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Exhibition Description:

Art and Life in Burkina Faso, Land of Upright People
Carleton College Art Gallery
April 3 - May 8, 2002

The art works gathered here come from Burkina Faso, the West African nation formerly known as Upper Volta. In 1984, former President Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) renamed the country Burkina Faso, drawing together words from the languages of the country's major populations, the Mossi and the Dyula. Roughly translated, Burkina Faso means "the land of upright people."

Located at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, with national boundaries drawn by the French during the colonial era, many diverse peoples live in this dry, landlocked country, independent since 1960. Burkina Faso's population is made up of more than sixty different ethnic groups. The country's complex cultural diversity is reflected in this exhibition which includes works of art by Bwa, Bobo, Kassena, Lela, Lobi, Mossi, Nuna, Nunama, Toussian, Turka, and Winiama artists. While Burkina Faso is often described as one of the most economically impoverished countries in the world, with an average annual per capita income of between two and three hundred dollars, in terms of cultural traditions, it is one of the richest places on earth.

The peoples of Burkina Faso create a wide range of objects, diverse in form, function, size and scale, and employing many different materials and technologies. Within their original contexts, art works are valued not only for their aesthetic qualities, but also for their functional efficacy. In Burkina Faso, art is not just something to look at, but also serves life-sustaining purposes, vital to the well-being of individuals and the larger society.

When Mossi cavalrymen established their kingdom over the central plateau region of what is now Burkina Faso centuries ago, they subjugated indigenous populations. Even today, within Mossi society, descendants of the cavalrymen known as Nakomse tend to hold political power while descendants of the original population known as Tengabisi tend to hold religious authority. Masking traditions are associated with the Tengabisi among the Mossi, and with the fiercely independent, politically decentralized peoples to the south and west who were never conquered by the Mossi, including the Bwa, Bobo, Kassena, Lela, Lobi, Nuna, Nunama, Toussian, Turka, and Winiama.

In Burkina Faso as elsewhere in Africa, with few exceptions, only men wear masks. In rural regions, masquerade performances take place on various occasions including for village purification ceremonies, during initiations, at market-day celebrations, and for funerals and harvest festivals. In recent decades, masks also have begun to perform in urban settings at popular new celebrations as at the biennial national mask festival, for national holidays, and at FESPACO, the Pan-African film festival held every other year in Ouagadougou, the capital city.

The masks included in this exhibition - which here consist primarily of only the wooden face coverings - would have been worn with partial or full costumes. The music of flutes, drums, balafons, and gongs accompanied their dances. Masks each have their own individual persona identifiable by particular dance steps, songs, and music. Certain masks are created for nature spirits, others as tutelary beings, while still others memorialize ancestors. In Burkina Faso, masks take diverse forms and serve diverse functions. This selection includes masks with recognizable animal, as well as more abstract, forms.  -Carol Thompson

The exhibition draws on the collections of Thomas G.B Wheelock, New York, and the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Thomas Wheelock first traveled to Ouagadougou, capitol of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in 1972. He has been studying the region and collecting art ever since; his is now recognized as the premier collection of art from Burkina Faso, unique for its depth, breadth, and high level of aesthetic quality. The University of Iowa Museum of Art, home to the Stanley Collection and others, is rich in African artifacts, and home institution for Dr. Christopher D. Roy, consulting curator of the exhibition.

"Art and Life in Burkina Faso, Land of Upright People" was curated for Carleton College by a team of three knowledgeable experts: Dr. Boureima Diamitani, formerly Director of the National Museum in Burkina Faso and now Executive Director of the West African Museums Project; Carol Thompson, Richaman Family Foundation Curator of African Art at the High Museum in Atlanta Georgia; Dr. Christopher D. Roy, Professor of the History of Art and Associate Dean for International Programs, University of Iowa.

"Art and Life in Burkina Faso, Land of Upright People," the exhibition and programs are co-sponsored by the Art Gallery, the Cross Cultural Studies Program and the Office of Multi-Cultural Issues. During spring term, 2002, the art exhibition is just one of many events at Carleton focusing on Africa.