If there are so many documentaries that enhance its naturalistic charm, few are the reports dedicated to the vast and varied cultural heritage of the individual states that make up this immense continent. Among the many unknown realities, two particularly intrigued me: Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the interview with Mauritanian artist Saleh Lo will soon be online). Despite being known for being one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita income of almost 700 euros per year, Burkina Faso surprised me with its lively commitment to supporting culture.
After obtaining independence from France in 1960 and over twenty years of coups d'état and dictatorships, the former Upper Volta, experienced an economic and social recovery in 1984 thanks to the patriot Thomas Sankara who, among many reforms, renamed the country with the name of Burkina Faso, in the local language '' land of honest men ''. If until recently poverty and literacy rates were the only known characteristics of Burkina Faso, today what arouses curiosity is the recognition by the Burkinabé - name of the inhabitants of Burkina Faso - of the fundamental role of culture in the economic and social development process. To understand the level of cultural awareness they have reached and to explore the great animist tradition of Burkina Faso, we will start with traditional masks. In fact, they represent two fundamental aspects for understanding this reality: worship and culture. Each ethnic group - we will discover that over sixty ethnic groups coexist in Burkina Faso - has its own cults, but the Burkinabé culture, very strong and shared, is a binding element that overcomes any ethnic, religious or linguistic barrier. To explore the feeling of belonging to the Burkinabé, I wanted to compare myself with the Ouattara twins, well-known local sculptors and plastic artists who have various exhibitions to their credit and founders of Art'Dougou, an international festival dedicated to art held annually in Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city in Burkina Faso.
«Our strength is that everyone is aware that the beauty of our country is essentially based on human capital. This is what makes us a whole country.»
Assane and Ousseni, how did your passion for art come about?
Since we were children, we have always been fascinated by all the cultural events that abound in our city. We live in Bobo-Dioulasso, the cultural capital of Burkina Faso, known for its masks and its artistic and musical vibrancy - especially in the Balomakoté neighborhood. Undoubtedly, this dynamism has contributed to forge us and to make us plastic artists.
What does ‘’Bobo-Dioulasso’’ mean?
The term Bobo-Dioulasso in the Dioula language - a Mandingo language spoken by the jula or dioula, an ethnic group made up of about 3,000,000 people who live mainly in villages in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast - means ‘’home of the peoples Bobo and Dioula’’. Bobo-Dioulasso is in all respects, thanks also to the presence of the Houët river, a cosmopolitan city and a crossroads of multiple traditions and cultures.
Rhetorical question, but one that anticipates common thought: does art exist in Burkina Faso? What role does it play in your society?
Art exists in Burkina Faso. It is the know-how of our ancestors and the essence of our integrity. Art plays a fundamental role in our society: art cheers us up, shakes our soul and helps us to live in harmony with nature.
You are the promoters of the Teryuma association and the International Art'Dougou Festival. What are the initiatives proposed during the Festival?
The Teryuma association, which in Dioula language means ‘’good friend’’ or ‘’good friendship’’, was born a few years ago with the aim of promoting and re-evaluating the Burkinabè culture in a philosophy of sharing and solidarity. The association then gave life to the Art'Dougou International Festival, literally ‘’art in the city’’, now in its sixth edition - from 27 January to 02 February 2021. The festival presents paintings and plastic works of various genre, to give voice and visibility to the artistic expression of Burkina Faso's talents.
Among the best-known expressions of Burkinabè art and culture are the masks. How important were the masks in animist beliefs? Today, in a context of religious pluralism, have they retained the ancient meanings?
For thousands of years, masks have been a pillar of African animist beliefs. Masks are still sacred objects based on an ancestral tradition that has not changed. They are still part of everyday life. They purify us and are charged with magical power.
On what occasions are they used?
The most popular masks are used for important ceremonies, such as to celebrate the end of the harvest or the beginning of the rainy season. In these festivals, which can be held several times a year, everyone can participate without distinction, local or foreign people. This is also to promote the social cohesion of the community.
Is it a fixed repertoire or are there differences in form and symbolism in relation to ethnic groups?
The repertoire of masks is very rich and varied. All sixty-five ethnic groups that live together in Burkina Faso, except for a few rare cases, have their masks that do not have the same use of a certain system of symbols. The invariable element is the function of the mask, or the ’’seal’’ that hides the dancer during ritual outings, both literally and figuratively. In other words, the identity of the wearer must never be revealed. When the dancer wears it, he stops ‘’being’’ and embodies the spirit of the mask itself. Frantic music and obsessive rhythms induce the ecstatic state.
How are the masks made? What are the most used materials?
Traditional masks are made by the blacksmith caste, also called ‘’the guardians of costume’’, with a technique that is kept secret from generation to generation. They are usually made with leaves, straw, wood and fabric. The base of the mask is wood and, until a few decades ago, the most widespread was the Ceiba pentandra, better known as kapok or ‘’silk cotton tree’’, as it is soft and light. But now this type of tree is becoming very rare in Burkina Faso. The masks are decorated with geometric compositions and dyed with vegetable or mineral pigments, although now non-natural colors are also used. Traditionally black, white and red are mainly used. In addition to masks, costumes made from plant fibers are also worn, often of Hibiscus cannabinus - the kenaf. These voluminous costumes are called wankuro, literally ‘’the fur of the mask’’. These are the traditional norms, but as mentioned above, each ethnic group has its own peculiarities.
Let's stay on the theme of ethnicity. Earlier you mentioned the presence of sixty-five ethnic groups. What does the ethnic and linguistic composition of Burkina Faso look like?
Burkina Faso is a multi-ethnic nation with a huge variety of ethnic and linguistic groups. This is the result of the lifestyle and cultural heritage of a past in which the population, due to the geographic conformation of the country and traditional agricultural and commercial activities, has always lived on the move. The large number of ethnic groups also corresponds to a large number of languages. In fact, there are over sixty vernacular languages in Burkina Faso. Many Burkinabè grow up speaking several national languages, but the lingua franca is French, a legacy of the former colonizing power. French is used in the media, schools and judicial, administrative and political institutions of the country. Despite the widespread use of French for official purposes, only 15% of the population speaks it daily.
Are language, religion and ethnicities sources of social inequality?
No, there are no linguistic, ethnic, religious or caste barriers. The law is the guarantor that protects the rights of all, without distinction.
How can you manage such a complex and varied reality? Can national and cultural identity prevent any separatist movements?
The meaning of the name Burkina Faso makes us understand the reality of the situation: literally, ‘’the land of honest people’’. Our strength is that everyone is aware that the beauty of our country is essentially based on human capital. This is what makes us a whole country.
I suppose that the values of tolerance, respect and honesty derive from shared family education. What role do the family and the griots - the storytellers - play in Burkinabè culture? What is meant by Lamôgôya?
The family is sacred, as are the elders. Age is like a degree of wisdom achieved and a level of esteem and consideration respected by all. The old people have the fundamental task of passing on the knowledge of our ancestors, passing on word of mouth, from hand to hand, but also from spirit to spirit. The griots, masters of the word, are the coordinators of social and educational life. This concept of social cohesion, fraternity and peaceful coexistence can be summed up with the term Lamôgôya.
I live in a country, Italy, where written culture is predominant. However, there are other cultures which, due to historical, political and natural events, have not had the opportunity to develop a large-scale written culture. Many people believe that the limitation of written culture is synonymous with a lack of civility and social discipline. What do you think?
Black Africa in general is all oral, Burkina is no exception, but it seems like a contradiction. Let's take the example of masks. Every little feature is not accidental. It is a writing, an expression that can be interpreted and read by initiates. So, the masks turn out to be documents that contain the past and present of our peoples. Documents that complete the great oral tradition. In a society where the majority are illiterate and publishing houses are scarce, the oral tradition, often conveyed by griots and the elderly, is essential to transmit history and culture from generation to generation.
Let’s talk of a thorny issue that affects the whole world: the difference between the sexes. I have compared several searches. One of the most recent studies, conducted by UN Women - United Nations Body for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment - shows that the condition of women in Burkina Faso has improved compared to a few years ago, but that a lot of work still needs to be done to achieve gender equality. In the light of these data, do you believe that the development and dissemination of culture can be a help in overcoming these barriers?
Women deserve respect. The traditional Burkinabè philosophy says that "when God finished creating the world he was tired, he entrusted it to a woman before going to rest". Awareness raising for art and culture in Burkina Faso is done to accentuate an awareness that can reverse all forms of discrimination. Art and culture are an excellent way to combat gender discrimination.
Culture not only favors women's emancipation. In fact, according to UNESCO, the economic potential of the cultural sector in Burkina Faso is undeniable, and could become a real pillar of development - more than 170,000 individuals, or about 2.14% of Burkina Faso's active population, exercise cultural professions. On a theoretical level, your government has expressed its intention to consolidate human capital and social protection through the promotion of culture. Only promises or also concrete facts?
Burkina Faso is one of the African countries most convinced that culture is a lever for economic and social development. This is demonstrated by the realization of many cultural events. One of the best known is the FESPACO, The Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou, a film festival established in 1969 that is staged every two years in Ouagadougou and is probably the main event of African cinema. Then there is FESTIMA, Festival International des Masques et des Arts, a biennial cultural festival that has been celebrating traditional African masks for over twenty years. Art also has its own events, such as the Biennial International Fair of Arts and Crafts (SIAO) in Ouagadougou, the various exhibitions of the National Center for Arts and Crafts (CNAA) in Ouagadougou, the National Week of Culture ( SNC) in Bobo-Dioulasso and our International Art'Dougou Festival. In addition, there are many events also dedicated to theater and music ... in short, the agenda is very rich!
In addition to the numerous festivals, Burkina Faso has many other cultural and naturalistic heritages. UNESCO has officially recognized three of them: the ancient ferrous metallurgy sites, the Loropéni ruins and the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex, a vast protected area on the border between Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, known to be the home of the last populations of large mammals, such as hippos, elephants, Senegalese lions, and buffaloes. To these assets, we must also add all the intangible heritages that we talked about previously. What importance would it be to make these resources usable, through the development of cultural tourism? What would it mean for you to show and narrate your culture?
Burkina Faso is a country of culture not to be missed that can offer a lot from a cultural and human point of view. We are very open to learning and to treasure everything that can help make us better. This is well summarized in the initiatory language with the concept of ‘’giving and receiving’’. Culture must, in fact, be dynamic and open. The cultural tourism sector is therefore essential to follow up on all those efforts made to have a better world in the name of proactive dialogue.
Finally, why is it important to travel?
Because all the evils of the world begin with ignorance.
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I thank the Ouattara twins for their great availability and kindness, an excellent business card of Burkina Faso. This interview did not aim to investigate every aspect of Burkinabé culture, but to demonstrate that even in realities known only for poverty, travel and culture represent fundamental elements not only for the economic development, but for the human cohesion.
In the next interview we will fly to Mauritania with the artist Saleh Lo to discover the role of culture in a context where slavery still exists.