MOSSI (also see related Bwa, Bobo and Nunuma)

The first Mossi Empire was founded by invaders from northern Ghana. Today, the Mossi are the largest tribe living in Burkina Faso. They number 2,2 to 3,5 million and are the only tribe of Inland West Africa to have a centralized governing body, in addition to clans and professional corporations led by elders known as zaksoba. They are an ethnically diverse people divided into two social groups. Political power resides in nakomze, whose ancestors invaded the region in 15th century and subjected the various autochthonous groups living there. From these arose the tengabisi, a heterogeneous population whose kinship groups have provided the religious leaders of the Mossi to this day. On the north, one encounters a region of Sahelian desert steppes, then further south a zone of tree-field savannas, which gives way to forestland in the deep south. The greater part of the population lives off agriculture and cattle breeding. They grow millet, sorghum, maize, sesame, peanuts, and indigo. Cotton, introduced by the French during the occupation, is also cultivated over large stretches of land. Since the beginning of the century, the family has not been regarded as part of a community, since custom required that, immediately after circumcision, the eldest son leave to live independently from his father. Similarly, the young wife had no status whatsoever until the birth of her first child, which gave her the right to visit her parents. She did not raise her children, who were entrusted to older wives. On the other hand, at the death of a farther, the son would receive the wives and fields of his father.

The blacksmiths-sculptors formed a separate caste and lived in separate quarters; they married exclusively within the caste. They were feared by their neighbors and participated actively in rituals. They made jewelry, metal and wood sculpture, statues, and masks. Brass figures and wooden ancestor figures are controlled by the Mossi ruling elite. Maintaining good relations with the ancestors and a variety of supernatural forces is a major concern of Mossi ritual and motivates art production in the region. Figures are used by the ruling class to validate political power, and masks are used by the conquered peoples to honor the spirits of the wilderness and control the forces of nature. The aristocracy used statues, even though it had adopted Islam in the seventeenth century. For the most part female, linked to the power of the chiefs, these figures commemorated ancestors and were kept inside the hut of the oldest of the wives. They appeared only at the funeral of the sovereign and at the time of the annual sacrifice when the first fruit of the harvest would be offered. 

Lineages and clans of the indigenous tengabisi inhabitants own the masks, and only the large group of farmers and the group of smiths employ a variety of masks. Mossi sculptors are mostly famous for their polychrome masks. The farmers, “children of the earth” and descendants of the autochthones, still use huge masks; formerly, these masks were regarded as the seat of the spirit, but they might also represent the totemic animal of the clan. Each family would refer to an appropriate myth explaining the mask’s origin: generally, it was most often a catastrophe that had brought a sacred animal, or even a god, to make a gift of a mask to an ancestor, the power of mask allowing the restoration of order within the clan; then, too, at the ancestor’s death the mask would become the material structure of his soul. These masks made their appearance several times during the course of the year: they would escort the dead, thus helping them to join the world beyond. They preside over the sacrifices offered at the beginning of the rainy season, which were to insure the community a good millet crop and harvest of wild fruits. They “supervised,” before the first harvest, the deference given to planted seeds corresponding to a period of famine. Between “appearances,” the masks remained on the family shrine, where they received prayers and sacrifices for those members of the family who were in need, and they aided communication with the ancestors. The mask types evince regional differences.

The blacksmiths also used to sculpt figures called biiga, often covered in leather and decorated with cowrie shells and beads. The function of these wooden “dolls” goes well beyond game-playing. As an educational toy, the biiga was dressed, washed, and carried on the back or placed on the ground under the mother’s eyes. The biiga has a complex symbolism that, at first glance, seems contradictory: for the little girl it is, at one and the same time, the power that will cause her to have a child and the baby she is learning to care for. The biiga passes from mother to daughter or from sister to sister. Biiga have cylindrical bases; arms and legs are missing, but the pendulous breasts, symbol of motherhood, are accentuated.  

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