Carved figures in Burkina Faso have been documented as early as 1904, but none of the early ethnographers, such as Leo Frobenius, E. Ruelle and Louis Tauxier, discuss the function and style of these objects.
According to Christopher Roy’s field research which culminated in his seminal work, Art of the Upper Volta Rivers, larger figures are idealized portraits of ancestors and chiefs, the visual affirmation of lineage and power. They are dressed and displayed in front of the community once a year for ancestral sacrifices. The figures never leave the compound and are stored in the home of the chief’s senior wife.
Smaller figures are owned by diviners and used in a variety of healing and divination ceremonies. These are usually covered in ritual patinas. Occasionally figures are specifically made to be attached to the superstructure of Karan-wemba masks.
The style of a figure depended on the whims of the chiefs and ruling class as well as the talent of the carver. This results in a lack of stylistic homogeneity. Figures in an ancestral spirit house may represent the work of several carvers working over decades for several generations of chiefs in one community.
Female, male and hermaphroditic statues tend to be angular and stiff, with flattened facial planes, cylindrical torsos and arms hanging along their sides. Female figures wear a crest running from the forehead to the back of the head representing a traditional hairdo.
The following is a selection of sculptures representing the variety of styles found in traditional Mossi, Gurunsi, Bobo and Lobi statues from the collection of Jeremiah Fogelson and American collections.
Map of Burkina Faso with the geographic location of its peoples.
Courtesy Gabriel Massa, Jean-Claude Lauret. Sculptures des Trois Volta (Bobo, Bwa, Lobi, Mossi, Gurunsi). Saint-Maur: Éditions Sépia, 2001.