Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths. Installation View, 2018. Fowler Museum at UCLAEXPAND
Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths. Installation View, 2018. Fowler Museum at UCLA
Joshua White

Arts of Africa at the Fowler: African Blacksmiths, Swahili Artisans, Family Festivals

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is a go-to public treasure for a perennially inspiring mix of cultural anthropology, elevated global crafts, and the contemporary intersections of traditions from every part of the world, close to home and further abroad in time and geography. The Fowler’s special gift is for bringing an academic and diasporic art history to life, enlivening its exhibitions with public, often family-friendly programming that educates not only about history but about salient cultural relevance to the here and now.

Currently the Fowler is presenting the landmark survey "Striking Iron," which examines the sophisticated craftsmanship and symbolism of several pan-African blacksmithing traditions over many centuries, demonstrating elegant, elaborate sculptural and design flair and fascinating cultural functions. The exhibition does a brilliant job of highlighting the skills of individual artists and makers, and providing context as to how these objects were used in their societies. On view through Dec. 30, this acclaimed and engaging exhibition is unique for the viscerally evocative range of art in the service of worship, weddings, weaponry and workmanship. Though most often on an intimate human scale, each individual work in the show is suffused in the latent energy of its former owners and wielders. As you walk the statuary gauntlet, it is impossible not to imagine the hands that not only made but held and struck these remarkable objects. (See more examples in our slideshow.)

Also on view, "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean" examines the cultural intersections between and among peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, Africa and Europe whose trade and migratory routes crisscrossed the Indian Ocean many times over. The word “Swahili” is derived from an Arabic word meaning “coast” and thus refers to an array of coastal port cities where, as is so often the case, trade practices created a multicultural society. Illuminated Qur’ans, intricate and ornately patterned furniture and jewelry in silver, wood and ivory reflect a kind of proto-fusion aesthetic, in which an mashup of stylistic languages produced progressive new forms of design.

Nsimbi perform at the Arts of Africa Festival.
Nsimbi perform at the Arts of Africa Festival.
Courtesy of the artists

If you’re looking for a good time to see these and other current exhibitions, think about the free one-day Arts of Africa Festival, happening on Sunday, Nov. 4, from noon to 5 p.m. The afternoon offers gallery talks about the current exhibitions plus family-friendly crafts, storytelling, live music and an iron-forging demo.

If you’re looking to take a deeper dive into the world of the molten metal forge in contemporary art, think about the Striking Iron Symposium — a free two-day rendezvous on Friday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 10, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The program takes on a wide range of practical and esoteric levels of this genre, including artists Alison Saar and Sokari Douglas Camp discussing their own sculptural work in metal.

Striking Iron lead curator Tom Joyce explained to L.A. Weekly the significance of many of the ceremonial objects included in this landmark exhibition:

"When iron is heated in a charcoal fire to white-hot temperatures, skilled African blacksmiths move the metal like clay. Using hammers as an extension of their hands, they can model any shape they desire upon their anvils. With astonishing technical prowess these artists have, for over 2,500 years, created the essential and the conceptual, the visually compelling and the sublime. It is a privilege to share their masterful achievements.

"Fon [a major African ethnic and linguistic group] commission blacksmiths to produce umbrella-shaped asen staffs, which are kept in shrines to honor and celebrate ancestors and the Fon pantheon. Asen are surmounted by circular platforms richly decorated with cast and forged human figures, animals, plants and other cultural objects. They bestow honor on ancestors as material realizations of praise-poems, and are enhanced by blacksmiths’ consummate skill in forging the miniature figurative elements of these “memoryscapes.” Some asen feature tiers of hanging clapperless bells that make gentle sounds in the breeze, attracting ancestors’ positive intervention. Family shrines (dejo) may have large accumulations of asen ... where offerings are made on a regular basis.

"Basalt hammers (kima biye) are standard equipment among Kabre blacksmiths, who forge distinctively large hoe blades for tilling yam mounds. The hammer’s working end is shaped to enable a smith’s assistant to move hot iron fast by wielding it with both hands. Typically used in tandem with an anvil (taata biye) also made of basalt — dense volcanic stone that doesn’t absorb heat as readily as steel — this hammer can facilitate working with iron for longer periods and with more force than any other hand tool in a blacksmith’s kit.

"Despite how 'old-school' it may seem to see blacksmiths working with stone tools and pumping bellows on the ground, in the hands of skilled practitioners who’ve grown up with these time-tested methodologies, these tools and processes are as efficient, if not more so, than their Western counterparts. Though such processes may be ancient, they are by no means 'simple' or 'primitive' and, based on my experience, represent appropriate technologies, perfectly ergonomic for the tasks they perform.

"The nkisi nkondi acts as an armature for a large array of materials, added by a healer who alone knew the secret composition of herbal medicines, roots, plants and even small carved wood sculptures that gave the figure its efficacy. Staring eyes chipped from mirrors warned aggressors and deflected their malice, while potent substances held in a bundle over the navel were hidden from view by the cape of cloth strips. The nkisi spotlights iron’s empowering roles, as the many forged shards, blades, tools and nails directed supernatural agencies to human desires and needs. Each iron piece was hammered in to awaken spirits present in the sculpture and direct them to solving personal and community problems. Such a figure became an archive of intentions."

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