Nwantantay (Water Spirit 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 nwantantay, used to represent the flying water spirit.

One of the many ways in which Bwa masks are used is at agricultural festivals (usually held during the dry season between March and May) during which they are danced by masquerades to plead to Do for a successful harvest. The masks are also used during funerary celebrations to honour deceased members of prestigious families and to solicit a smooth journey of their soul to the afterlife. Bwa masks can also be found at initiation rituals where it is believed that the secrets of Bwa society are communicated to young boys and girls, through the incisions on the masks.

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

Common features among all nwantantay masks:

  • Carved from a single piece of wood
  • Painted black, white and red
  • Large oval face
  • Large round eyes surrounded by concentric circles
  • Face connected to plank by diamond or lozenge form
    • Downward-curving and very prominent hook protrudes from connecting lozenge
  • Plank is large, vertical rectangle
  • Geometric patterns carved in low relief on plank and face. Patterns include:
    • Zigzag lines that cross the plank horizontally
    • Chequered black and white squares
    • Black and white chevrons
    • Small black triangles
    • White semicircle on the upper half of the face
    • Circles
    • 'X' marks
    • Two target motifs near centre of plank
    • Broad black 'V'
    • Three triangles that radiate downward from the round mouth
  • Plank surmounted by large crescent with the opening turned up
  • Thick fibre rope passes through holes in the mask

Nwantantay masks fall under two main forms:

  • Type 1:
    • Protuberant square or diamond-shaped mouth (through which the performer can see)
    • Plank bisected horizontally by negative 'V' shapes that form large lozenge at centre of plank (forming two smaller planks)
    • Small vertical projection that extends from the centre of the crescent
    • Planks covered with 'checkerboards' and/or large 'X' shaped crosses (called bidaywhê)
  • Type 2:
    • Protuberant round mouth (through which the performer can see)
    • Three black leaf shapes / triangle (below the mouth)

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