Visual Traditions in Liminal Spaces Across the Sahara



Mask, 19th–20th century. Bwa peoples, Burkina Faso. Wood, pigment, fiber. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.196).


This essay was an assignment for an Arts of Africa course offered in the Department of Art and Art History at my university by Dr. Kathryn Floyd. The class notes cited throughout refer to class lectures and discussions, and the other sources were provided by the professor. In the following paragraphs, I explore the visual manifestations of certain African cultures’ investments in and concerns for spaces of transition.



An umbrella is held over a Hausa king for practical reasons, such as to protect from the intensity of the sun’s rays, but more importantly designates a sacred space occupied by royalty.[1] Draped in white robes, the Hausa king, or sarki, rides atop a horse, safeguarded from the cumbersome heat and the general public under the canopy, rides atop a horse surrounded by mounted guards as they travel in ceremony.[2] The protected space, though, is not unique to royalty, or even to Hausa culture. In fact, in several African cultures spanning the Sahara, liminal areas are regarded as particularly powerful spaces that warrant the assistance of supernatural forces because of their immense potential and instability. The liminal spaces are important because, in the physical spaces described in the following pages, they mark powerful moments and places for change: change in location, change in realm, and change in individual development. In other words, these intermediate places create vulnerability and establish opportunities for both growth and corruption.

Architectural motifs of the Kush, the Hausa, the Bwa, and the Dogon people highlight protected liminal spaces in the potential access points for misfortune; that is, the elements of architecture given the most attention are junctures, or sites of transition and instability. Kush bekhenet, gateways that mark the southern entrance of a temple devoted to a god.[3] For the Hausa people, these are the zaure, entryways, which allow travel between the interior of a Hausa building and the exterior Hausa streets.[4] In Dogon country, junctures are marked by elaborately carved doors, window shutters, and ladders that provide entrance to either an intimate interior, exposed exterior, or hierarchical levels of a home.[5]

Kush rulers in the eastern Nubian corner of Africa worshiped many gods, but Amun, the god associated with the sun, was of primary significance. Amun’s home was believed to be at a mountain near Napata, where his temple was erected.[6] The temple of Amun, also known as Gebel Barkal, or “mountain of holiness,” is located at the base of this mountain, but only fragments of its foundations remain.[7] Two colossal, flat towers formed the colossal entryway, known as bekhenet, or pylon. The stone connecting the two towers would help frame the rising sun if this temple faced east, as did similar temples of the time. Gebel Barkal, though, faced more southward, toward the sacred mountain. Successive courtyards led to the innermost chamber in which an image of Amun was maintained, and carried out by priests during festivals. The first two courtyards were accessible, but only priests were allowed further into the progressively narrowing chambers.[8] Although no towers remain to determine the images depicted on them, it is likely that they held images of protection and prosperity, as was emblematic of entryways in Kemet beginning in the Middle Kingdom.[9]

Because its remains survive, it is evident that the facades of the bekhenet at Apedemak’s temple bear depictions of the temple’s royal patrons slaying enemies, not unlike the Palette of Narmer thousands of years prior.[10] But, despite the millennia between Narmer and the Kush Empire, a parallel can be drawn between the two images’ depiction of rulers’ ability to “create a secure world for the worship of the gods.”[11] Thus the bekhenet of Kush temples provided safe entry into sacred spaces where spiritual and worldly met.

But not only was a protected place for worshipping gods created; the temples also evoked a safe transition from mortal being to the afterlife. For example, the motif of lions facing either direction alludes to the celebrated animal’s role as guardian of the horizons—sunrise and sunset.[12] Allegorically, the sun’s setting and rising signify the king’s departure to the underworld and resurrection, respectively.[13] Likewise, because the temples typically aligned with (and framed) the sun at dawn and dusk, they ensured safe travel through liminal spaces.

Royal pyramids at nearby Meroe held ornaments such as that of Queen Amanishakheto, which dons the ram’s head representative of Amun. The trinket also holds a representation of a portal like that which would have been at Amun’s temple, and that which remains at Apedemak’s.[14] Another symbol is the erect snakes atop the funerary ornament, which were associated in Kemet with a protective deity.[15] The presentation of a threshold alongside protective symbols presents an early instance of the power of liminal spaces in African visual culture.

In Hausa architecture, the facades of the zaure receive the most attention because of their liminality and subsequent need for protection. The symbols that decorate the facades both ensure safeguard and visually proclaim the owner’s prosperity. Though the symbols that ensure safeguard and the styles in which they are depicted have changed over the years,[16] these Hausa receiving rooms are designed to invoke protection from guarding spirits during Hausa people’s transition from the exterior to the interior of the home. A History of African Art compares it to similar usage of sacred thresholds in Walata, Mauritania.[17]

Doorways and windows in the fourteenth century aristocratic Walata homes were lined in white and decorated with geometric motifs that promoted well-being and fertility of the female owner of the home.[18] The visual sanctity of these Walata homes, therefore, ensured protection and prosperity, not unlike the zaure of Hausa architecture. The images in both instances conjure blessings in physical spaces for the owner of the building, providing protection while simultaneously affirming the owner’s success in reproductive and social endeavors.[19]

Potent liminal spaces amongst the Hausa are also evident in Hausa clothing. Riga, for example, are the gowns and robes worn by malam, or the educated, traveled, devout Hausa men.[20] The “great robe,” or babba riga, holds protective qualities similar to that of the zaure in that the opening of the garment at the head bears the most décor and, specifically, protective symbols and motifs.[21] A common visual motif on these bagga riga is that of “eight knives”: the sharp, elongated triangular forms on the upper left panel of the garment.[22] These figures and their protective abilities have been speculated to resemble horn-like forms of Maghreb Islamic arts.[23] Indeed, triangular projections decorate many of the Berber arts and architecture discussed in the chapter, and the significance of five in Berber arts echoes that of five fingers of the hand, defending and protecting those under its jurisdiction from evil, or the “evil eye.”[24] Not coincidentally, only five of the eight knives on the riga meet the opening for the head, perhaps emphasizing a protected space for the wearer. Furthermore, symbols such as that indicative of an eye, hand, or the number five comprise a collection of symbols that invoke spiritual protection from adversity via baraka, the supernatural power responsible for bestowing upon families blessings and prosperity in Maghreb.[25] These protective symbolic devices adorn the Hausa babba riga where the head exits the garment, protecting the wearer in a physical area of vulnerability, just as the symbols depicted on zaure facades protect the members of the home in a physically transitional space.

Dogon country architectural traditions present yet another example of potent physical spaces of liminality. The architecture of a Dogon village’s homes typically consists of rectilinear adobe buildings topped with a conical roof of Thach.[26] The most significant elements within these homes, though, are the doors, window shutters, and ladders because they are indicative of a liminal space. They mark opportunities for transition from one space to another: entering the intimate space of a home through a door from the outside world; leaving open and vulnerable a room of the home’s interior by opening a window; vertically accessing various levels of a home by way of a ladder. These gray areas of transition denote unstable, powerful spaces full of potential for either danger or good fortune.[27] As in the Hausa zaure, protective spirits oversee areas marked with the visual like those on the doorways in Dogon architectural structures.[28]

Sculpted geometric figures as well as representations of animals and humans cover the portal access points. Animals that live in liminal spaces, like the semi-aquatic or the avian, appear to be of most interest to the Dogon.[29] Again, the emphasis on the transitional space is evident: this time in the form of crocodiles, which live on both sea and land, and birds, which occupy both land and air. So, in Dogon architecture, the liminal space is not only given the most attention artistically and structurally, but the representation of living creatures that successfully travel between are applied to those liminal spaces. Engaging in the potentially dangerous gray areas of transition, the Dogon people relocate animals of liminality to their intermediate architectural spaces to conjure what may be the same benevolent forces that protect those animals, since they survive and thrive in physically (environmentally) ambiguous liminal spaces.

The Dogon people’s turn to animals to emulate their good fortune in moments of uncertainty is not unlike that of the Bwa, whose animal masks represent those animals that families benefited from after having encountered them in the bush.[30] Bwa masks, danced by the sons of owners of the masks, have significant family value. The Bwa of southern Burkina Faso dance the wooden masks, painted red, white, and black, while other regions of Bwa continue the indigenous tradition of creating and performing Do masks.[31] The disunion of Bwa masks originates in devastating events of the nineteenth century—including famine, drought, and colonial intervention—that led southeastern Bwa to seek help from a prosperous eastern culture, who used wooden masks like those of modern Bwa peoples. Because the neighboring peoples of gurunsi thrived, concerned Bwa people adopted their wooden masks to ensure well-being and protection.[32] Ultimately, some Bwa people sought the visual motifs of the prosperous Nuna, Nunuma, and Winiama peoples to the east during a period of instability.[33] The liminal space in nineteenth century Bwa, then, constitutes an impoverished interlude between sound times of stability not unlike that of the architectural spaces of liminality in the Hausa and Dogon.

Bwa masks further echo the Dogon use of animals in relief in the masks’ representations of family ancestors in Bwa culture are known to have engaged with and profited from particular animals in the bush during times of need, and each of those animals are represented on these wooden masks.[34] These advantageous meetings may include healing, feeding, or otherwise good fortune.[35] Perhaps this praise of animals presents a pursuit of comparable success in life, as with the Dogon’s use of crocodiles, lizards, and birds.

The spirits responsible for the prosperity of the Dossi family, and of participants in Bwa masquerades, is likely known as the “spirit of growth,” particularly those of more abstract qualities.[36] This and other spirits summoned in these ceremonies are concerned with human wellbeing: “Bwa wooden masks embody nature spirits, who imparted rules for the proper conduct of community life and who are invoked—in masquerades—to benefit humankind and the natural forces on which life depends.”[37] It is likely, then, that the space encircled about the sacred tree presents a spiritually guarded one, like the aforementioned passageways protected in the same fashion. How, then, might these present liminal spaces? The climax of Bwa masquerades entails the family’s dancing and singing around a sacred tree in the village. This marked sacred space is punctuated by the sacred tree and guarded around the perimeter. As demonstrated by the Dossi family, the physical space marked here constitutes the space for the boys’ and girls’ initiation. The liminal space marked in this case is less of a physical transition, more a transition to a successive chapter in life. Nevertheless, it requires the protection of family members in a space sanctified by prosperous spirits. Marked as a ground for growth, the Dossi family members may successfully and properly transition from childhood to adulthood.[38]

Across millennia and miles of Saharan desert, African cultures have placed great value on the dangers of liminal spaces and subsequent soliciting of spirits’ assistance. The liminal spaces constitute uncertain and unstable zones that beckon the most attention in the architectural traditions of the Kush, Hausa, Dogon, and Bwa cultures. Like the potential energy of a person standing atop a ladder in a Dogon home, the possibilities present in physical spaces of transition pose probable dangers. The crocodiles carved into the wood of the Dogon ladder, then, invoke spirits capable of ensuring safe travel and well-being. These visual traditions protect the physical being in the secular world at times of uncertainty, like the Bwa people’s adoption of wooden masks from gurunsi when their survival was at risk.

Areas and moments of uncertainty allow for growth: educationally, spiritually, or even monetarily. A liminal space in which people are vulnerable are in initiations, or transitions from childhood to adulthood, marriageability, or sexual maturity. Opportunity for spiritual growth can be found in the bekhenet of Kush temples that ensure safe transition into a sacred space for worship. In Hausa architecture, zaure facades not only protect the owners, but also affirm their affluence and prosperity. Images of modernity, for example, might incite that lucrative growth. Though the cultures differ drastically, these kinds of protected spaces may be compared to Western Christian churches—the exteriors of which are often adorned with religious iconography like crosses or stained glass biblical scenes. We may not necessarily think of these as protected spaces, but the images signify the presence of God and denote a space safe for worship that allows transition from the secular to the spiritual world.



[1] Class lecture February 16, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Herbert M. Cole, Monica Blackmun Visona, and Robin Poyner, A History of Art in Africa (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2007), 57.

[4] Class lecture February 16, 2016.

[5] Class lecture March 1, 2016.

[6] Cole, 57.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., “Such gateways were a feature of temples in Kemet from at least the Middle Kingdom, and were usually adorned with protective images.”

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Ibid., 60.

[12] Ibid., 50.

[13] Ibid. “Lions roaming the edges of the desert wilderness were also viewed as guardians of the rising and setting sun, and thus this composite creature seems also to have been associated with the horizons, themselves viewed as entrances to the underworld and afterlife. An image of a human figure or a solar disk between recumbent lions was one of the ways to indicate ‘horizon.’ In a metaphorical or mystical manner, a king was believed to approach the western horizon to enter into the underworld at sundown and death, and to reappear at the eastern horizon when he returned at dawn and resurrection.”

[14] Ibid., 58-59.

[15] Ibid., 59.

[16] Ibid., 95. “By mid-century, zaure reliefs had become both more calligraphic and more representational. Abstract designs were often invocations or adaptations of Arabic letters or words… Other reliefs featured motifs evoking power and modernity such as swords, cars, rifles, or bicycles (fig. 3-28).”

[17] Ibid., 95.

[18] Ibid., 36-37.

[19] Ibid., 95. “As in the Mauritanian city of Walata (see fig. 1-27), the use of sacred script on portals evidently blesses and protects the owners while proclaiming their status and wealth.”

[20] Class lecture February 16, 2016.

[21] Cole, 96.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 32-35.

[25] Ibid., 33.

[26] Class lecture March 1, 2016.

[27] Ibid.; Cole, 139.

[28] Class lecture March 1, 2016.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Christopher Roy, “Bwa Masks in the Villages of Dossi and Bansie in 2006,” video, YouTube, September 14, 2014,

[31] Cole, 156-158.

[32] Roy.

[33] Cole, 158; Roy.

[34] Roy.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Cole, 157.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Roy.


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