The art of the Bobo people manifests itself for the most part in masks that are the incarnation of Dwo, the son of the creator god Wuru who left his son on the earth in order for him to help man. These masks only appear in full daylight and do not speak. They participate in both private and collective cults of social, religious and economic life.
Blacksmith’s masks are made out of polychrome wood. Molo masks are used for funeral rites or to celebrate the New Year. Blacksmiths also sculpted other anthropomorphic and zoomorphic masks out of wood but which served only for dancing.
The Bobo live in Burkina Faso and Mali. They speak the Mande language.
Social Organisation and the Bobo Economy.
The Bobo are farming people, they cultivate mainly small millet and red sorgho which are sacred plants and they also cultivate cotton.
There are blacksmiths and griots that belong to castes, but that are considered as being neither superior, nor inferior, just different. The blacksmith was the first man created allowed the privilege of handling fire. The griot’s role is to master the spoken word, a talent considered as important as the mastering of fire. Both elements are extremely important in religious life. Blacksmiths and griots are considered as mediators, attributing blame when mistakes are committed or insults are made by any member of the society.
The Bobo are a patrilineal society.
There is no centralized power among the Bobo such as exists among the Mossi. Authority lies in the hands of the chiefs of lineage who are the descendants of the village founders. These lineages are constituted of clans who have a motto, taboos (animal or vegetable) and a name. The clan taboos influence decisions concerning marriages between members of different clans. The village chief, coming generally from several lineages, is a priest who plays the role of intermediary between the ancestors and the living. The eldest members of the lineage make up the council of elders who assist the chief in making decisions.
Initiation lasts 15 years and is carried out according to 4 age groups. Almost adolescent, and in a sacred place in the bush, the young initiates learn that the masks are worn by the men of the village. They promise then to keep this secret and not reveal it to the women or the uninitiated. The young initiates must chew a leaf from a costume made of leaves worn by a masked man in order to enter into communion with Dwo.
The Religious Beliefs of the Bobo
The Bobo believe in the existence of a supreme god called Wuro. Myths of the genesis are only known by the old sages. Wuro is a dualist god that embraces the village and the bush, nature and crops, and both wild and domestic animals.
After the genesis, Wuro withdrew and left man his son Dwo (the mask) who is considered as a part of Wuro and who is responsible for helping man and of playing an intermediary role between Wuro and man. Wuro has two other sons, Kwere (thunder) who punishes, and Soxo (the bush spirit, that is to say of wild nature). In each village, altars are built in their honour. Blacksmiths are the priests of the Dwo cult. The masks serve to perpetuate traditions, and their usage is taught to young boys during their initiation. The spirits of the bush and the ancestors, and in particular the founder of the village, receive sacrifices. The Bobo live in dry savannah country and so they have a great number of cults dedicated to the rain.
Bobo art is mainly manifested through its masks. All of them are incarnations of Dwo and the wearing of the masks recalls, celebrates and renews the pact made between Wuro and man by the intermediary of Dwo. Their aim is also to repair mistakes committed by man and to eradicate evil by restoring the God given equilibrium.
The masks only perform in full daylight and do not speak. They participate in the private and collective cults of social, religious and economic life.
Bobo Agricultural Masks
Leaf masks are made out of fresh sacred leaves picked from the bush and their lifespan is just one day. They intervene to chase away the dangerous souls that can be found in the millet before it is consumed. Millet is a sacred plant given to man by Wuro, but its cultivation is detrimental to the bush, the domain of Soxo, hence the toxic substances contained in its leaves.
There are other fibre masks that are used during the later stages of the initiation during which the initiates endure physical tests such as castigation. Castigation might occur when a novice goes through the bush to the village or each time he passes between two opposing environments, for example the bush and cultivated land.
Bobo Blacksmith Masks
Blacksmiths possess leaf or fibre masks, but their own masks are made out of polychrome wood. They have different shapes but are always representations of Dwo.
The Molo mask is identifiable as a mask made out of one single piece of sacred wood. The head has a lengthened face under a helmet shape skull crowned by a crest and two powerful looking horns. The face is either rectangular or trapezoidal in shape. The eyes are round or rectangular and the nose is long and prominent. The masculine version has no mouth whilst the feminine one has a protruding mouth. The bottom of the mask has a short stick to help the dancer keep it in place. This mask is called So Molo when the dancer is naked and covered in white ashes for the first funeral rites. It is called Sibe Molo, when the dancer wears a leaf tunic for the blacksmiths’ initiation (Sibe), for the ultimate phase of the funeral rite and also to celebrate the New Year. The Molo must be carved away from the village and be consecrated by a religious sacrifice in order for it to have religious value. For the uninitiated