Gourounsi Masks

Thursday 24 September 2009 by Florence

The Nuna, Lela, Nunuma and Winiama tribes who live in the region between the Red and Black Volta in Burkina Faso have been regrouped under the name of Gurunsi by their neighbours because they speak the language gur. The name has become established despite the fact that the ethnic groups themselves consider it pejorative.

They hunt and fish during the dry season. These groups are essentially known for their zoomorphic masks with geometric shapes painted in black, white and red. The black or nazonu is the colour of the shadow, the dark, the night and supposedly means the death, the dark, the social transgression and occult forces. The white or nampo is the positive colour and represents the light of the day and the colour of gods. The red or nansu is the most important colour. It means at the same time the sun, the fire and the blood. It is the colour of the force and of life. They mix features of wild and domestic animals into their masks, such as antelope, lions, snakes, monkeys, buffalos, warthogs (see picture n° 1), crocodiles, hyenas, fish, and so on …

The Gurunsi masks represent the spirit of the bush, especially the buffalo masks (see picture n° 2) which are worn by initiated young men in order to rid the village of destructive forces. These masks are used during funerals, fertility rites and market days. Some other ones are used during divine rites like the bird masks and especially the calao (see picture n° 3). Their principal characteristics are eyes surrounded by circles and a polychrome finish which is reapplied every year.

The sun mask (see picture n° 4) is used for the agricultural ceremony and symbolizes a mythic night bird. This is a protector spirit which also sometimes appears in purification ceremonies of a village.

Knowledge of the masquerading tradition and the meaning of the geometric patterns on masks is strictly a male prerogative. Adolescent boys are introduced to this arcane knowledge during their two weeks of initiation, which at the same time serves to convey social and moral values.


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