Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Mask: Hawk (Duho)

19th–early 20th century
Burkina Faso, Black Volta River region
Bwa peoples
Wood, pigment, fiber
H. 12 3/8 x W. 51 1/4 x D. 8 in. (31.4 x 130.2 x 20.3 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 350
Bwa masquerades draw upon the stylized features of humans, animals, and even insects. This mask is called duho, which means hawk (or sometimes duba, meaning vulture). The wings of the primarily two-dimensional hawk mask are usually simply decorated with white paint. The face of the hawk has been reduced to basic geometric forms. An inverted triangle defines the "face" and contains a protuberant, conical mouth and two sets of concentric circles for eyes. The outwardly projecting beak and the hook at the top of the face are two of the few elements that serve as a contrast to the overall planar nature of this nature spirit representation. Bold geometric shapes repeated in brightly painted designs are often added to enliven the surfaces of these relatively abstract forms. Bwa nature spirit masks are particularly impressive due to their commanding size and shape. This hawk mask's horizontal span extends nearly five feet wide; the wingspan of a related representation of the butterfly (yehoti) may be up to six or seven feet. Despite their daunting scale, these face masks are indeed worn by a performer, who bites on a thick fiber rope that passes through holes in the mask to secure it to his face. The mask is also attached to a fiber costume that covers the head and body of the performer. The choreography of the performance is derived from the movements and behavior of a hawk or vulture.

In Bwa society, the identity and continued well-being of a family are often tied to a nature spirit. The origin of this association may be a dream or even an encounter with a spirit who materializes in animal form. Upon consulting a priest, a family may commission a sculpture to embody that nature spirit. The masks appear at important funerals to honor the dead and escort their soul to the world beyond. They also dance at agricultural festivities to ensure the proper progression of the seasons, and at initiation rituals to help introduce young men and women to the secrets and responsibilities of adulthood. The masks are the object of family pride and are also an unofficial means of representing its prosperity and influence. Rival families will compete to assemble the most innovative and spectacular performances. Consequently, families will commission the carving of a multitude of masks—as many as nine different masks may represent an individual extended family. The elaborate decorations, the impressive size and design of the mask, as well as dynamic choreography all add to the grandeur and prestige of the event.

Many traditional African religions have suffered in the twentieth century due to profound social changes resulting from colonialism, urbanization, and the spread of Islam. In spite of such developments, the majority of the Bwa have retained a core of religious and related artistic traditions that feature masks such as duho. Bwa religious life centers on the mythical figure of Do, an intermediary between the Bwa people and the Creator (Difini or Dobweni). Do represents the wild, uncultivated bush and its life-giving force, hence the emphasis on masks inspired by nature spirits such as the hawk, butterfly, or snake among others.
[John J. Klejman, New York, until 1960]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1960, on loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1960–1978

The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 59.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 80–81.

Roy, Christopher D. Art of the Upper Volta Rivers. Meudon: Alain et Francoise Chaffin, 1987.

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