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Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths

August 23, 2019
Karagwe artist, Tanzania, Bovine figure, Mid-19th century, Iron

Karagwe artist, Tanzania, Bovine figure, Mid-19th century, Iron

The day I went to see the exhibit Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths, I also decided that fixing the diverter on my bathroom tub was beyond my skill level and above my home improvement tolerance threshold. If the workings of tub knob innards is a solvable mystery I don’t want to pursue, then the art of forging iron tools and other iron objects is unknowable magic. Striking Iron at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has all the magic.

Note #1 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Yes, I’m embarrassed about calling the plumber. I know you could fix the tub yourself without a problem and that I could learn how to do the same.

Getting to the galleries of the Museum of African Art is like walking into a fantasy portal. The Museum of African Art is one of the few that acknowledges and utilizes the existence of what I’ve come to believe (without trying too hard to figure out if it’s true) is a vast underground concrete cave and tunnel system beneath the National Mall. On a day topping a hundred degrees, there’s nothing like opting for a museum that extends four floors to the subterranean.

I wasn’t trying very hard to get to the Striking Iron exhibit before all the other Museum of African Art exhibits. The pieces on display throughout the Museum are just too interesting. I wandered through the exhibit I Am…Contemporary Women Exhibits of Africa.

And the Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Art exhibit.

And the Walt Disney-Tishman Africa Art Collection.

Striking Iron - The Art of African Blacksmiths
It was amazing. Because of 1) the twisty-corridors nature of the Museum and 2) my reluctance to ask the front desk for a map and then be asked where I was from only to have to admit I’m local and then try to establish my bona fides (exhausting work), I wasn’t always sure if I had entered the Striking Iron exhibit. Then I was completely sure.

Note #2 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Much of the rest of this post is going to continue to be far more pictures than text. No, I’m not “dialing it in” like you legitimately accused me of 4 years ago in the Southwest DC Artsfest post. No, I will not let that go. IT WAS A BUSY TIME!

Still from Forging Video - The Blacksmith's Tools, narrated by lead curator Tom Joyce

Still from Forging Video – The Blacksmith’s Tools, narrated by lead curator Tom Joyce

Above is a picture of a video of a forge in Africa. The alacrity with which I take a picture of a video comes from the same place inside me that calls a plumber to fix the tub.

I learned from the Striking Iron exhibit that after workable iron from deposits is extracted, a smith heats iron particles to form a bloom, which is then worked into an object. I love the imagery here (from an exhibit sign): “‘Birthing’ blooms out of iron ore and objects out of blooms is a ‘procreative’ metaphor used by many African peoples to describe these two transformative processes. Ironworking in Africa is a male-dominated technology that also must involve elements of female power to succeed.”

Blacksmith Tools

Blacksmith Tools – Click here for descriptions.

The bellows above was one of my favorite objects from the exhibit. A sign near the bellows says, “A talented Luba artist carved the four-chambered bellows…It is displayed vertically to draw attention to the face of its commanding female figure, suggesting the metaphor of creating life at the forge. The air chambers served as its lungs. They were once covered with leather bags attached to vertical sticks; these would have been grasped by men who pumped substantial volumes of air into charcoal-fueled fire to efficiently heat large-scale works.”

I also learned that the Mafa spirit pot pictured above ensured a successful smelt, and “Although Mafa women were excluded from iron production, wives of smelters made clay crucibles, conical tubes for furnace tuyères (nozzles), pots for bellows, and ritual vessels representing ancestors that were prominently placed at smelting sites.”

Note #3 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Aren’t those tools cool? Mom would love them. She would know all their names without having to look at the signs. She could tell us how many of each American-equivalent tool she has ever owned or seen at an auction or coveted or tried to talk someone out of. In this exhibit, she would be like a kid in a candy shop. Or like Mom in a candy shop.

Blades of Value

Blades of Value – Click here for descriptions.

Blades of Value

More Blades of Value. Click here for descriptions.

Striking Iron has a large portion of the exhibit devoted to knives and blades used as currency and other stores of value (see images above). That is something I had never considered! I get the idea of bartering, and I like to point out that the U.S. monetary system is built far more on trust than on the value of goods, but I had never stopped to consider that for currency whole societies might use iron objects in the shape of farm implements. That makes far more sense to me than many things about monetary systems.

Below are my two favorite excerpts from the currency signage:

“These currency forms stood as payment in the transactions that mattered most in life…Hoe-blade-shaped currencies were created as bridewealth tokens by many African societies, linking agricultural productivity to the reproductive power and labor a wife brings to a household.”

“Sara Madjingaye smiths forged currencies of a form derived from the sacred knife called Miya-bo, owned by Sara Madjingaye’s Supreme Being, who used it to bring rains. The value of these fragile, humanlike forms derived from cosmology and manly pursuits, specifically throwing knives in battle.”

The exhibit includes a collection of rainmaking wands (pictured above). I particularly liked the wand shaped like a serpent. From the exhibit text, I learned that the “spiraling composition of a three-headed python was planted upright to summon rains and protect people from lightning.”

And then there were these elaborate and beautiful show knives and staffs crafted by Ekonda blacksmiths.

Ekonda artists, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ritual staffs, Early 20th century, Iron, wood

Ekonda artists, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ritual staffs, Early 20th century, Iron, wood

Note #4 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Did you tell Mom yet?!?

Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths runs through July 2020. If you can’t make it in person, you can browse the collection online here.

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