Doho (Serpent Mask)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Bwa legend has it that the world was abandoned by God (Difini or Dobweni) after he was injured by a woman. To enable continued communication between man and himself, God sent his son, Do to earth to act as an intermediary. Through Do, humanity was given a lifeline as it is believed that Do represents the forest's life-giving qualities (nature spirits).

To harness the life-renewing forces of Do nature spirits, the head of a southern Bwa family commissions the creation of a large number and variety of wooden sculptures and masks to personify specific nature spirits (represented as humans, animals and other abstract beings). One such mask created is the doho, used to represent the serpent and believed to demonstrate the positivity and protective qualities of snakes in Bwa myths. Used during harvest celebrations, funeral rites and initiation ceremonies, doho masks are performed by masqueraders who mimic the movements and behaviours of the snake by twisting their heads rapidly from side to side.

Describing the origin of the doho mask, Christopher Roy states that "many years ago the men of Dossi raided a neighboring village and were routed. An elder from Dossi hid from his vengeful pursuers in the burrow of a great serpent, saying to the serpent that he was not there to harm it but to save his own life. He was forced to hide for two market weeks, during which time the serpent brought game to the burrow for the elder to eat. When, eventually, the elder returned to Dossi, he consulted a diviner, who told him to carve a mask and to respect the serpent as a protective spirit."2

For more on Bwa culture, see the article on The Art of Burkina Faso on the Art & Life in Africa website, hosted by the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) HERE.

Distinguishing Features

  • Snake masks can range up to 16ft long
  • Carved of a single piece of wood
  • Surmounted by an enormous, tapering superstructure
  • Entire surface is ornamented with incised geometric patterns (triangles, chevrons, zigzags, parallel and crossed lines)
  • Painted with natural white, red and black pigments
  • Rounded face of a composite creature
    • Protruding, ringed eyes
    • Raised jagged crest that bisects the face
    • Long, open snout
    • Two triangular-shaped holes, just above the snout, allow the wearer to see

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