Thursday, February 14, 2013


The largest contribution to the artistic world from Burkina Faso is their masks. Because most of the people in this region follow an animist view of the spiritual world, most of these masks have special functions in sacrificial rites and representation of various animal gods.

For many Burkinabé, living off the land by farming or raising cattle is a way of life that goes back centuries. And during the dry season (from about November to April), the ground is so dry, many people either leave the country to look for other work, or stay and make the most of it doing other things. During this “down time” when the daytime temperatures can reach over 100F (37.8C), many people stay in the shade and engage in the local arts, one of them being mask making. Most of the masks are made from the wood of the cotton tree, or ceiba. It’s a soft wood, making it light and easy to carve, which is good considering some of the masks can be quite large and quite elaborate. Unfortunately, insects also like these soft woods for many of the same reasons, so each year these masks have to be carefully soaked to prevent damage and kill any insects that may have started.  Fibers from different kinds of hemp plants are soaked and plaited together to make the “fur of the mask” and other parts of the costume that goes with it. These fibers may also be dyed with other natural pigments prior to affixing it to the mask and costume. Each mask is then decorated with a myriad of geometrical shapes and colored mostly with red, black, and white pigments (from natural mineral and vegetable matter). These masks generally stay in the family and are passed from father to son. Most of the time, these masks make their appearance at burials/funerals and other life events, but sometimes it’s simply just to entertain.  Different groups of people have slightly different techniques and designs and even colors (and some groups never really participated in the mask making), but all in all the fabrication of it is generally the same.

Another interesting art is that of making brass portraits of deceased Mossi emperors. These traditions are centered near the town of Lumbila. Tradition holds that the living emperor should never see the cast of the previous emperor nor know the identity of the artist who created it, lest he should die also. (Apparently, they consider these artists like demigods.) They have a special place to work and not even the village chief is allowed to disturb them. (I wish I had a work environment like that.)

Since about three-quarters of the population are considered illiterate, the oral tradition of storytelling is quite a long-standing art form in Burkina Faso.  The first written work was published in 1934 by Dim-Dolobsom Ouedraogo, entitled “Maximes, Thoughts and Riddles of the Mossi,” a first account of recording their traditional stories.  After the country gained its independence, writers such as Nazi Boni and Roger Nikiema came onto the scene.  During the 1970s, many Burkinabé writers emerged as playwrights, and theatre and film became very popular.

Early traditional theatre consisted of wearing masks and also incorporates dancing, and for the most part the actors are representing various spirits in the spirit world. Because the French took control of this area, a lot of their cultural arts mixed with the local culture. During the 1950s, large competitive drama festivals starting taking place, and even the church started using theatre as a means of spreading its word. There are several theatrical and drama schools in Ouagadougou that have been open since the 1990s.

Every year, a Pan-African film fest called FESPACO held in the cultural center of Ouagadougou – the largest film fest in Africa. Two of the most prolific filmmakers that came out of Burkina Faso are Idrissa Ouedraogo and Gaston Kaboré (seriously, this is the best name ever). I tried to look up some films on Netflix, but there weren’t that many available. I mean, there were some listed, but Netflix didn’t list an availability date and gave me the option to save it. Wonder when that’ll be. When I retire? Bleh. Until then, I must wait…

Up next: Music and Dance

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