Burkina Faso; Nunuma or Winiama peoples


Wood, pigments, and fiber, H. 87 x W. 30.2 x D. 26.7 cm
Purchased with funds from Mary Jo and Richard H. Stanley, 2011.27a–c

The University of Iowa Museum of Art purchased a beautiful mask made by the Winiama people of Burkina Faso at the Sotheby's auction in Paris on June 11, 2011.


The mask is a small vertical plank with red, white, and black pigments that mark out geometric patterns, including two very large, round concentric eyes.  The lower portion of the mask is the oval face, with a diamond-shaped mouth through which the performer was able to see when he danced.

Above the face projects a vertical hook, which represents the bill of a hornbill. The center of the section, above the face, is a rectangle with two sets of zig-zag lines, representing the path of the ancestorsthe path that Winiama strived to follow during their lives to receive the blessings of God. Above the rectangular central section is a crescent shape with two more round concentric circles. The crescent represents the summer moon under which the young men and women of the village are initiated. 

All of the patterns of the mask together represent the religious laws for the moral and ethical conduct of life, the same sorts of religious laws that in Christianity and Judaism are represented by the Ten Commandments.

The object was collected in 1976 by a private New York collector named Thomas G.B. Wheelock. He purchased it in Ouagadougou from a local art dealer, who had acquired it in the village Ouri, in central Burkina Faso. The Winiama people in the village of Ouri create masks like this one to represent the spirits of nature that watch over them and their families, and protect them from accidents, diseases, crop failure, and disasters of all kinds.

All of these masks are worn by the young men of the families that own the masks. Each mask is owned by an individual senior male elder, and is intimately tied to the soul of the man who owns it. Each year the elder selects a young man from his own family to wear the mask in public performances. The performances reenact encounters between the ancestors and spirits of the wilderness. The mask is worn with a thick costume made of hemp fiber, which is colored either black or dark red.  

Professor Christopher D. Roy, School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa