(UNESCO / Japan Young Researchers' fellowships programme)

Semiotic analysis of the mask as a symbol of identity and a mark of historicity among the Bobo: study of a society described as segmentary

Summary of research carried out: 
Semiotic analysis of the mask as a symbol of identity and a mark of historicity among the Bobo: study of a society described as segmentary

Ethnoanthropology is said to be an offshoot of colonization. The suggestion here is that this methodological model will contribute for a very long time to knowledge about how humanity has evolved towards the Promethean form in the West, of which other cultures and societies are but earlier stages or counter-models. From this materialist point of view, a people’s cultural level is proportional to its level of technical progress.

It was in this context that societies, such as that of the Bobo which stretches from western Burkina Faso to Mali, have been described as palaeonegritic on account of their customs, which are largely unknown to those who seek to understand them from the outside, and their level of relative technical and material development. The mask, material proof of such a technical and cultural stage, is considered to be an archaic form of human expression – a stable, religious and mystical object.

The significance of the mask object has changed constantly in keeping with contexts of renewal in the field of anthropology and has gradually incorporated considerations of dynamics and change. The analysis has not, however, broken with the holistic view and the underlying ideological strategies of evolutionism. In fact, it could be said that masks, ritually alive and attractive, represent a message whose meaning must be grasped not only at a given moment but also as the gradual settling of meaning in context.

The mask thus constitutes a field of semiotics that must no longer be confined to “mythography” which always identifies the mask and any related studies by reference to a stylistic “setting” regardless of its textual functions.

This realization of the distinctive character of African art in terms of its aesthetic and ideological status in general and that of the mask in particular has led to the drafting of a thesis under the defining title of “Bobo masks as symbols of identity and marks of historicity: ritualization, textualization and pragmatics”.

Thus entitled, this research unpretentiously examines the contexts in which the models habitually used to analyse Africa and its civilizations are formulated. The fact remains that, owing to their polyphony and polymorphy, masks are “total art” in which various systems of expression come together to form a total language that should alert the analyst to the tradition of assimilating it to be merely a religious relic that was effective before the dawn of prehistory.

Such a paradigm change is thrown into sharp relief, in particular, in societies whose political tradition and everyday expression rule out the establishment of a gallery of human figures embodying the onward march of history in, moreover, an oral setting: from this epistemological standpoint, Bobo society is a segmentary, mask society. Therefore the question, for some, is whether the mask is capable of changing an analytical and referential “postmodernity” as a mark of historicity and symbol of identity, a geometric locus of convergence of several statements.

Noël Sanou, 23 May 2006

Translated from French by Unesco