West African Masks

Lunar Masks


West African Masks

Animism, the oldest form of belief on the planet, has deep roots in Africa. Seen through the eyes of its believers, the world is alive with spirits and supernatural forces which influence their daily lives.

We travelled to Burkina Faso, where the spectacular sacred masks evoke the spirits of deities, nature, and animals, and where some of the most vibrant expressions of animistic belief can be found.

The Bereba lunar masks belonging to the Bwabwa Society are some of the most magical masks in Africa but they are very difficult to see. They appear only once a year at the beginning of the new moon and are only found in one small village named Bondoukui, deep in the savannah grasslands north of Bobo Dioulasso.

In the dark of the night, at the sighting of the new moon, the masks suddenly appear out of the village and dance wildly in a frenzied style. Communicating with the ancestors and linking them to the moon they vault on long poles, leaping high into the air, trying to reach the moon and capture its power. Terrified for the mask’s security, guardians hold onto raffia cords attached to the bodies of the masks, preventing them from leaving the earth and entering the invisible world beyond.

The antennae-like protrusions atop some of the masks give them an otherworldly appearance and are believed to assist in communication with the moon. Others wear cowrie-shell-studded headdresses believed to promote fertility among young women, the cowrie shell being a powerful African symbol of fertility. The masks also play an important role in purifying the village and helping ensure a successful harvest.

The annual Dédougou Festival of Masks attracts maskers from all over West Africa eager to share their cultural traditions. Gelede masks from Benin and Nigeria, come to instruct the audience in appropriate social behaviour illustrating the many unacceptable taboos. They tell of the hierarchical order of the world and the importance of respect and tolerance. The Guro Gyela lu Zauli from Ivory Coast, known for its performance at funerals and village festivals presents a mesmerising superhuman performance of footwork in the dark of the night.