Bobo Bwa Wankr Ceremonial Altarpiece Serpent Mask

The Bwa (singular) or Bwaba (plural) are a people who speak the Bwamu language in the Voltaic family of languages and who live in central Burkina Faso and southeast Mali, from the Bani River in Mali south to the Mouhoun River (Black Volta River) in Burkina.

Because of the confusion of early French explorers, soldiers, and missionaries, the Bwa were called “Bobo” for many decades, even though they are very different in all ways from their Bobo or Bobo-Fing neighbors to the west. The major southern Bwa towns are Hounde, Boni, Bagassi, Dossi, Pa, and Dedougou. Only the southern Bwa, in Burkina Faso, make wooden masks.

The southern Bwa are noted for the very elaborate and thick scarification patterns on their faces and bodies, which led their neighbors to call these southern Bwa Nieniegue or “scarred Bwa.” Very few Bwa boys and girls are now given these scars.

The Bwa town of Boni has become very famous for the spectacular character of the great plank, animal, and serpent masks they create and use. Each of the Bwa masks represents a spiritual being that plays a role in the history of the families in the village. The spiritual characters include bush pigs, hawks, antelope, fish, serpents, hyenas, crocodiles, and many more.

This mask is inspired by a specific species of snake, the Rocky Python. Also serving as an altarpiece, it may have reached 28–30 feet at the time of its manufacturing. The age and use have reduced its original size.

Provenance: Collected in the mid-1938 by a private collector from Winnetka, Illinois.

Late 19th century
Polychrome wood
69 x 8 x 7 in
175 x 20 x 18 cm
Bwa/Bwaba people; Central Burkina Faso, West Africa