Thomas G. B. Wheelock and the Art of Burkina Faso

by Rebecca Bynum (Sept. 2007)


Thomas Wheelock is the author, along with Christopher Roy, of Land of the Flying Masks: Art & Culture in Burkina Faso, the Thomas G. B. Wheelock Collection which I must say, is one of the most beautiful art books I have seen. The photographs by Jerry L. Thompson are stunning.

Mr. Wheelock has four pieces on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and lends his pieces to many institutions including the High Museum in Atlanta. He has been collecting art from the Burkina Faso area in Africa for over thirty years and at seventeen hundred pieces has one of the most extensive collections in existence. I was fortunate to be able to interview him during one of his trips to Atlanta.

RB: In the introduction to your book, you describe being drawn into the world of Burkina Faso art collecting almost by chance. Can you describe the circumstances of how this happened and how you had to change your conceptions about art in order to accommodate it?


TW: I cannot say that collecting African art was something that occurred purely by chance.  Collecting was already in my blood.  It saw its beginnings sometime in the mid 1940s when, as a young boy, I was fatefully lured by the Metropolitan Museum’s decision to de-accession a myriad of minor dynastic objects from their store rooms.  Entranced at the time by ancient Egypt, I bought a painted wood and gesso cobra, the uraeus from a statue of an Egyptian pharaoh.  By my late teens I had started buying drawings and prints.  I still have a wonderful Hartung from that era.  Later I was quite taken by Japanese woodblock prints.  I approached the subject with some seriousness, reading prodigiously and examining the early 19th century prints stored in the Metropolitan Museum library.  (That was something you could do thirty or forty years ago.)  I collected some Hokusai Mt. Fuji prints, a couple of Harunobu and Koryusai and a number of their contemporaries, but this interest was curtailed by an abrupt change in course.  The flip side to the pleasure I derived from art was an abiding interest in paleontology pursued in Graduate School.  After writing a thesis on Jurassic brittle starfish and in spite of an alluring invitation to join the staff at the American Museum of Natural History and undertake a doctorate at Columbia, I decided to take some time off and make an extended journey around the world in a Land Rover.  In 1972 this ambitious undertaking took me across the Sahara and soon to Burkina Faso, known then as Upper Volta.  Collecting African art had not been my intention, but once exposed to what for me were wholly novel art forms, given my inclinations, it was not long before the collecting predisposition came to the fore.  What was different about collecting this form of art was my utter dearth of knowledge that would, under “normal” circumstances, have informed my collecting decisions.  I had no points of reference to determine good, better and best.  Nevertheless, I was so drawn to what I was seeing that I was collecting, in terms of aesthetic sensibility, without benefit of rational thought. I found myself making precarious monetary decisions based purely on my emotional response to objects.  I was relying on my own intuitive sense of quality, as unsophisticated as it may sound, waters in which, heretofore, I had never risked swimming.  Every new object offered its own revelation, a revelation not just about the wonders of the art, but a revelation about myself.  It became a heady time of newfound self-assurance…and it had only taken thirty years to get there.

RB: Much of Burkina Faso art is in the form of liturgical pieces (ritual masks) and much of the jewelry are amulets. Everyday objects such as door locks, spoons and chairs contain an element of totemism and seem to be part of a cultural effort to ward off evil spirits (bad luck) and to court good spirits (good luck, and protection from bad luck).  Can you give us an overview of the religious life of the people of Burkina Faso?


TW: The surroundings of the Burkinabé animist population are suffused with spirits, the placation of which provides health and abundance and protection from ubiquitous malevolent forces, destructive in their own right and still more dangerous when harnessed to witchcraft.  Much concern is afforded to thwarting witchcraft.  While there are over fifty different languages spoken in Burkina Faso and countless dialects, most cultures are derived from either of two origins, one an autochthonous Gur-speaking base, the other from Mandé origins farther to the west.  Both origins share certain commonalities of thought; in fact there is some thought that deep in the past, the Gur may ultimately be Mandé derived.  In the spirit worlds of both the apex of an un-seeable hierarchy, is a creator God.  Not unlike the Judeo Christian belief, man abused the deity’s goodness, and an angry God withdrew from mankind’s world and with him the comforts afforded and, finally, eternality.  However He left a system of lesser deities in place to assure survival.  Upon the spirit world respect is bestowed and placation and communication is achieved through the vehicle of blood sacrifices on altars to individual spirits and alters honoring ancestors.  Families have alters within their homes.  Villages have altars for community protection and the local “bush” spirit of a rock, a stream, a knoll, etc. are acknowledged by modest minimal altars, sometimes no more than an assemblage of small rocks tucked beside a tree, exterior to the village.  Diviners with their own spirit guides offer cures and advice to their clients and prescribe amulets and various forms of jewelry to be commissioned from blacksmiths to honor protective spirits.  Though not all groups have masking traditions, among those that do, masks from the wilderness beyond bring protection and fecundity to families and village and provide accompaniment as the dead commence transition to another world.  Awake or asleep, man’s world is awash in spirit forms.

RB: Richard Weaver describes culture as purely a result of the imagination and as stemming from a common consensus as to the nature of reality. He also says that a culture only survives by means of excluding that which it is not. The culture of Burkina Faso has survived from ancient times and so must have powerful means of exclusion and insulation. Can you describe this?


TW: The basic tenants in Weaver’s notion of culture are probably broadly applicable to Burkinabé cultures; however, as one cannot know the nature of an un-chronicled culture’s recent past, let alone its remote past, one cannot say that it has remained immutable.  While I would describe all of these Burkinabé cultures as conservative, they are conservative to varying degrees.  It is likely that all have gradually altered over time.  I would, for example, define Bobo culture as rigorously conservative but, nevertheless, Guy Le Moal’s exhaustive study of Bobo masking traditions reveals examples of shifting beliefs and a history of the evolution and gradual spread of new cults.   New masks have joined the canon of older forms.  Le Moal reported that, by agreement, a Zara cloth mask was translated by a Bobo blacksmith into wood.  Some Bolon and Bwa families, neighbors to either side of the Bobo, have adopted several Bobo mask types.  The Samo, a group with Mandé origins, long ago adopted elements of neighboring gurunsi and later Mossi mask styles in favor of formal Mandé mask features derived from the west and retained by other Mandé origin groups, the Bobo and Dafing.  The Bwa absorb the traditions of those from around them and from afar as a practicality of survival.  Christopher Roy cites a Nigerian water spirit depicted on a Bwa mask and many Bwa families, suffering 19th century calamities, are said to have abandoned their traditional deity in favor of that of a neighboring group that was perceived to have suffered less.  Among others, change is built into the system.  Both the Bobo and the Dafing are obliged to alter a mask’s details accompanying the acquisition of its cult by one family from another.  Surely, the less conservative, the more rapidly a culture is subject to change.  On the other hand, the most conservative, which refuse admission to cult secrets to young persons who deviate from the prescribed path, potentially suffer ever diminishing numbers and, by attrition in today’s world, risk their ultimately disappearing. Broadly speaking, as conservative as Burkinabé cultures may appear to be, they are in flux.

RB: It seems you are unusual in the world of African art collecting in that you have focused solely on art from one particular area: Burkina Faso. Can you tell us why you made that decision?

TW: Yes.  More often than not, collectors of African art are eclectic in their tastes.  It was something of a defensive practicality that first prevented my collecting with a broader net.  After a while, amidst the accumulation of objects from Burkina Faso, the occasional added object from an exterior culture would have simply disappeared amidst the Voltaic throng, its acquisition pointless.  

At first the narrowness of scope was a function of a learning curve.  Just as today, in the early 1970s there was a sizeable in-country European market for Burkinabé art.  A super abundance of objects was carved to satisfy the demand.  For many, age is of no consequence but for others a surface that bespeaks of the traditional context in which it served, brings with it an inherent appeal.  Objects that have been handled over time carry with them an ineffable human presence, and their very continued existence avers an importance in their past.  Traditional objects of quality are relatively rare, and with market demand much greater than availability, a myriad of objects was contrived to appear old.  The sellers’ game strategy has long been a relentless full court press to convince clients of an object’s authenticity.  Unless a buyer is knowledgeable and can “prove” otherwise, the sellers adamantly refuse to budge from their positions.  Therefore, without that certain knowledge, the would-be buyer stood little chance of penetrating the wall of obfuscation and of ever seeing a traditional object of merit.  Early on, determined not to be hoodwinked, I approached the director of the National Museum in Ouagadougou for the advice which would prove to afford a level of knowledge that, while at first very limited, would provide just enough security that I could approach dealers with the capacity to recognize the spurious and the conviction to steadfastly reject those that were offered.  With a multitude of Burkinabé art producing cultures and a multitude of different types of objects, each with different functions yielding variable surface expressions, there was a vast amount to learn about authenticity.  The thought of attempting to increase the scope of collecting to include pieces from neighboring countries with their own authenticity pitfalls was so daunting as to be out of the question.

RB: Some of the pieces seem to be very old.  Can you give us an idea of the age of some of these things?


TW: Many Burkinabé wood objects are likely to have significant age, but without C14 dates in conjunction with local tree ring sequence analysis, it is not possible to offer solid dates; however that some objects have significant age is likely.  In her 1986 Smithsonian Institution publication on Bamana sculpture, Kate Ezra cites the C14 analysis of wood samples taken from four large Bamana figures in the Metropolitan Museum in conjunction with dendrochronological studies that yielded 95% secure dates falling between A.D. 1285 and 1415 for the first, second and third, and A.D 1405-1605 for the fourth.   The circumstances under which these objects were traditionally stored is uncertain, but the climate of the Bamana area in neighboring Mali is very similar to that of the dry savannah across most of Burkina Faso, a condition which in part accounts for the survival of such old wood objects.  Other elements may contribute to object survival.  Highly valued utilitarian and sacred objects passed along from generation to generation are preserved in smoky dry interiors that further desiccate the wood and hinder insect and microbial attack.  The Bamana pieces do not, however, give the appearance of having been preserved in this type of interior environment; for centuries they must have been closely guarded and cared for.  Some highly important objects, given the nature of their sacred status, do not survive as long as other revered objects.  Lead masks, kept on family shrines, are the recipients of blood and millet beer sacrifices.  Once too deteriorated to be danced, they remain on their shrines continuing to function as vehicles to the ancestral and spirit world.  Such shrines may have generations of masks in various stages of decay.  Though much prized, countless other objects have not survived.  Most assuredly, vast numbers have been destroyed with their villages, razed during conflicts, both with neighboring peoples and invading forces.  Given the amount and breadth of vicious conflict throughout the 19th century, it seems miraculous that anything has survived that century. 

Based on degrees of comparative wear and wood oxidation, I have gone out on a limb and offered estimates for the ages of some masks in my collection.  Degree of wear relative to years danced has been observable on a few masks that have been recorded in dateable field photographs and that also enjoy both secure collection dates for their departures from their village contexts and the accompaniment of some knowledge of their frequency of use.  A field photograph obviously provides only a limited reference point with no indication of how much earlier the object was carved.  The specifics of wood type is significant; the wear surfaces of harder wood objects appear to develop wear patinas more rapidly than those of less dense, softer wood types.  While anything but “scientific” the few examples with such verifiable dates have provided an insight; wear patinas probably require more time to develop than I, for one, had previously thought.

RB: What are some of your favorite pieces and why?


TW: I am drawn to different objects for different reasons.  I find the gentle beauty and quiet nature of objects like the ladle with an antelope head (fig. 1), the doll with its front curl (fig. 2) or an antelope finger ring (fig. 3) of great appeal.  The inherent haunting nature in others, such as the stark Bwa buffalo mask (fig. 4), attracts me.  The purely formal aspects, such as the assemblage of volumes that comprise a molo mask (fig. 5) are a wonderment.  In some, like the butterfly mask (fig. 6), the Lobi bird (fig. 7) and the Bobo blacksmith’s nwenka mask (fig. 8) it is their spectacular presence that captures my sensibilities.  I am in awe of extraordinary conceptions, for example the hombo mask from a blacksmith family altar (fig. 9), the Bwa mask with ears (fig. 10) and the Mossi karanga mask (fig 11).   The ancient Sisala mask offers the profound mystery of an age that looms up from the depths of the past (fig. 12).   The gorgeously abstract nature of others is a fascination.  The Mossi hawk mask (fig. 13) and Winiama mask with stacked multiple beaks (fig. 14) are fine examples.  It seems there are as many reasons as there are objects.  I am hopelessly addicted. 


RB: What circumstances have led such objects to leave their villages?


TW: How is it, one may ask, that such extraordinary and valued objects have left their homes?  Most are accounted for by the two-edged swords of Christianity and Islam that bring conversion and, over time, with passing generations, the abandonment of heirlooms no longer regarded as spiritually efficacious.  Sadly, as is the way with the cultural evolution of our species, it also means the gradual disappearance of viable ancient cultures replaced with alternate notions of truth.  On the positive side, today’s farming families and blacksmiths, very aware of market values, reap substantial benefits.


List of illustrations:

Photographs by Jerry L. Thompson


Figure 1: Kasena ladle, 8 5/8" l.

Figure 2: Mossi doll, 11 1/8" h.

Figure 3: Nuna (?) antelope ring, 2 3/16" h.

Figure 4: Bwa hombo buffalo mask, 33" h.

Figure 5: Bobo blacksmith’s molo mask, 64" h. (Gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Figure 6: Bwa butterfly mask, 96 ½" w.

Figure 7: Lobi bird from an altar, 24 ½" h.

Figure 8: Bobo blacksmith’s nwenka mask, 68" h.

Figure 9: Bwa blacksmith’s hombo mask from a family shrine, 15 ¾" h.

Figure 10: Bwa mask with long ears, 27" h.

Figure 11: Mossi karanga mask, 31" h.

Figure 12: Sisala shrine mask, 27 ½" h.

Figure 13: Mossi hawk mask, wan-silga, 10 ½" h.

Figure 14: Winiama or Nunuma mask with multiple beaks, 50 ½" h.


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