Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Mask, 19th–20th century
    Bwa peoples; Burkina Faso
    Wood, pigment, fiber; H. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.196)

    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.


    Although this artwork appears on the 20th-century segment of the Timeline, it is ascribed a date of 19th–20th century.

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    On view: Gallery 350
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  • Mask, 19th–20th century
    Bwa peoples; Burkina Faso
    Wood, pigment, fiber; H. 12 3/8 in. (31.4 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.196)

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