Scholars of art in Burkina

Colonial period scholars

In the first group are studies by French colonial officers before independence in 1960. These include Louis Tauxier, Henri Labouret, Guy Le Moal, Michel Izard, Jean Capron, and others. The earliest colonial anthropologists were interested in documenting the peoples of Burkina Faso in an effort to support the colonial French government.  These early reports are clear, thorough, and informative. Tauxier’s books about Burkina Faso remain today some of the most important sources on what the peoples of Burkina Faso were like a century ago. None of these studies is focused exclusively on art. They are all much broader descriptions of a group of people, in which a single chapter may be devoted to art, or in some cases, art is only mentioned in passing. Nevertheless I include these publications because it is impossible to understand the rich cultural history of Burkina Faso without reading them.

The second group includes scholars from Burkina Faso before independence. Most prominent among these is Dim Delobsom, but it also includes such people as Elois Kafando. These were all educated people who documented the lives in what was then Upper Volta, and whose work were either published or deposited in government archives or libraries.

Louis Tauxier was born in 1871, Tauxier joined the colonial service in 1905. His first station was in Guinea and resulted in a publication on the peoples of that country. He was posted to upper Volta in 1908. He was the commandant du cercle in Ouahigouya from 1913 – 1916. In 1917 he was appointed chief administrator in the city of Kayes, in western Mali. In the same year his monumental study of the people of northern Burkina was published. He was chief administrator in the city of  Bondoukou in Ivory Coast from 1918 to 1920. Tauxier finally returned to France permanently in 1927. Many of his most important studies were published in the 1930s. His studies of the peoples of northern and southern Burkina Faso provide by far the most extensive and accurate descriptions of these people a century ago.

A.A.Y. Dim Delobsom was a Mossi, educated in French Christian mission schools, who wrote prolifically about both political and spiritual subjects in the 1930s.  His books and articles are very detailed and informative. He occasionally inserts Christian dogma in his studies, but he cast light on many esoteric and secret Mossi “traditions.”  His most famous book is l’Empire du Mogho-Naba” (1933).  He went too far in “Les Secrets Des Sorciers Noirs” (1934) and it is rumored he was poisoned.

Leo Frobenius visited Burkina Faso in 1907 on a trip to Cameroon.  Of course at the time both Togo and Cameroon were German colonies.  Frobenius followed the trail from Dogon country through Yako and Ouagadougou to Togo, and photographed several interesting performances. Leo Frobenius was a German scholar/explorer/adventurer/collector  who traveled across vast areas of Africa in the period before and after World War I.  He visited the former German colonies in Africa many times until 1918 when Germany was stripped of her colonies. He wrote prolifically about the African peoples that he met. His books are illustrated with images of culture, art and performance all across Africa. He was very unpopular with the British and the French, because he actively sought alliances between Germany and African countries before 1918. The Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt–am-Main is a trove of documents on Burkina in the early 20th century. The artist Fritz Nansen accompanied Frobenius and made hundreds of wonderful sketches of people, buildings, artists at work, masks in performance, and royal art.  Frobenius actually entered some royal tombs and sketched their layouts.  He published some of these materials in “Das Sterbende Afrika” in 1923, in which appear two excellent photos of masks in Ouahigouya, in the north, and in Ouagadougou, in the south.  This was key in the very early stages of my research on Mossi masks.  He also collected art wherever he went which are now in the museums of many of the great museums in Germany.

Lucien Marc was a colonial officer very early in the 20th century who published a dissertation on the Mossi people early in the history of French colonial power in what was then French West Africa. Is small dissertation is extremely informative and useful about all aspects of Mossi life before the first world war.

Louis Tauxier was a French colonial officer who published extensively on all of the peoples of Burkina Faso, as well as on the Bamana people in Mali, and several peoples in Ivory Coast. He was a superb observer, and recorded the lives of all of these people in minute detail. His most useful book is “Le noir du Yatenga,” which focuses on before Fulani and Mossi people in northern Burkina Faso but his “Noir du Sudan” is more extensive and describes the lives of the Bwa (Bwaba) people, the Nuna and Winiama, and others. In my opinion Tauxier was a brilliant scholar, and his publications are indispensable to anyone who writes about the peoples and history of Burkina Faso. Of course Burkina Faso has changed enormously since 1912, but his studies provide a very valuable source of comparison.

Henri Labouret was a French colonial officer both in Burkina Faso and in Ivory Coast in the early 1930s. He published a major study of the Lobi, in which she unfortunately lumped together large numbers of people who are only distantly related to the Lobi. Four decades his book “Les tribus du rameau lobi” was the only source on information about these people. That situation has changed with publications by post-independence scholars. Labouret participated in the suppression of the Lobi people, including the introduction of the use of machine guns and poison gas.

Elliott P. Skinner had been a distinguished professor of history in the early 60s when John F. Kennedy was elected president. This was a period when many West African countries were achieving independence. There were arguments about the ability of African citizens to govern themselves. Skinner had earned an MA and PhD degrees at Columbia University. In 1972 Skinner became the first African-American department chair at Columbia and was the first African-American to be awarded tenure at Columbia University. He was a professor at Columbia when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him the second American ambassador to Upper Volta, with the assignment to document the fact that Africans had had functioning political systems going back many centuries and were quite capable of governing themselves. The result was Skinner’s brilliant book “The Mossi of the Upper Volta: The Political Development of an African People.” Skinner learned to speak Mooré during his time in Upper Volta. This book is still widely read by scholars of history as a model of political history of ancient African kingdoms. The book has of course been translated into French and reprinted many times.  In subsequent years Skinner also wrote a history of the development of the capital city, Ouagadougou.

Scholars since independence

Michel Izard (1931-2012) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist. He was Emeritus Research Director at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and was a member of the Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale (College de France, EHESS, Paris) since its founding in 1960 by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The focus of his research was on the social and political history of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso. He was particularly interested in the history of the mostly kingdoms before the arrival of the French at the end of the 19th century. He paid particular attention to the balance between the political class descended from the invading cavalrymen from the south, and the spiritual class made up of the farmers who had lived in the region for millennia. He was an astonishingly prolific scholar, who made an enormous contribution to the understanding of the history of the Mossi people.

Guy Le Moal played an enormously important role in the history of scholarship in Burkina Faso. He was trained in France as a committed structuralist, He first went to what was then Haute-Volta in the 1950s to become the first director of the IFAN (Institut français d’Afrique noir). He apparently spent the first years in Burkina traveling on horseback from village to village all over the country, making note of which peoples lived in what villages. The result was the first comprehensive map of the different peoples or ethnic groups of Upper Volta. All such maps made in the decades since his survey are based on his original work. During this period he became interested in the Bobo people who live around the city of Bobo-Dioulasso and to the north. He settled in the village of Kurumani, where he carried out research on the role of masks in initiations among the Bobo people. His first major book on Bobo masks was based on his dissertation, and is a seminal study of African art.  He also produced a number of very useful and informative films that are now available through the CNRS in Paris. In terms of scholarship he has been my hero and model for almost forty years. I only met him once, when I visited him in Kouroumani in 1984. He and I shared a lunch of coq au vin and a very nice red Bordeaux served on a linen tablecloth by his “boy/cuisinier” beneath an enormous mango tree in the village.

Jean Capron was a French ethnographer who began to study the northern Bwa people well before independence in 1960. Many of the people he studied now live in what is modern Mali. His excellent book describes the Bwa people in enormous detail, but with very little mention of any kind of art. In fact the only masks made in the villages where he worked were leaf masks. When I met him in 1983 he told me that it was only the southern Bwaba who use masks of wood, and that the masks of leaves in the north that he knew never appeared at funerals. It is extraordinarily difficult to find any information about Capron on websites in France or America, and of course the CNRS where he worked does not respond to emails.

Madeleine Père devoted fifty years of her life to understanding the Lobi people.  She was born in Burgundy in 1923, and joined the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary in 1945. She began research in the Gaoua region in 1961. She organized a program of training for women and girls, and was surprised by Lobi resistance to change. She discovered that this was in great part a result of the violence of the confrontation with French colonial power in the early 1900s. Père followed her study of the Lobi by intensive research of the nearby Gan. She was able to secure funding for the construction of seven primary schools in the area. With financial support from UNESCO she was able to organize, starting in 1990, a museum of the cultures of southwest Burkina in Gaoua. In the last ten years of her life she generously opened the doors of her home to many scholars who carried out research in the region.

Piet Meier:  For many years scholars depended on old colonial texts such as Henri Labouret’s for information about Lobi art. Then in the late 1970s the scholar Piet Meier carried out extensive in-depth research in Lobi country which was published in an exhibition catalogue for the Rietberg Museum in Zürich. Meier spent six month between 1967 and 77 doing ethnology research about Lobi divination, mostly in the village of Wourbira. This catalog then became the most dependable source for decades until the more recent publications of Daniela Bognolo.  Meier’s research cleared up many difficult questions about who made Lobi art, how it was used, where was it used, and what did it mean. Kunst und Religion der Lobi remains one of the most respected and useful sources on Lobi sculpture.

Boureima Diamitani is currently director of the West African Museum program in Ouagadougou. He has a degree in architecture from a French university, and a PhD in art history from the University of Iowa. He has been extremely active in the cultural affairs of Burkina Faso for three decades. He has served as Dir. of cultural affairs, and was instrumental in the creation of museums in the western part of Burkina Faso. His village of birth is a Senufo village in the far western part of Burkina Faso, where senior men still belong to a society called Komo. His own father was a high-ranking member of Komo. As a result he has been able to study Komo in depth, in contrast to other parts of West Africa where as a result of the importance of Islam, Komo has almost disappeared.

Oumarou Nao was born and raised in a Nuna village in the south-central Burkina Faso. He studied in Ouagadougou and then received a PhD in art history at the University of Paris I.  he has been deeply involved in cultural affairs in Burkina Faso for almost three decades, and has served as director of cultural affairs. He has written about the Nuna people and their art, about the art of the Mossi, especially masks and brass casting, and to a lesser extent about the art of  Bwa people.

American scholars

Christopher Roy is a professor of African art history at the University of Iowa. He first visited Burkina Faso in 1970 as an American Peace Corps volunteer. Through his work he became immersed in the art of Burkina Faso and he received a PhD in art history at Indiana University in 1979 with a thesis on Mossi masks. He has continued to study the cultural creativity of many peoples of Burkina Faso for forty-five years. He has published extensively in three books and many articles on the art of Burkina Faso. The first book, “Art of the Upper Volta the Rivers” attempted to cover all of the many peoples in Burkina who create masks and figures. His second large book, “Land of Flying Masks” focused on one particularly important private collection of art from Burkina Faso. This particular book was lavishly illustrated with color photographs. His third book dedicated just to Burkina Faso is titled “Mossi: Diversity in the Art of West African People”. In addition he has produced a body of twenty-six videos, available free of charge, on YouTube about art and life in Burkina Faso. He also created a very large and comprehensive website titled “Art and Life in Africa” which is much broader in scope but includes substantial material on the art of Burkina Faso.

Susan Cooksey began her study of African art at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She then moved to the University of Iowa where she completed a PhD in art history. She carried out research in Burkina Faso in the extreme southwest area of the country, near the city of Bonfora. Her dissertation and subsequent publications concern the use of figures in divination by the peoples in southwest Burkina Faso. She is currently curator of African art at the Harn Museum at the University of Florida.

Cory Gundlach became interested in African art while an undergraduate at Colorado State in Fort Collins. He was given responsibility for organizing an exhibition of Lobi sculpture. Following graduation he moved to the University of Iowa where he wrote both a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation on Lobi sculpture. His work is based on three extensive research trips to Burkina Faso to interview the Lobi, to visit their homes, to photograph their shrines, and to talk with them in depth about their art. He is currently the curator of African art at the University of Iowa Museum of Art.