Hundreds of visitors are drawn each year to the village of Tiébélé, Burkina Faso to see traditional houses hand painted in elaborate geometric designs by the well-known Kassena women artists. These women visited the residence of U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Shannon Cazeau, bringing their unique art to the official residence garden. U.S. Embassy staff and family members were immersed in Kassena culture as they tried their hand at these centuries-old painting methods.
The art form, traditionally practiced only by women, dates from the 16th century AD. Today, as their work gains international attention, painters from Tiébélé have shared their detailed craft at festivals and museums in countries such as Belgium, France, China, Algeria, and Cote d’Ivoire. The work requires knowledge of natural materials such as laterite, chalk, and coal, as well as more modern, weather-resistant materials such as bitumen. It also involves an understanding of the intricate and symbolic patterns used.
For the Embassy staff’s educational wall, the artists included a tortoise—a special totem for the Kassena people. Local legend tells of a tortoise that led a community ancestor out of a dense forest where he was lost. “Donatello,” the tortoise living in Cazeau’s garden, seems to appreciate this choice; he paid a visit to his new likeness on the wall.
Tintana Kaye, the 78 –year-old elder artist, mentors younger women in the craft. Attracting enough younger women to keep this practice alive is not always a simple matter, says Tintana. Each year, local villages host an artistic competition to inspire new, younger artists.
“It is such a privilege to have been able to meet these artists and to enjoy this special form of Burkinabé art in my family’s home,” affirms Cazeau. “These women have used their ingenuity and skills to preserve their cultural heritage and share it with the world, and with us.”