Near my village of Sayaga, that night, the moon was bright and very high. Young boys and girls stayed out late, some drinking tea or dolo (millet beer), others discussing the year's harvest and next season. When the whole village was asleep, a little before dawn, a deafening noise awoke the inhabitants. They rushed out of their huts and headed to the spot from whence the noise had come. The loud noise they had just heard came from the fall of the baobab tree, which had stood at the entrance to the village. It was lying on the ground. The village chief, the chief of land, and other heads of families were all shocked and puzzled. The village chief asked how a healthy seventy-one-year-old baobab that was so solid could have fallen so easily. Immediately emissaries were sent to neighboring villages to inform them of the situation and to consult the soothsayers.
In fact, at the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, another living baobab, Christopher Damon Roy, age 71, passed away Sunday, February 10, 2018, at 3 am in Iowa City, surrounded by his immediate family. Christopher Damon Roy was one of the baobabs of the study of Burkinabè peoples and cultures. He loved African arts, he loved traditions, and he loved the African people.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Nora; his son, Nicholas Spencer Roy; his daughter, Megan Deirdre Roy and granddaughter, Sylvia Elizabeth Dolci; his sister, Robin Roy Katz and nephew Teddy Katz; his brother, Matthew Roy, nieces Katelin and Emily, and nephews Robby and Chris.
Roy was born on September 30, 1947, in Ogdensburg, New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in 1970 and a PhD in African art history at Indiana University in 1979. He was professor of art history and Elizabeth M. Stanley Faculty Fellow of African Art History at the University of Iowa.
His lifelong love of African art—a field he did not study until years later, when he was at graduate school—came from his first visit to Africa, as a student in 1966. During his various trips to the continent he met many people from sub-Saharan Africa and so, when he applied to the Peace Corps, he asked to be sent to there. As a Peace Corps volunteer, he was sent to Upper Volta, known today as Burkina Faso, from 1970–72. He married his wife Nora at the City Hall of Ouagadougou. They met while students at St. Lawrence, before they went into the Peace Corps. This memory certainly strengthened his attachment to Burkina Faso.
During his time as with the Peace Corps in Burkina, he served as the acting director of the National Arts Center of Ouagadougou until 1972. He was charged with creating an open-air museum, and for that reason he drove around the country looking for and hiring artists to show their work in the space.
In 1976, for his doctoral research, he returned with Nora to the area to study Mossi sculptures for sixteen months. He would return almost every year over the following decades because of the region's rich art history. His last visit was in 2015, just before the publication of his book Mossi: Diversity in the Art of a West African People. During this stay he was able to meet with the Mogho Naaba, the king of the Mossi, at his palace in Ouagadougou. He also met the Larle Naba, the minister of the Mogo Naba, and the first lawyer, writer, and founder of the Museum of Managa, Titinga Frederic Pacere, to discuss some points of his book.
Chris loved not only the arts and traditions but also the people of Burkina Faso (literally “the Country of Upright Men”). From his first contact with this nation until his death, he helped, supported, and encouraged many Burkinabè to preserve and value their own heritage. I was a principal beneficiary of his generosity. He was the one who brought me to the University of Iowa to study the art of the Senufo people. He had worked with many people in numerous villages, among the Mossi, the Bwaba, the Bobo, and the Gurunsi. Christopher Roy had a busy and productive life.
Wherever he went people would always remember his strength of conviction, his sense of humor, and above all his generosity, which Cory Gundlach echoed in his eulogy, posted on H-AfrArts on February 11, 2019: “Always approaching life with a sense of adventure, his robust energy and fascination with the world was contagious during his forty-one years at the University of Iowa. He did love Africa, he went there almost every year of his forty-one-year career at the University of Iowa. He loved African art and he placed that at the center of his teaching.”
At the University of Iowa, Professor Roy taught courses in African, pre-Columbian, American Indian, and Pacific Islands art. In addition to his book on the Mossi, his publications on the art of Burkina Faso and West Africa include Land of the Flying Masks: Art and Culture of Burkina Faso (2007), Kilengi: African Art from the Bareiss Collection (1997), Art and Life in Africa: Selections from the Stanley Collection (1984), and Art of the Upper Volta Rivers (1987).
In 1994–97 he created a CD-ROM program titled Art and Life in Africa that has been distributed to colleges and high schools across the nation. That same program is now available online at https://africa.uima.uiowa.edu/. In the last decade, he had made fourteen research trips to Burkina Faso and Ghana to gather material for twenty-five DVDs about African art in social context, which he marketed for classroom use. He created thirty videos on YouTube that, as of this writing, have been watched by 4 million viewers and 10,000 subscribers.
Professor Roy was founder and director of the Program for Advanced Study of Art and Life in Africa (PASALA), which provides scholarships for graduate course work and research in Africa, as well as for conferences and publications on African art. PASALA has hosted twelve international conferences on African art at the University of Iowa since 1979. To date, eighteen students at major institutions all over America have received doctorates under his supervision.
In recent years, with the onset of terrorism in Burkina, Chris Roy was not only sad but angry with those people who have no respect for anything. Due to the threat of terrorism, he was unable to travel to Ouahigouya, in the north of Burkina Faso, during his last trip to the country. The Hotel Splendid, where he used to stay in Ouagadougou, was attacked by terrorists in January 2016. He was desperate to find a solution to help the people of Burkina Faso. On February 12, 2018, he sent me this message:
Hello there Boureima. I wonder what you are doing. Is everything going well? I am desperate to create little hotels for tourists all over Burkina Faso that will make them comfortable, give them a clean bed, clean sheets and a shower, and something decent to eat. How do I do this? I can ask for funding, but I need support from the Ministry of Tourism. I challenge you to take your camera and go all over Burkina Faso making a video of what kinds of resources are available to tourists who would like to visit old villages, but where the hotel accommodations for people to have a pleasant night sleep in a cold shower and something good to eat are very difficult. I could get people to go visit your own village, they would be willing to take a bus ride for three hours from Bobo but when they get there, they need to have a cool shower, a clean bed, and a place to sleep. If you cannot solve this, nothing will improve in Burkina Faso when it comes to tourism. Please tell me how I can help.
Christopher Roy fully lived his passion for Africa and African culture. I believe that today it is Africa's turn to pay tribute to him and continue celebrating his life. An African funeral will be dedicated to him during the great funeral ceremonies he loved to attend and film in some villages. I believe it is what he would have wanted us to do. In 2001, in Sayaga, at my father's funeral, he was initiated into the Senufo Komo secret society. His initiation's name was Konomba. Konomba, the Komo will always honor and cherish your memory!
Chris was a good man. May he rest in peace beside the African ancestors, with whom he will continue his discussion of African arts and cultural traditions.