The Mossi are the largest tribe living in central Burkina Faso, West Africa. Burkina Faso is the new name of Upper Volta/Haute Volta as of 1983. They live mainly on the central plateau of Burkina Faso. The Mossi cultivate millet and cotton, and rear cattle in the northern Savannah regions. Some artisans, such as smiths and leatherworkers, belong to low-status castes.
The society, organized on the basis of a feudal kingdom, is divided into royalty, nobles, commoners and, formerly, slaves. Each village is governed by a chief who, in turn, is subordinate to a divisional chief. At the top of the hierarchy is the paramount ruler, the morho naba (“big lord”), whose seat is located at Ouagadougou. Divisional chiefs serve as advisers to the morho naba and theoretically choose his successor. Usually, however, the paramount chief’s eldest son is chosen.
The art of the Mossi tends toward a simplification that is not found among their neighbors, among them being the Dogon people. Mossi and Dogon art, however, shows many similiarties, such as the creation and use of plank masks—face masks with a high vertical superstructure. They are also known for their wooden dolls, crest, and brass figures. Examples of such art are held in numerous public collections.
The diversity of Mossi art styles reflects the diverse origins of the Mossi people. Rather than creating art forms in one more ethnic style, which can be illustrated as ‘archetypal’ or ‘textbook,’ the Mossi have created three major styles and several substyles, whose geographical distribution mirrors that of the several groups of farmers who were conquered by invaders in and about 1500 and amalgamated into a new group called Mossi.
The best known Mossi mask style is found in the northwestern Mossi kingdom called Yatenga, an area once occupied by the Dogon. Here, the nyonyose who remained behind when the majority of the Dogon fled to the Bandiagara cliffs were amalgamated into Mossi society. Their descendants carve masks that are vertically oriented, with a tall, slender plank that rises above the face of the mask and is often decorated with geometric patterns. The face is a concave oval, bisected vertically with a dentate ridge, often painted white. There are also masks surmounted by the female figure. There are also mask that depict animals such as the antelope, bush pig, hawk, hornbill, and crocodile. Some are not recognizable to human or animal forms, as these masks are a combination of both spirits.
The Mossi use masks at burials, funerals, and initiations, and at annual year-end ancestral sacrifices. They represent spirits from the wild bush areas surrounding the village, which may appear to humans as animals. When masks are not being worn in performances, they are placed on ancestral shrines in the kimse roogo, or ancestral spirit house of the family that owns them. The spirits protect the family from disease, accident, natural disaster, drought, infertility, and generally ensure success in their life.
Before modernization during the latter part of French rule and since independence (1960) the Mossi kingdom provided an example of a typical African realm. The king’s elaborate court, in addition to nobles and high officials, contained numerous bodyguards, page boys, and eunuchs; his wives lived in special villages, all of whose male inhabitants were eunuchs.
The Mossi people venerate their ancestors, whose spiritual presence both validates their claims to their land and provides a major mechanism of social control. They also pray to nature deities and propitiate them.