunday and honor nature spirits during the week.

The Bwa are known for the diversity of their masks. They make masks of leaves to represent nature and also many types of wooden masks that represent protective nature and ancestor spirits; there are also masks to represent the spirits in the bush. Some masks are realistic and are easily identifiable as antelopes, buffaloes, monkeys, crocodiles, fish and birds, etc. There are also masks of local human characters.

According to Christopher Roy, the zigzag parallel lines found on the Bet-bi mask, called "the path of the ancestors," are a visual reminder for spectators to obey the rules of the ancestors. Since a person may have a hard time knowing the right course of action, the lines are broken. Following the rules of correct behavior demonstrates respect for the ancestors and, in return, the ancestors will provide protection and intervene with the nature spirits on behalf of their followers. This same pattern of lines is found on masks throughout the Voltaic region and is also seen on cave walls in the famous Dogon cliffs. Until recently, the Bwa practiced facial scarification and people were incised with these same marks. To show how close the identification is between the masks and the Bwa people, the marks on the masks are called "scars."

Christopher Roy provides a fascinating explanation for the black and white checkerboard pattern on the Bwa mask, which is taught to young men and women during their initiation rites. The black and white juxtaposition of colors represents the separation of knowledge and ignorance: The black rectangles represent the sacred goat hides that elders sit upon during performances. These black hides are appropriate for the elderly because the hides, which have been stored in the rafters of kitchens for decades, absorb the soot and smoke, in the same way that the old men have absorbed knowledge over the years. The white rectangles are for young people who have not yet been colored and enriched by life.

According to Roy, the patterns on masks are a "system of signs" that can be read by the Bwa and they communicate information about the rules that all followers of the specific spirit embodied by the mask should live by. He says that every design has its own meaning; it also has a meaning that depends on its proximity to other patterns, and a meaning that varies with the person’s knowledge and, therefore, his ability to interpret the design’s most profound message. Extended families have their own sets of masks and may own as many as 10. They are usually the property of the family head, who cares for the masks and is said to have a special link to them. At his death, some masks are made into a shrine for his spirit. As noted above, the masked performances may be about encounters between family ancestors and their protective spirits but they are used on other occasions, too. At  funerals, the spirits in the mask honor the dead and escort the deceased to the next world. During initiation rites, the masks are brought out to teach young men and women the values of the Bwa people; they can also be used to ensure bountiful harvests and on market day to ask the spirits for more customers.   The person wearing a mask holds a rope in his mouth to keep the mask close to his face; he can see through a hole in the mouth of the mask. The masks are attached to a fiber costume that covers the back of the head. The fibers were traditionally red or black, but with the availability of a wider range of colors, the colors of the costumes have become more varied.

Christopher Roy. “Traditional Sculpture of Upper Volta.” Art of the Upper Volta Rivers. Meudon: Alain and Francoise Chaffin, 1987.

The Met. “Plank Mask (Nwantantay).” The Collection. Accessed May 3, 2023.

”Art as a Verb in Africa: The Masks of the Bwa Village of Boni, Burkina Faso.” UI Art Museum. Video by Abdoulaye Bamogo. Directed by Carol Thompson. Produced and edited by Christopher D. Roy. Copyright by Christopher D. Roy and Carol Thompson, 2005. January 24, 2014. Accessed on Youtube May 3, 2023.

The exterior of the Roman Catholic church at Boni, Burkina Faso, reflect local Bwa aesthetics in patterning. It was built between 1977-79. Photo by Rita Willaert, 2009.
Nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.